France Nuyen — Only Yesterday I Lived in Terror (1958) 🇺🇸
The woman was still pretty, and really still young, although the years of the war showed on her tired face. She held tight to her little daughter, a thin, pale child named France. It had taken courage to come to see the Gypsy — he was a king and very old, very wise — but Madame Nuyen needed wisdom and advice.
by Fredda Terry
“I have come to ask about my husband, Louis Nuyen,” Julie Mazaut Nuyen began hesitantly. “I have not heard since the war began. He is a marine navigator — he serves on Atlantic ships. But I do not know if he lives or...” The child stirred in her arms and she looked into its funny little face. Olive skin and slanted eyes, now big with hunger... these from the Chinese husband she was asking about ; the delicate lines, the fine bones — these features were French, like her own. She bent to kiss the child she called Fan-Fan, and then faced the gypsy king again and went on.
“Our daughter, monsieur, was born in July, and the war came in September. My husband went away, and all these years have passed, and we are almost starving here in Marseilles, and I do not know what to do...”
The gypsy took a heavy silver bowl in his dark claw-like hands and filled it with water. Then, mysteriously, he dropped a diamond from his mouth into the depths of the bowl. Slowly, a radiance filled the water, a glowing light changing color.
As Madame Nuyen asked again about her husband, the unearthly colors became clear and bright.
“Madame,” the gypsy king said, “your husband lives. He will return. You must have patience.”
Have patience? There was nothing to eat, no way to keep warm, no way to rest from the ceaseless bombing.
Finally, in desperation, Julie Nuyen sent her small daughter out of Marseilles and into the country to live with her uncle. In those days relatives living in the country were deluged by the young of their clan. No child could be turned away, but no child could be made welcome.
And while France Nuyen was there, something happened that she was to remember forever. It was a feast day and there were two kinds of bread: the everyday black bread and a fine-grained white bread, soft as silk, to mark the holiday.
Her mouth watering eagerly and her stomach quivering with desire, the four-year-old child extended her thin hand toward the snowy holiday bread.
The hand was slapped soundly and the little girl was told in harsh tones that a beggar ate crusts and spoke gratitude for them.
What peace brought
Yet the war did end eventually and Fan-Fan was returned to her mother. The Allies had marched beyond Marseilles and the bombing was over, so the country relatives said, “The Americans will feed you.”
The Americans tried; they seemed to have an unending supply of candy bars, chewing gum, and C-rations, but they were not magicians. They had no white bread, no way to restore at once the homes of the homeless, no medicine to give back the health to France’s mother.
Yet the old Gypsy had been right: Louis Nuyen was alive. He came home... for a few days. He looked at the scrawny child who seemed to be nothing except taut olive skin drawn over fine bones and turned away. In Chinese families girls are not very important; he could love only a son. A daughter, particularly this skinny, odd looking girl, was a disgrace to his ancestors. Maybe it would have been different had there been other children, but Julie Nuyen had barely avoided starvation and she would never again be entirely well.
And so, at six, France Nuyen knew well the ingredients of wretchedness: fear, hunger, brutality and rejection.
But time passed, and the child France grew to be thirteen. And terror came into her life again. She was attending Lycée Longchamps when an older girl, running in a school corridor, crashed into France and sent her spinning into a radiator. One of the iron ribs struck the side of France’s head knocking her unconscious.
At the time, France made light of the accident, but as weeks passed, it became evident that the memory centers of her brain had suffered damage. When it came her turn to recite, France could not recall her lessons; when others were reciting, she could not concentrate. She could only rest her head on her crossed arms and sleep.
Doctors made an examination and suggested that France be enrolled in an art school where she could make use of the obvious talent in her fingertips, permitting the brain injury to be healed by nature. “She is young,” the doctors said. “She should recover without after-effect. Meanwhile...”
Meanwhile she won the painting prize during her second year, and a sculpture prize during her third.
A beauty grows
Meanwhile the taut lines of her face rounded and softened. Her eyes grew wide and dark, and she walked with an air of mysterious beauty proper to a daughter of Paris and Peiping.
During the summer she posed — at fifty cents to a dollar an hour — for artists intrigued by the richness of her coloring, and for sculptors who tried to duplicate the strange and lovely lines of her head and shoulders. Sometimes she donned the fashion creations of local designers and posed for the photographers whose work was displayed in the windows of small shops throughout France.
