The Spiritual Drama of Eve Lavalliere

On Friday, July 12, 1929, the following report appeared in The Times of London:

“Our Paris Correspondent telegraphs that the death has occurred at Thuilieres, in the Vosges, of Mlle. Eve Lavalliere, formerly an actress of distinction. She had been living in retirement for the last 12 years, having suddenly come to the decision, in 1917, to lead a life of religious seclusion.”

In this sparse report of a death there was hidden more drama than any performer could have invented upon the stage.

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This was especially so given that the actress named had been in a ‘role’ not sought, but, rather, one that had ‘found’ her, and which, by its end, had won her little praise. Instead, her life had become a slow white martyrdom—having chosen to return to the Garden by the only way possible: the Cross.

The newspaper conveyed what until then the world thought of as the elemental parts of the enigma that was the actress known as Eve Lavalliere. In short, a glittering career followed by what seemed a vacuum. Her decision to retire as baffling to the former legion of adorers as it was frustratingly opaque to those around her.

But, then, how could they have comprehended what was really happening, for they had known only the invention that was Eve Lavalliere: comedic actress; wit and raconteur; stage sensation in Paris and beyond; mistress and mother; one of the wealthiest and most beautiful women of her day. The woman behind the mask was less well known: one with an unfathomable sadness; alone; prey to depressions, despair and suicidal thoughts.

After her disappearance from the stage, and ‘the world’, what followed next appeared to some nothing more than a morbid obscurity. What no earthly audience could have perceived, however, was that she had acquired an altogether different ‘audience’, and one that watched intently her every move. Now, instead of a stage play, what was being played out was an all too real drama, and one with a finale that would end either in Heaven or Hell, with the saving of a soul or its eternal forfeit.

Now, with the Overture ended, let us move to the first act that can have but one name: Tragedy.

Eugenie-Maire Pascaline Feneglio was born at Toulon on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1866. Her family life was miserable, and was to shatter calamitously. Her father a depressive with a temper, her mother tried to placate; for years, together with her older brother, the girl lived in dread. The mounting misery erupted on another Sunday—March 6, 1884—in what would be a deadly climax.

All day a stream of invective had rained down upon Eve’s mother. By late afternoon, the children were growing ever more alarmed for her safety. In the end their instincts proved right, as, after a crack of a pistol, they saw her lying mortally wounded upon the floor. As Eve stared in disbelief at the bloodied face of her mother, an altogether new fear suddenly gripped her. She was right to be frightened, for, as she turned, she was staring down the barrel of a pistol now pointing directly at her. A shot discharged, ricocheting off the wall as its intended target dived for cover. That was not to be the end of the blood lust, however, as, on that accursed Sabbath, a demon was loosed, and soon after another shot rang out. This time it found its target, and her father lay dead. The two children ran from the house, with her brother never seen again. On that tragic March evening, with her childhood now ended, yet barely a woman, Eve Lavalliere was left to face the world alone.

The next years can be summed up as follows: drab jobs in provincial obscurity fueling a longing for the Paris stage; an increasingly eye-catching face combined with an ever growing vivacity, all enveloped with a will of iron matched only by one burning ambition: to “escape.” And escape she did; along the way, taking the stage name “Eve Lavalliere.” Thereafter, like some fairytale, all her wishes came true, but wishes are not prayers, and the realization of her dreams gradually turned to nightmare.

Playing before packed, adoring audiences, with even Crowned Heads bowing, the very world appeared to be at her feet. No one but she, however, knew of the shadows that grew increasingly darker as the stage lights dimed, and as the darkness descended so too did the demons that relentlessly tormented her.

Superficially, the truth appeared simple enough: by the turn of the century she was the toast of Paris and much of Europe. And yet, by then, she knew nothing but an aching emptiness, something that would persist for years. An incident in 1916 reveals its depths. After a performance in London to aid the war effort, and while the audience were still standing and applauding she left the stage and made straight for the banks of the river Thames with one intention: to drown herself.

As she stood watching the lights of the city playing on that dark river’s ever-onward course, she relented, but only just. Sadly, it had not been the first time such thoughts had driven her to the brink of annihilation. It would be the last, however. Less than a year later, an event occurred that was to change her life forever, and in the process the world would be shocked, and its overlord angered.

