Madame Lucienne Frey: How to be ageless

Few people enjoy the incredible staying power of French Lessons’ final profile this season. But before we (re-)introduce her, please allow us a small indulgence.

Let’s first wander back through the highways and alleyways, the shops and vistas we visited this summer. Through our “interviews à la Colbert,” we met people with unique perspectives on Antibes, our summer hometown on the bustling Côte d’Azur. Thanks to their personal stories, we glimpse hidden layers in this place:

As we travel through these posts, we thank you for joining us (again) this season. We absolutely delight in the growing community among French Lessons readers – the way an article prompts someone to post a comment that sparks a thought from another reader, often on a different continent. We say a gros merci to this beautiful society and look forward to next season when our community – from office chairs, exercise bikes, and sun loungers alike – can share some moments together in the Mediterranean sun.

In our final profile of the season, we spotlight a figure who spans generations in Antibes. Madame Lucienne Frey first set foot in town when she was 33 years old, and French Lessons had the joy of interviewing her on her centenary. To cap this season, we repost that interview – a firm favourite of ours – to mark the recent passing of an extraordinary woman, aged 108.

***

These days I’m très fière – very proud – to tell people my age, Madame Lucienne Frey says with an easy smile. They celebrated my 100th birthday at the mairie this spring. The mayor, who I know a bit, gave a reception.

Mme Frey is pleased with her newly acquired threshold – yes, certainly – but she’s not overly charmed by it. She hardly lets age define her.  

I told the maire there are a lot of people who reach 100. Why celebrate me? she wondered. She sits before my husband Philippe and me, a willing audience, in an easy chair. Her soft grey, cotton dress is offset by a long, artistic strand of salmon, charcoal, and grey stone beads. That salmon colour coordinates perfectly with her lipstick and low leather pumps. Her eyes are alert, and her thick hair is pulled back loosely. She is, quite simply, beautiful.

Madame Lucienne Frey at 100 years
As seen in this photo from 2014, being 100 hardly defined Madame Lucienne Frey.

The maire told Mme Frey they were celebrating her because not all 100-year-olds arrive at this age in quite the same shape. And he was hardly the first one to notice.  

Mme Frey mentions her cardiologist. There’s little hesitation in her speech, no predictable pause as her elderly brain reaches for words. She easily shares with us her cardiologist’s big hope: He told me that if he could figure out a way to live to 100 like I have, he’d sign up in a second.

The first time I met Mme Frey, people around me were more interested in her son-in-law. Robert Charlebois is French-Canada’s answer to Bruce Springstein. Philippe knows him from Quebecois circles. A couple summers ago we invited Robert and his wife Laurence for aperitifs on Bellevue’s terrace. Who’d they bring along but Laurence’s elegant and quick-witted mother who lives up the road. 

As we sipped rosé and nibbled on olives, a handful of swimmers on the rocky beach below Bellevue turned their attentions toward our balcony, snapping a few shots when Robert moved to the railing. Well-known as the son-in-law may be, the real star to me that early evening was Mme Frey. I was in the throes of researching Bellevues’ history and voilà, here on my own terrace was living history. I dove in for her insights – only then guessing she must’ve been in her eighties, and still I was too low.

With anniversaries of the World Wars overtaking the airwaves and bookstands, I was keen to contact Mme Frey again. That’s how Philippe and I find ourselves not far from Bellevue, in the centenarian’s gracious salon overlooking the neighbouring gardens. 

Laurence and the famous Robert helped us find her this time – as did a few locals. Everyone seems to know Mme Frey.  

Are the flowers for me? An earnest-looking man asks as he mounts his scooter this morning. We’ve gained access to Mme Frey’s gated community but are none the wiser where to find her.  

Tout au bout, the earnest man says when he learns of the destined recipient. He points straight ahead.

Philippe and I stop at the end of the lane. A man sits on the steps of a well-maintained apartment block with two young girls. We ask for Mme Frey.

La centenaire! He says. He buzzes us in. Second floor, he tells us. First door on your right. I’ll ring her for you.

photos on bureau
Family populated her handsome bureau alongside Mr Churchill.

Mme Frey’s sitting room is a jewel box of photos and collectables – a gathering of precious memories but hardly uncontrolled bric-a-brac. A few paintings line beige walls while rows of framed photos spread over bookshelves that contain French literary titles and travel books. Occasional tables and chairs dot the room, as does a handsome inlaid bureau with more photographs on top. Most of the far wall opens onto a terrace; a gentle breeze blows in through pastel-striped, silk curtains.   