Now and then France would return to the quiet house on the remote street in Marseilles to ask the Gypsy seer what he saw in her future.
He would drop the diamond into the silver bowl and say what the colors told. “You must go away,” he would always tell her. “Here, in this city, even in this country, you cannot find your destiny. It is far away. You must get away.”
But how? France wondered how? At Cannes, at the Film Festival perhaps? She decided to make the trip just for the thrill of looking at the stars.
Philippe Halsman, who had photographed France on an earlier occasion, happened to be attending the Film Festival. And one day as France was talking with Mr. Halsman, she was spotted by a man named Mike Todd who was searching for a girl of fantastic beauty to portray the princess in Around The World In 80 Days.
Arrangements were made through Philippe Halsman for a screen test. The test was sensational. But when contract negotiations were begun, Mike Todd was startled to discover that France spoke not one word of English, and was not yet sixteen years old.
An ocean voyage
Once again France returned to the Gypsy and his divining stone and once again she was told to leave her native land. And suddenly Fate became cooperative: Madame Nuyen received a letter from her husband explaining that he had transferred from a French to an American steamship line and would now be living in New York between voyages. He wanted his family to join him.
New York proved to be a frightening place full of dark threats and unexpected dangers. France’s father was out at sea by the time his wife and daughter arrived, so they moved, unescorted, into the two-room apartment he had been occupying. No one thought of the fact that the neighborhood was not the safest one for two women unable to speak or understand English.
One night France was walking the dog she had brought from Marseilles. A sinister-looking man paused on the deserted street and studied her, and paused and leered again and then went on. She forgot about it until she started up the stairs of her apartment building.
And then she saw it. She saw the shadow cast by the foyer light upon the stairs and knew that the man was lying in wait for her.
She could not go home. But where could she go? Half a block away from her home there was a post office and France remembered seeing a policeman there whenever she walked by. She breathed a quick little prayer of hope that a policeman would be there now. Mon Dieu, there was! France went to him and tried to explain, in French, her situation and her fear. It was quite hopeless. He knew no French. And she lacked enough English to tell the story.
But she would not go home, and she had to make him understand. So she took the rent bill from her pocket and on the back of it she drew the outline of a man, his face partially concealed by a black slouch hat, his coat collar turned up, hands sunk into pockets. She drew apartment steps and a lighted entry... and a menacing shadow.
“I gotcha,” beamed the officer. “Sure, and I’ll see you to your very door and no mistake.”
And he did.
France was getting old enough now to start thinking about bringing some money to the two-room apartment. So each Monday morning, armed with the advertisements in Sunday’s paper, she would set out to find a modeling job. How tall was she? “Five feet four inches,” she would tell the agencies. “My weight is 96 pounds.”
“Too small,” everyone said.
Then at last she thought she had a job. The man looked her up and down and said she would do . . . but there was traveling involved in this particular modeling job. He rested a hand on her shoulder. Would she be able to travel?
France said, “Maman waits. I ask,” and pointed toward the outside corridor. The man unlocked the door. “Be back,” said France, her fingers crossed, and ran for her life.
She gave up trying to find modeling work. She decided to do anything that would be as unlike modeling as possible. She took a job as a domestic scrubbing floors, washing windows, waxing woodwork, moving heavy furniture, polishing brass and porcelain. When her time was up each day, there always seemed to be one more task to be done: a blouse to be washed, an evening gown to be pressed, a button to be sewed on, silver to be polished. The additional work — sometimes an hour’s time, sometimes two — was never covered by paycheck.
One afternoon the French blood began to boil, and France told off her employer. She decided to drown her sorrows in one mad extravagance — she went to a milliner’s shop.
The proprietor, it turned out, spoke French. Maybe she suspected that France really couldn’t afford a hat, but what natural-born milliner could fail to take pleasure in so lovely a customer?
She kept bringing out more and more hats. “Try this . . . Yes, you have the feel of it... And now this... Ah — ravishing... And this... So chic... Mademoiselle, you should be a model.”
France was about to burst into tears, except that tears were a luxury she could not afford. Instead, she told her story.
The milliner was spurred to action. “You are a model, you should be a model. I know a lady who takes small models.” And she sent France to Candy Jones Conover.
