LOS ANGELES -- Genevieve, the gamin-like French singer and comedian whose fractured English enchanted TV viewers on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, died Sunday at her home in Venice, Calif., of complications of a stroke. She was 83.
Discovered by an American agent at Chez Genevieve, her Montmartre cafe where she not only did the cooking but entertained customers with her singing, she arrived in New York City in 1954. Six months later, she was headlining at the Plaza Hotel's Persian Room. Her change in fortune primarily came as the result of one appearance on the "Blue Angel" summer TV showcase of her future son-in-law, Orson Bean. Her singing prompted critics to hail her as a possible heiress to Edith Piaf's crown.
But it wasn't until she became a regular on the "Tonight Show" in 1957 that the singer with the large, liquid brown eyes and short, reddish-brown hair became a household name. Her on-air mixture of gaiety and innocence captivated Paar's viewers. But she had no idea she had a natural flair for comedy until a few weeks after her Paar show debut, when she showed up with a high fever to sing one night. "I didn't know that I could call in and say I was sick," she recalled in a 1975 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "So I went in and started to sing and was so sick I forget half the words. Nobody really knows it, except me and the musicians, not even Jack. But I went backstage and started to cry."
During the commercial break, "Someone told Jack that the French girl was crying. He came back. I couldn't speak English, and he didn't speak French. So he speak loud, and slow. `What's . . . the . . . matter? You . . . cry?' he ask me. I point to my head and say, `Hot.' So he brings me onstage to talk and gives me a big cup of hot rum and honey."
She giggled. "You weren't supposed to drink alcohol on the air, so he tells the audience it's tea. But I was ha-ha-ha by the end of the show -- loaded."
The more she drank, the funnier she became -- and the more the audience laughed.
Paar knew a good thing when he saw it, and on her subsequent appearances he had her sing less and talk more.
"Jack Paar just fell in love with her because her English was so bad, but it was cute," said her stepson, Tony Mills. "He'd actually have her read baseball scores, and everybody thought that was just hysterical.
"She was just sort of a bigger-than-life French pixie. That was basically her personality. She was this very adorable, cute French personality."
Mills said his stepmother toured in Cole Porter's "Can-Can" and other stock productions, and "worked the big rooms" in New York City when she wasn't appearing with Paar and, later, on "The Merv Griffin Show." She also toured with a one-woman show, "An Evening With Genevieve."
She was born Ginette Marguerite Auger, but became Genevieve when the priest at her baptism told her parents that Ginette was the diminutive for Genevieve and that the church required that an infant's given name include that of a saint.
With $4,000 from her father, a prosperous construction contractor, she opened Chez Genevieve in 1949. After firing her chef for stealing from her and showing up for work drunk, she took over the cooking and, at the urging of her friends, began singing to her customers.
In 1960, she married television producer Ted Mills, whom she had met four years earlier when she appeared in the NBC special "Maurice Chevalier's Paris." Her husband died last August.
In addition to her stepson, an Oakland resident, she leaves two stepdaughters, Hilary Mills Loomis of New York and Alley Mills Bean of Venice; and three step-grandchildren.