Serge Gainsbourg and The Concept of Legacy

We can never be certain of what our legacy will be. What we leave behind after a life lived. We may work to instill values in our children that will serve them well after we’re dead and gone. We may strive to create a fortune so they might live without worry. Our body of work may be a lasting treasure. We may donate to charity in hopes of curing the ills and injustices of society.

Often, we feel very intentional about our legacy, but what happens after we die–how we are remembered, if at all, and what we are remembered for–is largely out of our control.

Take the life of Serge Gainsbourg, for example. The French songwriter, producer, and performer is remembered as much for his debauchery as for his music. He womanized, drank too much, and smoked like a chimney. He provoked the authorities with what were considered (at the time) obscene lyrics and over-the-top antics. Think burning French currency on live television (a crime) and recording a version of the French national anthem to a reggae beat (an outrage).

He was loved, hated, reviled, and adored, often by the same people…simply at different points in time during his life.

He fathered four children. One of them, Charlotte, is now an accomplished actress. Most likely, his drinking, numerous affairs and marriages, love/hate relationship with fame, complete disregard for money, and all-round unconventional life have left her with at least some painful memories.

‘Mixed emotions’ might be a generous way to put it, but who doesn’t have mixed emotions about their parents?

What legacy, then, did Serge Gainsbourg leave his daughter Charlotte? As it turns out, quite a lovely one, and probably quite by accident. You see, following his death at the too-early age of 62, the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg tried to carry on with her life. She took the metro to auditions. She landed parts. She began to work steadily in films.

The only problem in the early 1990s was taking a taxi in Paris. It seemed that almost every time she hopped in a cab, the driver would take her to her destination and then refuse to accept her money.

The reason, she soon realized, was her father Serge. The notorious drinker never drove in Paris and was therefore on a first-name basis with almost every taxi driver in the city, so frequent were his excessive nocturnal outings to, from, and in between his apartment and local cafes, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.

Not only did he tip the drivers beyond the generous limits, he had also helped many of them out in a pinch. “You see these teeth?” one driver smiled as he spun around to face Charlotte as she sat in the back seat of his taxi. “Your dad paid for them.”

And the stories went on, almost every time she hailed a cab in Paris.

“When my daughter was sick, your dad gave me money…” “Serge shoved money in my hand when he heard about my mother…” Serge gave this, Serge paid for that. “I never got a chance to thank him…” “He wouldn’t let me pay him back…”

These curbside confessions were spontaneous, heartfelt, and sincere, and they often left her in tears, not to mention the drivers.

So, yes, Serge Gainsbourg probably left Charlotte, and all his children, a tidy sum of money. His high profile might have made it easier for Charlotte to gain access to the film industry and start her career. Privilege is, of course, part of having a famous father.

But I think all of that pales to the legacy found among those Parisian taxi drivers, the ones who certainly needed Charlotte to pay her fare, but owed too much to Serge to let her do so.

  • BGT

18 thoughts on “Serge Gainsbourg and The Concept of Legacy

  1. For some reason this reminded me of a previous, very different post about an OMG who sees himself as a steward. He inherited money from previous generations and he will pass it along to future generations. In the mean time his job is to preserve and manage the money for the benefit of others.
    I think my legacy will fall into the steward category, but it’s nice to have people like Serge Gainsbourg who make the world a more colorful and interesting place which we all benefit from in one way or another.

  2. What a wonderful story, Byron! Reading this was one of the highlights of my day. Going for a bike ride earlier this afternoon (45 degrees in MN) was another. Many thanks!

  3. Good morning Byron,

    I have to be honest with you.

    While no one is perfect and some, less perfect than others, I am astonished that this individual’s name has even found its way into your writings. What an appalling example of legacy.

    I will give you a written guarantee, right here, God does not care how many dentists bills he paid.


    1. David,
      I had a similar reaction. It does not appear that Serge Gainsbourg meets any of the old money criteria. Maybe Byron is slowly being corrupted by decadent French culture. I suppose there are worse things.