Mrs. Conover smiled into the wide and pleading eyes of France Nuyen, and said kindly, “Yes, you are too small to be a model, but don’t let that worry you. I have another idea. I can send you to school where you will learn to walk properly, with the derriere in instead of out; you will learn to sit and stand; you will learn to speak English.”
France attended classes conscientiously, but she also took a job that satisfied a longing held over from childhood: she became a salesgirl in a cookie shop. Her pay was fifty dollars a week and all the cookies she could eat without getting caught. Getting caught meant having to pay. It is likely that Fan-Fan Nuyen became the world’s champion cookie snatcher.
Then she was told to report to the New York office of 20th Century-Fox for an interview. “She is the perfect Liat for South Pacific,” everyone said. But she should lose some weight, and she must see Mr. This or Mr. That.
She was called for a second interview, and a third. And finally, a contract was signed, English lessons were arranged, and she was ready to go to Hollywood.
When she arrived at the airport, she hailed a taxi and asked to be driven to the hotel specified in her instructions from the studio. The meter was rising alarmingly and France watched it nervously. Finally she asked to be dropped at lodgings within walking distance of the studio. And no one from the studio was around to straighten out the mix-up. The date was July 5, 1957 — a Friday — and everyone who could escape had left town on a long Independence Day weekend.
France spent the time in her motel room, leaving only long enough to walk to a nearby drug store for something to eat. Monday morning she reported to the wardrobe department, where a motherly designer named Dorothy Jeakins heard France’s story with horror. “That settles it,” she said. “You’re going to come to live with me and my family in Brentwood.”
Now she had a home and happiness. Eventually the test was completed, the wardrobe fitted and the English lessons learned. France was flown to the island of Kauai to bring to life the love story of Liat and Lt. Cable (John Kerr).
Promptly she became the film company doll, and at the end of a week everyone was quoting her. Someone asked her what toy she remembers from her childhood and she said, “I never had. Oh, once a toy rabbit. But I enjoyed very much to press flowers and I had many in books.”
She gets weekly airmail letters from Paris, and of course everyone teases her about it. France explains, twinkling, “From a boy I sometime, possibly, marry. He studies one more year to be the dentist. For one year we write every week. For next year, write two times a week. If we can write for five years, get to know about us, the love would be... you say ‘forever’? I do not want to marry for six months, get divorce. Better to wait and see.”
Most of Hollywood is hoping that she will wait long enough to meet an American, so that France Nuyen may become a permanent part of the California scenery.
And what does France hope for?
Well, life seems so good these days that she doesn’t plan too long ahead. She remembers the gypsy king and the wonderful way his prophecy came true. If she ever gets back to Marseilles, she might look him up again. But for now, the present, the freedom from terror is so precious, the future can wait.
France is appearing in South Pacific for 20th Century.
Source: Modern Screen, August 1958
I Nominate for Stardom — France Nuyen
France Nuyen: She’s half-Chinese and half-French and her last name is pronounced ‘New-yen.’ And, ‘new yen’ is just exactly what 20th Century-Fox thinks she will be after you see her in those love scenes with Bob Wagner in In Love and War which followed her Lait in South Pacific.
Now France is killing them on the stage on Broadway as the heroine of the highly spiced The World of Suzie Wong.
Pretty good for a girl who just two short years ago was selling cookies in a New York bakery — and eating so many of them to keep alive that the boss had to let her go to keep in business! And, before the bakery job, she worked as a housemaid doing the cooking, marketing and housecleaning for a couple on Riverside Drive in the big town.
This exotic looking girl, now riding the crest of sudden fame, is no stranger to sadness, hunger or fear. “I have known the agony of being a stranger in a strange country, unable to speak the language, and with no job,” she says, now speaking in very good English.
“People say I am lucky. But before I got lucky I was almost dead!”
As a child she barely knew her father, Louis Nuyen, a Chinese ship’s navigator, because he was always at sea. Born in Marseilles. France, it was a struggle for her mother to get enough money to send France to the Pension school. Neither one of them had enough to eat during the war years in Paris.
At fifteen, France and her mother, who was beginning to be very ill, came to New York. Mrs. Nuyen took in sewing while France sold cookies or kept house — for other people.
The big break came when the head of a model agency sent frightened little France to be interviewed by Josh Logan for South Pacific. As you know, she got it. And a whole new world has opened up for France Nuyen.
Source: Modern Screen, December 1958
Part of our series on The World of Suzie Wong.