Something to drink? Water? Mme Frey asks from her easy chair. Un petit pastis? It’s 11:20.  

Un pastis! I say. I ask if she drinks this strong, local brew.

Non, not now. Only in the evenings, she says. And mixed with a good bit of water.

Philippe joins me today out of courtesy and interest and, it must be said, to help me grasp the fullness of this French discussion. I can keep up with the broad brushes, but I fear missing the detail – or else inhibiting Mme Frey’s thoughts by asking for clarification.  

She surprises us both by offering to speak in English – in English. Her diction is beautifully clear to my Anglophone ear.

I spent the war years in New York, she says. My mother was only 20 when I was born, and she panicked at the idea of war. When my father mentioned New York, she jumped on the opportunity.  

It takes Philippe and me a while to realize that Mme Frey is talking about the World War I years. That’s the only way this story makes sense. Surely the young family travelled across the Atlantic by boat (and only a couple years after the Titanic disaster). Mme Frey spent five years in New York before returning to Paris, probably again sailing the seas.

I came back speaking French with an American accent, she says. The kids made fun of my accent.

I nod, knowingly. These days the American twang in Mme Frey’s voice is gone, what with a year at an English boarding school, aged 16, and all those intervening years of life since her earliest days in the US. She slips back into French.

Mme Frey met her first husband on a train from Marseille to Paris. She was 24 years old, travelling home with her mother and stepfather. They’d bribed her into joining their winter holidays in southern France by allowing her to drive the family’s car. On the return journey the family put the car on the train and waited on the platform. And waited. When was the train coming? they wondered aloud to each other.

A man in a pink shirt materialized from nowhere and joined their conversation. The train was delayed because of snow, he said. Once on board, it turned out that his compartment was next to theirs. The train departed Marseille, and this man and the young Mme Frey moved from their seats into the corridor to talk.

I spent a good portion of the trip trying to figure him out, she says. He wore a pink shirt, and that wasn’t so doable in those days!

The couple stood the entire journey back north, when at last the pink-shirted man asked if he could take the young lady to lunch. It was 1938 in Paris. A second World War would imminently cross Mme Frey’s path. Still the new couple dined together and went to the cinema. Shortly they got married.  

In 1939, on the very day war was declared, Mme Frey’s new husband told her to go out and buy every pair of shoes she’d ever wanted. I’d been eyeing a fancy pair, she says, but they were very expensive. He said to get them anyway. I wore those shoes for a very long time.  

Just after France’s Occupation, an estate agent friend encouraged Mme Frey’s husband to buy a house in Antibes. It was très bon marché, he was told – a good deal. They should buy the place as an investment.  

So in 1947, during that nebulous period between the inauguration of wartime monuments and the re-launch of the Cannes Film Festival, the couple bought this house – sight unseen. It was in the Garoupe, a wooded area beneath the rubble of the Cap d’Antibes’ yet-bombed-out lighthouse. Mme Frey journeyed south, alone, to glimpse their purchase.

There were so many pines, she says. You had to chase the sun across the garden because the pines made too much shade. 

She shares her shock when several years ago her daughter took her on a drive around the Cap – a so-called trip down memory lane. They discovered the house no longer existed.  

It was a construction magnifique – solide, confortable, Mme Frey says, still half-reluctant to believe in its demise. The neighbour bought the property, demolished the house, and built a workout room.

But you don’t want to hear just about me!  she says, years of refined living eclipsing any notion of a captive audience. Tell me about you. She hands out polite compliments to me, the biggest one probably being that I’m young.

But I want to stay young like you, I insist. You must have very good genes.

Yes, Mme Frey, says. She has good genes. But it’s also une question de morale. The bottle is always half-full, she says. She uses that very metaphor in French.

Still, she admits to missing golf. She used to play regularly at the local course in Biot. It took only 10 minutes to get there, she says, but today it takes 30. If only she could manage a little golf! But, she says with a good-natured laugh, how do you do it with a wheelchair? (During our visit Mme Frey walks around her apartment with a cane, but the distances are well shorter than 18 holes.)

Golf was her main sport. Waterskiing and tennis were the others. I’m très indépendante, she says. I played tennis but only en simple, never doubles. She has no problem losing games through her own mistakes, but she hardly wants to depend on a partner.

Good genes, a solid morale, and a strong sense of independence, I think. That’s what the cardiologist needs to reach 100 years of age in such great shape. That’s what I need too. That’s what we all need.