    2. What you can be fragile, you Anglo-Saxons.
      Serge Gainsbourg was certainly a provocateur, but a talented artist. His Marseillaise has a shocked time but it is regularly on our airwaves. Charlotte has always defended Lemon Incest, you have to listen to the lyrics but for that you still have to understand French. Apart from the provocation he was a generous, shy being, all his life he was afraid of being rejected because of his appearance, but he was so French. He is our poinçonneur des lilas, our Gainsbarre. Il laisse un formidable héritage à ses enfants d’abord, à la France ensuite et aux artistes.

      1. Merci, Fleur. Your native perspective is much appreciated.

        Sometimes, it is difficult for other countries to appreciate what it is to be ‘so French’. I completely understand and use the phrase often. However, unless one lives here, it is probably impossible to comprehend, much less embrace.

        We are a young country with a very different culture and history. Please be patient with us. (Wink, nod.) – BGT

  4. It is not only that he does not meet any of the OM criteria. I will go as far as asking Byron to remove this post. It has no place anywhere near here. I have attached a link from Wikipedia illustrating jut one example of what I am taking about. As far as I am concerned, there are no redeeming features to be found. Anywhere.


    1. David, I agree. I had the same reaction as you when I read this post. Byron, I hope you just didn’t know that much about him, but please remove it.

  5. I do not think the post should be removed. Is transgressive art necessarily bad art just because it’s transgressive? Is a novelist or a songwriter a bad person just because they write about a subject that makes us uncomfortable? Lolita, just to take one example, is generally considered to be one of the great novels in the Western canon, despite its disturbing subject matter. I don’t think anyone would say that Serge Gainsbourg was a model citizen, but calling for the removal of the post smacks of book burning and censorship.

    1. It’s the highlighting of Charlotte in particular in terms of legacy that’s quite viscerally sickening to me, given his behavior with her: a real person who was harmed — publicly, no less — in no way whatsoever like the fictional Lolita. I can testify that money does not make up for abuse from one’s parents, and is much more of a curse that ensures one can never escape the trauma.

  6. This particular post and the individual listed as an example flies in the face of all the ethos, the values and behaviours Byron has strived to promulgate in his writings – both here and in his published books. I am sure Mr. Gainsbourg has a niche somewhere in the so-called dark web. That niche is not here.

    I stand my ground.

  7. In his original post Byron does not shy away from Gainsbourg’s many flaws nor does he attempt to excuse them. A lot of great art is shocking and offensive. For example The Rape of the Sabine Women by Rubens, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Many great artists were terrible people who nevertheless produced great works of art. I think we need to be very careful about telling people what they can or cannot write about.

  8. I thought this was meant to be a place where people would feel welcome to socialize, teach and learn. For years, I have. But I don’t feel welcome at all in an establishment with this on the wall — “art” as abuse may seem to some. I can’t imagine how anyone would even try to draw a parallel between child exploitation and classical pieces that can educate us about history.

    Our definitions of legacy clash. The legacy I hope to leave is that of a kind, brave woman who speaks up when she sees injustice; who defends the voiceless and victimized; who walks away when her boundaries are crossed, allowing only for genuine mistakes; who stands as an example of character and integrity: a woman a child could look up to.

    I’ve enjoyed my time here, but I’m sad to say that we’ve reached a parting of the ways. I can’t stomach this, and I never want to be someone who can.

  9. I think the disagreement in the comments is the point of the article, we do not have final say in our legacy. Others will determine how we are remembered, and different groups of people will have different ideas about who you were, and how you will be remembered. Over time, those opinions can change as well. Just look at what’s happened recently to the legacies of those who were involved, even tangentially, with colonization and slavery.

    Or, you can think of the inverse of Serge, a person who lived a life who lived an exemplary OM life in public, but to a small group, in private, and unbeknownst to anyone outside the group, they were a horrible person. What is their legacy? The great person that most of the world saw, or the horrible person 30 people saw?

    One’s legacy is not going to be an absolute. Whenever I find myself thinking about my own, I remember the saying, “You can’t please all the people, all the time,” and simply do my best to do the best, but know it’s out of my hands after that.

    1. Thank you, Brian. The point of the blog post did seem to get lost. And it is astute of you to point out that legacies and reputations are fluid and even fragile commodities in this age. – BGT

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