Recently, several photos were uploaded to Twitter that had been taken at a social event in Paris celebrating the release of the first-ever commercial recording of Florent Schmitt’s stunning choral composition Psaume XLVII. Held in February 1953 at Pathé-Marconi headquarters, the event was attended by tout Paris – at least in terms of the classical music personages of the day.
The photographs came from the private archives of Pierre Bourgeois, a French business, music and media industry personality who served as chairman of Pathé-Marconi, the French subsidiary of EMI, during the 1950s. Bourgeois was appointed to the position at the remarkably young age of 45 — yet he had already built up years of experience in the music industry as an artistic director at Polydor Records, and before that as an advertising and promotions specialist working for American businessman Jay Frank Gould’s ad agency in France.
It turns out that the photos had been uploaded by Emmanuel Jourquin-Bourgeois, Pierre’s grandson who is himself involved in the world of media even though his professional background is in the field of information technology. These days, in addition to authoring a number of books and articles about the music industry, he is focusing his energies on a number of initiatives pertaining to Pathé-Marconi’s history including a documentary, a book, a play and a TV series.
After I had left an “up-vote” on his Twitter post, Mr. Jourquin-Bourgeois got in touch with me to explain the context of the photos, thereby revealing the connection to his grandfather’s highly interesting life and career. Indeed, Pierre Bourgeois was a consequential leader in the media, music and arts industries in France beginning in the 1930s and continuing all the way until his death in 1976.
Born in Paris in 1904, Bourgeois trained for a career in business, with his first position (at the age of 20) being in advertising, where he soon made a name for himself as a master of promotion and harnessing the powers of creativity to gain the attention of the mass-market consumer. His move into the music industry began in 1930 when he acquired an ownership stake in Legard & Taupin, a French manufacturer of 78-rpm shellac records.
Then in 1934 at just 30 years of age, he was named artistic director of Polydor Records, shortly thereafter beginning what would turn out to be a decades-long professional relationship with the great chanteuse Édith Piaf.
As it would do to so many individuals, the onset of World War II interrupted Pierre Bourgeois’ career trajectory. But when peace returned in 1945, he took over commercial direction of the music publishing house Le Chant du Monde.
The following year he was appointed commercial director at Pathé-Marconi, and three years later was named the company’s chairman, in charge of steering the ship of its varied business operations that would soon include manufacturing television sets in addition to radios, turntables, and audio recordings.
Over the coming decade, the list of Pathé-Marconi accomplishments under the aegis of Pierre Bourgeois was impressive. Some of the key ones included:
- Developing sound and light shows illuminating the most treasured monuments of French heritage (Chambord, Versailles, Vincennes, Chantilly, etc.)
- Successfully lobbying for the reduction of production taxes on LP recordings by 50%, thereby making them financially accessible to many more consumers.
- Forging cultural exchanges with the governments of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China that would bring, among others, the Peking Opera, Red Army Chorus, Bolshoi Ballet plus classical music superstars like Mstislav Rostropovich, Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh to France and Western Europe.
- Developing and managing the in-country French careers of leading musical artists in both classical and popular music – luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Édith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Franck Pourcel, Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand, Herbert von Karajan, Henryk Szeryng, Boris Christoff, Maria Callas, Witold Małcużyński, Artur Rubinstein, Yehudi Menuhin and André Cluytens, to name just some of the best-known.
Following his dozen-year tenure with Pathé-Marconi that came to an end in 1959, Pierre Bourgeois embarked on an equally impressive “second act” of his career which, among other ventures, included establishing the NADIF production and distribution company for recordings and films, as well as serving as a managing director for London’s Incorporated Television Company (ITC Entertainment Group) in the French-speaking countries.
With far too many additional initiatives to list here, this French Wikipedia article provides a more complete accounting of Bourgeois’ busy activities during the final 15 years of his life (he died in 1976).
After reading about this man’s many career accomplishments, I was keenly interested to hear the observations of a member of Pierre Bourgeois’ own family so as to gain a greater understanding of him as an individual.