At the time Mme Frey first came to the Cap d’Antibes, she was in her early thirties. Paris was still home, but with her husband and two daughters she began to travel here for holidays – Easter, summer, and Christmas. She didn’t move to Antibes until 1994, aged 80, when her second husband died.

Je n’ai jamais regretté ce choix, she says. I never regretted that choice.

Mme Frey remembers that early vacation home in the pine forests of the Garoupe. We bought a Christmas tree that reached up to the ceiling, she says. It was a custom she adopted from her earliest years in New York. Eventually, though, the shadowy, pine-filled garden got the best of her. On the advice of another real estate agent, Mme Frey’s family bought a different home in the area, this time on what was a small, dirt path at the top of the Cap d’Antibes.  

It was a large home on Chemin de Mougins, she says. We had three stories, a pool, a gardener, and a super view. Her clear, dark eyes sparkle through stylish, two-toned frames as she remembers this last feature. When I first walked into the house and saw the view, my heart skipped a beat.  You could see all the way to St Tropez.  

Pierre Frey sign in Antibes
Pierre Frey’s name remains a badge of excellence, as seen in an Antibes shop window at the time we interviewed his widow.

After the death of her first husband, Mme Frey met the man who’d become her second at a dinner event. He was grand, bien et beau, she says – tall and good-looking. They sat side-by-side at a table of 10, the seating having been pre-arranged by the host. And on this sociable occasion she posed a simple question to this handsome man: Why are you so sad?

Years later, after the couple married, Pierre Frey said he was struck that she was able to see so clearly into his heart. He was charmed by her insight and fell instantly in love.  

So the list again extends itself. Alongside good genes, a positive attitude and a fierce independence streak, and maybe a strong second language to boot, you need special insight in order to live a long and full life.  

This Mr Frey, it turns out, was the founder of the luxurious French fabrics house bearing the same name. Having originally established his company in the north of France, he lost everything with the German invasion. But he started again, the second time in post-war Paris, and thanks to a son and three grandsons from his first marriage, the business continues to carry his name today.

Mme Frey’s only input into the esteemed fabrics company was to choose colours for the new season. Mr Frey would bring colour swatches home to his wife and rely on her choice.  

white piano of Robert Charlebois
It was a gift from her rocker son-in-law, Robert Charlebois.

That’s one thing I always had was good taste, Mme Frey says. Her words come without an ounce of boastfulness. She’s simply stating a fact. Glancing around her graceful salon – and again noting her coordinating salmon lipstick, necklace, and pumps – it is clear that colour and taste remain important in her life. Even at 100 years of age.  

Drat. We’ve discussed genes and attitudes, language, independence, and insight. Now we also need taste.

On our way out, Mme Frey takes Philippe and me on a brief tour of her salon. There are countless photos of family – here as children, there with their own children, and there as they all celebrate her 100th birthday. On the bureau there’s a photo of a friend with Winston Churchill. Tucked inconspicuously into the corner of the room is a small, console piano.  

It’s from Robert for when he comes to say, Mme Frey says. He asked if I wanted a piano, and I told him non, not really. It takes up space. So he said not to worry. This one is small and white and blends in with the furniture, so I’m okay with it.

Playing Scrabble as a single player
Playing two hands simultaneously was the key.

On our way out, I notice a game of Scrabble on her table. Two wooden trays of letters await their next turns. L’Officiel Scrabble dictionary lies on the wooden table beside the playing board, as does a fat Petit Robert dictionary and a good magnifying glass.  

Do you play Scrabble? I ask.

Oui, Mme Frey says with evident glee. I play two hands at the same time, she tells me. Both hands by myself. This way I can’t cheat!

The Scrabble board itself, I realise, is a symbol of her grace. Through it, Mme Frey applies her powers of language, independence, and insight. And she pours them from a vessel that’s always at least half-full.

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26 thoughts on “Madame Lucienne Frey: How to be ageless

  1. What a beautiful story to end the summer. I wonder what was Lucienne’s original last name. You made me remember when Clint Eastwood was asked where he got the energy to be so active at 88 (92 now), he said “I just get up every day and don’t let the old man in”. Thank you for your marvelous posts and safe return home. Love to all from Mariana and me.

    1. That’s a beautiful life from Clint Eastwood, Raymond. Thank you for sharing it. And muchas gracias for being such a dedicated part of this blog community over the years. Love having you aboard.

