Short Biography

I was born in 1944 in Paris, France.
From 1970 to1975, I was an advertising copywriter.
I have been a journalist at Marie Claire magazine since 1975.
My first novel for young adults was published in 1996.
I am married, I have three children, I live in Paris.

 


Detailed biography

August 16, 1905. Birth of my father, Lonek (familiar for Leon) Greif, in Sambor. This town belonged to Eastern Galicia, a Polish province of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It became Polish in 1917, then Soviet in 1939, German in 1941, Soviet again in 1945. Today, it is located in Western Ukraine and is named Sambir.
My grandfather, Moritz, was an innkeeper. He enrolled musicians in summer to play waltzes and polkas. Lonek enjoyed listening to the music. When his elder sisters began studying the piano, he stayed in the room and soon tried his hands at it. He studied first in Sambor, then in the Conservatory in Lwów, the main city in Eastern Galicia. (See my father’s family).
In 1925, Lonek moves to Paris to study with Alfred Cortot, a famous pianist. Once there, he changes his plans. Instead of going to école Normale de Musique, where Cortot teaches, he becomes a medical student. He is obeying his fiancé, who insists on his choosing a “serious” profession.
He marries, sends his wife back to Poland, replaces her with a pretty Parisian, becomes a neurologist and psychiatrist, gets a job at Fondation Curie, becomes French. He finds an apartment at 68, boulevard Saint-Marcel, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. (See my father’s Chrysler).

February 1st, 1916. Birth of my mother, Malwina Zien, in Lwów. Like my father, she belongs to a family of assimilated Jews. Her father teaches drawing in high school, her mother is the head of personnel in a cigarette factory.
The Austro-Hungarian empire has given rights to the Jews during the 19th century, so that they have become ordinary citizens. The new Poland, as it is turning fast into a dictatorship, tries on the contrary to “restrict their influence.” In Sambor, for example, a catholic mayor replaces Steuerman, who was Jewish. To prevent the Jews from controlling the medical profession, a “numerus clausus” system limits the number of Jewish medical students to the proportion of Jews in Poland, which is lower than ten per cent. Except for students who are rich enough to bribe their way into medical school, Jews who want to become doctors go abroad to study. Thus does Malwina go to Paris in 1938.
She begins her preparatory year, but has to quit when she loses her handbag and has to spend weeks requesting a new passport from hostile clerks in the Polish embassy, a new visa from their colleagues in the French bureaucracy, etc.
Eastern Galicia medical students stay together in a Latin Quarter hotel on rue Tournefort. Lonek has friends there. He knows Malwina by sight.
He meets her by chance on rue de Tolbiac in March, 1942. He is a neighborhood doctor, with a practice on boulevard Saint-Marcel. He is riding his bike to visit some patients. Malwina earns some money making leather belts. She just delivered some belts to a store. There are not that many Eastern Galicia Jews left in Paris. Some have gone South to the “Free zone.” Others have been prisoners in French camps for a year already. Cattle cars are beginning to carry them to an unknown location in Eastern Europe. Neither Lonek nor Malwina has registered as a Jew. Lonek seduces Malwina by playing Chopin’s Grande Polonaise and Étude Révolutionnaire.
Lonek is the main doctor of FTP-MOI, a group of foreigners belonging to the communist Résistance in France. His name in the group is Jacques. The group hides arms and explosives in Lonek’s large apartment.
Lonek enrolls Malwina as a courier and calls her Jacqueline.
In December, 1942, the police catches most of the group’s members. The Gestapo holds Malwina secretly in the Fresnes jail, near Paris. People who vanish in this manner don’t usually come back. Lonek thinks she is dead. A neighbor warned not to come home. He hides in the house of a patient, Marie-Louise, and became her lover.
He leaves Marie-Louise, who knows too many collaborators. He lives with Malwina, whom the Germans have released, in a garret. My parents conceived me during the Christmas night, 1943. One week later, the police arrest my father. Marie-Louise has denounced him.
Two of my books,Une nouvelle vie, Malvina and Lonek le hussard, tell this story.

September 23, 1944. I am born in Paris.
My mother has moved to another garret. She works here and there as a cleaning lady. Then she finds a job as a technical editor in a women’s magazine published by the communist party, which proves that she knows the French language quite well after seven years in France.
Lonek has been in Auschwitz since the beginning of 1945. He survived because he was strong, a doctor, a communist, and very lucky. He hides in the camp when the Germans evacuate it, in January, 1945, as he is waiting for the Red Army with a few other daredevils. He spends three months in Lublin, temporary capital of Poland, then goes to Odessa and sails to Marseille. He arrives in Paris on April 5. I am already six months old.