Asking his grandson Emmanuel to provide those aspects seemed the perfect opportunity — and he was kind enough to grant an interview. Highlights of our very interesting discussion are presented below. (Note: Mr. Jourquin-Bourgeois’ remarks have been translated from French into English.)
PLN: Your grandfather Pierre Bourgeois led a noteworthy life in business and in the arts. What drew him to these two worlds, and to what do you attribute his success in navigating both of them so successfully?
EJ-B: I would say that his taste for the arts was passed on to him by his father, the journalist Henri Bourgeois, who from a very early age had exposed his son to the theatre and to musical performances.
As for his attraction to the business world, that undoubtedly came from Frank Jay Gould, the American multi-millionaire hotelier who also owned a large advertising group in the 1920s in France — and for whom my grandfather worked for several years. In 1929 Mr. Gould, who had just acquired the Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice on the French Riviera, entrusted him with the creation of the menus for the inaugural events celebrating the new era at the property.
Clever as well as creative, my grandfather had the idea to produce these special-occasion menus and print them on colored 78-rpm discs. This was something completely unheard of, and it revealed his twin passions for the business world and for the music industry.
From there, his winsome personality and his penchant for industriousness did the rest.
PLN: Did Pierre Bourgeois have any formal training in classical music or literature in addition to his business studies?
EJ-B: Actually, no. His studied business and prepared for higher-level studies, but then began working in the business profession as soon as he could, out of a desire for independence.
PLN: Pierre Bourgeois was named chairman of Pathé-Marconi at a surprisingly young age — just 45 years. Yet he was already very accomplished by then, having been an artistic director at Polydor Records from the age of 30. Clearly he had a natural talent for the music business. What made him such a success so early in his career?
EJ-B: His success was in adhering to the same principles in the music industry as he had done in advertising. It included a combination of inventiveness, hard work, implementation of promotional tools (it was not yet called “marketing”), managerial acumen, natural leadership capabilities, and a “can-do” attitude.
He also had an affinity for building and maintaining relationships with work colleagues and artists. Importantly, he demonstrated utmost discretion in those relationships, which surely must have been appreciated by the artists and his peers.
PLN: Pierre Bourgeois forged working relationships with musicians as diverse as Édith Piaf, Yves Montand and Charles Trenet in the word of pop, along with many classical artists such as Marcel Dupré, André Cluytens, Arthur Rubinstein and Igor Markevitch. What enabled him to work so well with such diverse talents and personalities?
EJ-B: Following World War II, Pathé-Marconi was in a dominant position in the European music industry. Consequently, many of the great artists of the period recorded with the various labels of the group [Columbia, Voix de son maitre, Parlophone, etc.]. It was only natural that my grandfather would form personal relationships with them because he was simultaneously promoting their artistry and their careers.
And what effective promotion it was; in those days Pathé-Marconi was selling more than 15 million records per year! Among the landmark successes of my grandfather in those times was Édith Piaf’s celebrated appearances at Carnegie Hall in 1956-57.
PLN: What can you tell us about Pierre Bourgeois’ relationship with Florent Schmitt? When did they first meet one another, and what were some of the highlights of their relationship and professional collaboration?
EJ-B: Perhaps the biggest highlight of my grandfather’s professional collaboration with Florent Schmitt was in producing the first recording of Psaume XLVII, released in 1953 by Columbia Records in France and by Angel records in its English-language edition. But the two men had known each other since the 1930s and had worked together several times before then — and later on as well.
To my grandfather, Florent Schmitt represented the great senior generation of French artists, and he had high regard for him as a man and as a composer.
Of course, this was at a time when such friendships that flourished were above all a sign of respect and discretion; simply the fact that they considered each other friends was sufficient in itself, and I think the respect was mutual.
PLN: With which other musicians did Pierre Bourgeois have particularly close relationships?