This tragic first act now closes as we move on to the strange second one.

It was May 1917. Eve Lavalliere was then aged 51 years old, and in her world all appeared as normal. Europe may have been at war but she had just signed a contract to tour the United States, and with it even greater fame beckoned. Before this important event, however, she felt the need to rest in the French countryside. It was then that the unexpected happened.

If one is to remain in the clutches of the Evil One then three things are to be avoided: rest, recollection and exposure to things of the Spirit. On retiring to the rustic backwater of Touraine, Eve was to discover all three, and with that was to be set free forever.

The landlord of the house she rented happened to be the local Curé; a good priest who soon asked why she was not present at Sunday Mass. Thereafter, each Sabbath she attended, but more out of human respect than any reverence. Nevertheless, the priest and his new parishioner began to talk. She revealed, amongst other things, that she had dabbled in the Occult. The shocked priest warned of such dalliances. Disturbed by his reaction, later that night, she was to ponder upon both an insight, and a resultant question: if the devil did exist then so too must God, and, if this was the case, what was she doing with her life?

That night a fear gripped her, but also a hope was born.

The next day, looking chastened, she presented herself to the priest and, to his astonishment, proceeded to sit down with one intention: to begin instruction in the Catechism. However enigmatic, it was a beginning.

The weeks that followed found her reading the life of the saint she would later identify closely with: the Magdalene. The priest had lent her a volume of that saint’s life, suggesting Eve might want to read it on her knees. She did. Soon after, repentance followed, then Confession, and with it a curious light began to dawn.

In this spiritual drama we now come to its final Act—the most mysterious of all.

Because it was from now on that Eve Lavalliere entered into a period of profound darkness when the only light given her was that of Calvary. And from then, like her patron before her, she was to take her place at the foot of the Cross.

If the earlier years had been a triumphal procession, the years that followed her conversion were viewed as anything but that by those around her. Following her conversion, Eve became a penitent soul, taking to prayer and mortification to make reparation for her previous ways. Retreating to obscurity, however, her attempts to find a spiritual home—a convent or monastery—were to lead nowhere. She wandered from place to place before for a time retiring to Lourdes, where, even in the driving rain, she was to be seen on its hill making the Stations of the Cross barefoot. Increasingly, unable to find something or someone, she was forced to cling to the only thing left her: the Cross—her sole refuge from the storms that now began to assail her.

During these years, her adult illegitimate daughter’s immoral lifestyle was flaunted before all to see. It cost Eve many tears—more than anything else. Remorselessly, the daughter also took all she could from her mother—mostly money—leaving behind nothing but a trail of cold indifference and pain, bitter regret and heartbreak.

By the end, walking her penitential path as fully as she had once walked that of evil, her already fragile health broke. With illness and infirmity, the body now became her cross. Eventually, for medical reasons, her eyes had to be sewn closed. Of this operation, without an anaesthetic and without complaint, she was to offer its almost unbearable pain in expiation, simply saying that she had sinned with her sight…

Now effectively an exile upon the earth, mercifully her time was drawing to a finish.

Finally, with health shattered and body exhausted, the end came on July 10, 1929: her long watch at the foot of the Cross now over.

Buried in a simple grave, without fanfare or entourage, she was to be forgotten. The brief newspaper report of her death contrasted starkly with the columns of newspaper print from decades earlier when she was without equal on the stages of Europe. No doubt, those reading such reports of the once brilliant actress were puzzled by her end, but only momentarily before turning the page as they and the world moved on.

On that July day, however, as the earth fell upon the silent casket, and the few mourners departed from the modest gravesite, none could have realized what was to happen next.

Having been buried to the world long before any physical interment, the former actress was now to have the last word.

Those last years of faithful testimony when she gave up so much, and endured even more, at last began to bear their fruit as she proceeded to make a ‘comeback’ worthy of any actor. Within a few short years of her death, books were being published about her life and conversion, and tentatively a cult began to grow. And it was then that her witness rose to stand upon a very different stage, one reserved for God’s Elect, and where Eve Lavalliere now made an entry in what was be her final, and indeed greatest, role.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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