  2. Another happy summer reading French Lessons! On to fall and already looking forward to reconnecting next season
    Merci!

    1. Thank you, Deryn! As for next season’s posts – ouf! But you’re right, it’s never too early to start thinking. If anyone has thoughts, curiosities, crazy ideas, or solid gossip (haha), please let me know – either here or via email. 🙂

  3. I have so enjoyed French Lessons this summer. Thanks for introducing us to so many remarkable people like Madame Frey. Safe travels home.

    1. Merci, Barbara! It has been a pleasure to write this series; I’ve long been drawn to personal profiles. Thanks so much for joining us again this year.

  4. Sorry to hear that this will be the last installment of French Lessons!
    As with all of this summers lessons, I enjoyed hearing the story of Mme Frey. In yet another example of “its a small world”, when I was traveling in Corsica many years back I went into a lovely shop and my eye caught a gorgeous throw which I just had to buy. It was a Pierre Frey!! I have it to this day and use it sparingly as I will never able to replace it (although I have googled Pierre Frey and tried). The colours, design and quality are incredible.
    Have a safe trip home.

    1. Aren’t travel souvenirs just like that? Like you, Electa, I find that an item from afar – whether a trinket or something more substantial – means much more to me on returning home than a similar item purchased from a local shop. The souvenir is infused with stories. How lovely that you have this Pierre Frey throw! How even more lovely that with it, you also may have acquired a fragment of Mme Frey’s sense of taste.

    2. I look forward to each and every summer when you provide such special glimpses into life in Antibes. I live the history and the wonderful people you include in your writings. Elegantly written. We can all learn from the unique perspective of Mme Frey- I’m sure a pleasure to have spoken with her. Safe trip home.

      1. Merci, Leslea. We’re glad to have you aboard on this journey, and it’s a real treat to be able to share these people and their stories.

  5. Simply grand. Once again you transport me not only across the ocean but to people and their lives. At 85, I admit I need some attention paid to Mme.Frey’s list of gifts she offers. Thanks so for being in my life. Connie Pemble

    1. Dear Mrs. P., I thank you for allowing yourself to be transported across the ocean with me! You will always be the age of my high school English and journalism teacher, it must be said, and in this vein I am forever grateful that you encouraged me to write. Gros merci.

  6. Such a beautiful and heartwarming AND encouraging story. Mme. Frey was certainly an inspiration while living, and continues on, even though she is gone. Her words live and will inspire many. Thank you so much for sharing her with us! I love Pierre Frey fabric and have used it often—what a nice surprise while reading to learn she was his wife…….Bless you for your french stories. They always offer a glimpse into the country I adore. Cate Tuten

    1. Bonjour, Cate, and thank you for introducing yourself. I am so pleased to strike this ongoing chord with you. France offers much to the rest of the world. Having written this blog for 15 years now, I must admit to some trepidation each year that I’ll “run out of things to say.” But France and her stories always provide. Merci beaucoup for being part of this community.

  7. i’m intimidated to reply because i’m nowhere near as articulate as you, let alone your other responders!!! But i too so enjoy your Lessons! And am shocked to know its been FIFTEEN years!!! Your writing is wonderful and i love seeing your perspectives. Its your lovely writing that makes simple things beautiful and fascinating! Please let me know when your book is out! Hoping our paths will cross perhaps in the next FIFTEEN years!!! Jackie

    1. Hello, Jackie, and it’s super to hear from you! Yes, 15 years. We shared some of those earliest ones with you. Often when I see des fleurs de courgettes at the market, I recall how you brought them back to Bellevue, stuffed them with some concoction of items found in the fridge, battered them, and plunged them into boiling cooking oil. It was magic that you made the squash blossoms so délicieuses! A big merci for continuing with our stories for the duration. See you again soon, I hope.

    1. Bonjour, Cilla, and merci beaucoup for saying hello. September 1, and it’s stunning how this area calms with the turn of the calendar page! Enjoy plage Garoupe.

    1. C’est un plaisir, Jennifer, and yes, to Scrabble! Who knew that the letter sets are different in English and French – but then again, it makes sense. All those pesky French vowels! 🙂

  8. I can hardly believe that this charming story is your final post for this season. They have been a pleasure, as always, to read. I wish you and your family good health and happiness and look forward to your future writings.
    Blessings, Barbro

    1. Thank you, Barbro, et merci beaucoup for being such a kind and steadfast member of this community! Yes, this summer has breezed by. Do let us know any interests for next year!

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