EJ-B: He was a devoted friend of the famous pianist Marguerite Long, for whom he had great affection and with whom he worked for a long time — both professionally and personally. He employed all of his industry connections in an attempt organize a farewell tour to New York for her — a project that unfortunately could not be realized due to the declining health of the pianist.
But I can also cite Maria Callas, who came to visit my grandfather on each of her private trips to France, as well as the operatic bass singer Boris Christoff and the conductor Herbert von Karajan.
Beyond classical artists there were also Charles Trenet, Yves Montand, Édith Piaf of course, and also Gilbert Bécaud, whom my grandfather loved very much and whose career he launched.
Indeed, it is impossible to give a complete list, as Pierre Bourgeois had so many artist friends!
PLN: During his years in the music industry, Pierre Bourgeois lent his leadership talents to a number of prominent organizations. He served on the committees of various international music competitions and also was a life member of the executive committee of the important organization Jeunesses musicales de France. What inspired him to engage in these activities above and beyond his work responsibilities?
EJ-B: This is a very interesting aspect of his personality. And the clear reason is because of his humanity.
Throughout his entire life and career, my grandfather sought to help others. From the most modest person to the most famous, he did so without favor or distinction. At times he could have as many as ten commitments concurrently involving organizations serving business, music and television, in addition to his primary work.
The most astonishing thing is that he carried out all of these commitments with complete conviction — and with humility.
PLN: Several times during his career, Pierre Bourgeois was asked to join the French government in various roles, but he always declined. Why is that?
PJ-B: I think one reason had to do with the role of Pathé-Marconi in French industry and culture during the post-war period, for which my grandfather was one of its most committed ambassadors. The economic power of the company was such that he was at the origin of the promulgation of decrees in favor of copyrights and for the reduction of production taxes on recordings, which he considered important in terms of making records economically accessible to all.
So in that sense, throughout his career he was in close contact with the various government ministers whose activities involved him, and those relationships and influence with the public authorities were important. It was important to get along with everyone, and to that end he maintained friendly personal relations with Vincent Auriol, President of the Republic, and then with his successor, René Coty.
At the same time, it is true that he declined an offer to become the Minister of Industry and Trade under Auriol.
But I think there’s an additional reason as well — and it has to do with his experiences during the war years. Before marrying my grandmother Juliette, he had been married for nine years to a Jewish woman named Jeanne Brauman, who was the niece of the Polish-born philosopher Émile Meyerson, a specialist in epistemology. Widowed in 1937, he was later put at some risk at the hands of the Gestapo, and he had also hidden the papers of Meyerson, which today are housed at the Zionist Central Archives in Jerusalem.
In 1941, then serving as Édith Piaf’s artistic director at Polydor, the Vichy government obliged him by decree to join the Organizing Committee for Music, a state body which controlled what the Germans agreed to edit. Finding himself trapped, he found it difficult to resign the post as he wished do to, but finally was able to call on his connections to leave this committee two years later.
I think these experiences caused him to mistrust governments in general, and he swore to stay away from explicitly political activity of all stripes.
PLN: Before his career in the music industry began, Pierre Bourgeois was involved in the advertising field, and later on he led organizations in TV and movie production. What were the most notable highlights of those “bookend” years of his career?
EJ-B: When you’re at the top of the business ladder you cannot climb higher and sometimes you also become a target. Pathé-Marconi had achieved such independence from its British parent company EMI that my grandfather was dismissed in 1959 by the English-led senior management. So after having spent a dozen years at Pathé-Marconi, he set up a film and record production and distribution company called Nouvelle Agence de Diffusion (NADIF). At the same time he also became a managing director at ITC of London, in charge of its operations in French-speaking countries.
In this context, we can credit him for the co-production and television broadcasting of the series The Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, The Saint with Roger Moore, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene, The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan, and The Muppet Show created by Jim Henson.
I recall that Roger Moore came to have lunch with my grandparents in 1972 while promoting his show The Persuaders, known in France under the name Amicalement votre.
PLN: It’s my understanding that Pierre Bourgeois was the driving force behind the development of the iconic Pathé-Marconi Superbus which traveled all over France during the 1950s. Can you tell us about that initiative and its public relations value to the company?
EJ-B: Yes, that was his brainchild — and it emanates from his early experiences in advertising. My grandfather always wished to combine commercial performance, music, and corporate image. The Superbus, which at the time was also known as the Ambassador, accompanied the advertising caravan of the Tour de France cycling events from 1953 to 1959. The gigantic Panhard-brand truck was equipped with a top-roof stage for the artists involved in the tour.
At each stopover city, the concerts of the Pathé-Marconi artists were broadcast live on Radio Europe 1 based on a contractual agreement between Louis Merlin, the president of Europe 1, and my grandfather. Édith Piaf was among the most famous of the stars who entertained there, but there were also many others.
I have written several articles about the Superbus that have been published. Not only is it a subject that interests me greatly, it’s also very contemporary because the vehicle still exists! It has been restored and is now part of the collection of vehicles at the Cité de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, the largest automobile museum in France.
PLN: Did you know your grandfather during his retirement years? Are there any stories he told you about his life in business and in music?
EJ-B: I have to say that my grandfather never really retired. Indeed, this kind of character never stops! Even just a few days before his death, he was preparing a broadcast on Antenne 2 (the French public service television channel today called France 2) of a TV series called Thriller, which had met with great success in the UK.
As for me personally, I did not have the opportunity to talk with him about his professional activities; when he died in 1976, I was only ten years old. But a few memories of him are still vivid, such as the scent of his cologne when I would throw myself into his arms when I went with my parents to see him at his home near Fontainebleau.
But unfortunately it’s too few things — and you know, the first thing that disappears from the memory is the sound of someone’s voice. But fortunately, I have recordings of him in my possession, so that memory can be preserved.
PLN: Pierre Bourgeois died at the relatively young age of 72, but to my mind he packed two lifetimes of experiences into one! Looking back on his accomplishments, how should he be best remembered?
EJ-B: For several things, I think. He was a great chairman of Pathé-Marconi, a key figure in the world of industry, and an ambassador of French culture to the world by virtue of discovering talent, nurturing it and bringing it to its highest level.
And going the other direction, it was he who introduced France to the splendors of the Peking Opera, the Red Army Chorus, the Bolshoi Ballet and more. He was also the man behind developing the first Sound and Light Shows which showcased the most beautiful monuments of French architectural heritage beginning in 1952.
PLN: You have written a number of articles about your grandfather and the life he led, and I understand that you are currently preparing a more extensive biography. What interesting new aspects about his life have you learned in the process of researching the material for this new book?
EJ-B: By paying him the tribute that he so richly deserves, I also wish to underscore the extraordinary times in which he lived. The post-war period was truly an era of invention and daring — and Pierre Bourgeois was absolutely in the middle of it all.
Beyond the book, I have also been working on plans for a television series about him and have spoken with a few people already regarding this project. The ultimate goal is to produce a feature film in which he would be the common thread in the era ranging from the 1910s to the 1970s. It’s quite amazing when you consider that Pierre Bourgeois met Albert Einstein, Mme. Marie Curie, Zhou en Lai, Queen Elizabeth II and so many other luminaries — along with the fascinating characters who mattered most in the the arts world during those times.
And all of this occurred within a specific framework: music. There is so much to highlight, and so much of it is so highly interesting.
PLN: Pierre Bourgeois’ gravestone carries this message from Proverbs chapter 19, verse 22: “What makes a man charming is his goodness.” To me, this seems like a very fitting epitaph …
EJ-B: Yes, that epitaph describes him 100 percent. Behind the important responsibilities he executed so effectively throughout his life and career, it is his generosity and benevolence that stand out most prominently. So that saying sums up the man well.
Emmanuel Jourquin-Bourgeois is clearly very proud of his grandfather — and justly so. Few individuals accomplish so much in one lifetime. Hopefully his book and film about Pierre Bourgeois will become a reality before long, so that the world can better understand the consequential life and legacy of this leader in business and the arts.