 

December 25, 1945. Birth of my brother Michel.
The picture at left shows how unhappy he is to celebrate Christmas and his birthday on the same day. What’s more, he has to share his gifts with me, as our parents, being communists, do not recognize private property.
My father (some call him Jacques, others Lonek) is still a neighborhood doctor at 68, boulevard Saint-Marcel. My mother is a doctor’s wife. She gives appointments to the patients, opens the door when they ring, plays bridge, and so on.

January 3, 1950. Birth of my brother Olivier.
While Michel and I try to satisfy our piano teacher without practising more than five minutes a day, with dismal results, Olivier seems to be a new Mozart, only more precocious. He has three different piano teachers and doesn’t go to regular school. He enters the piano class in the National Conservatory when he is ten, then gets his composition prize when he is seventeen, which is quite unusual.

1950-58. Michel and I are pupils in collège Sévigné, then lycée Montaigne. In Sans accent, a novel whose hero shares my name and writes in the first person, the hero’s father picks up schools so his sons have a better chance of entering an elite French institution, a kind of college with a scientific curriculum that could be compared to MIT: École Polytechnique. He heard about it when he worked at Fondation Curie and thought his nephew, who was a brilliant pupil in high school in Sambor, could come to Paris and stay with him and enter École Polytechnique as a foreign student. The Germans gassed the nephew with all the others, of course. (See Michel and me with our father in 1950).
In 1958, we move to a posh neighborhood – 229, boulevard Saint-Germain – where my father isn’t a general pactitioner anymore, but a specialist in neurology and psychiatry. He also works as an expert for the German embassy and the French Veterans’ administration. He evaluates the neurological and psychological after-effects of deportation and other persecutions endured by Jews and other people entitled to German or French pensions.

 

1958-64. I am a student in lycée Louis-le-Grand. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. As I am accepted in a special maths course to prepare for the École Polytechnique exam, I go there without asking any question. I don’t know anything about my father’s secret aim. I feel that the French school system and my teachers are guiding me on a well-worn track.
I fail the exam at my first try. As you are allowed two tries, I spend another year in the same class. Michel catches up with me. We both enter École Polytechnique at the same time. Our father is quite happy.

1961-1964. In 1961, I spend the summer in the United States. I stay at first with a cousin of my father in Minneapolis, then I go by myself to California. In 1962, I visit Italy, Greece and Israel. I work in a kibboutz. In 1963, I hitchhike to India. In 1964, I explore the South of the United States and the Carribeans. I wrote a book about these early travels: Le roi de l’autostop. (See Brigitte Bardot).

1964-66. I am a student in École Polytechnique. This prestigious French school being also a military academy, I have to wear a pretty uniform designed by Napoléon himself, as can be seen at left.
I dislike the army, as well as the alumni who try to convince us that their bank or insurance company offers the very best jobs in the world.
Between the two years at school, I go to Senegal and Mauritania with other students. This trip is financed by the army and the foreign affairs administration. While I’m there, I hop to Rio de Janeiro, then hitch-hike to Brasilia, San Paulo, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

 

1967-68. I still have to spend one year as an lieutenant in the French army. I am ready to lose one year of my life, but the gods offer me a wonderful gift: one year of holidays. A military doctor has found something wrong with my back and advised me to avoid riding in heavy trucks. My captain thinks an officer must stay with his men at all times. If I can’t ride in a truck, I should be discharged. I go home and wait for the “conseil de réforme” (discharge panel) to call me. When they do, my year of military service has been over for five days. “It doesn’t make sense to discharge you, they say, since you’ve reached the end of your military service anyway.”
During my year of waiting, I receive my officer’s pay, so I am not allowed to work. I draw and paint. I hitch-hike to India again, then I go on to Japan before coming back via Siberia and Moscow.
The following year, I study Japanese in École des Langues Orientales, then I cross the Soviet Union again and spend the summer in Tokyo. I have some of my painting silkscreened. I fly across the Pacific ocean and sell my silkscreen prints in Honolulu and San Francisco.

1969. My paintings sell only in San Francisco. I renounce my career as a painter and get a job in Paris as a management consultant. The team I belong to is supposed to renovate the French branch of the Exxon company. I find this job so silly that I give up after three months. I marry Cathie. Her father is a colleague of mine. I have known her forever.
We look for an apartment in the Latin Quarter. We find lots of small, ugly, expensive ones. We find a not so small, so so ugly, not too expensive apartment in a poor neighborhood called “Le Marais.”
Cathie suggests I try advertising. I become an account executive in the Dorland et Grey advertising agency, located on the Champs-Élysées.

 

1970. I’m bored. I hate to wear a suit and a tie. It seems to me that the agency’s creative teams are having more fun than I. I ask my boss whether I can become a copywriter. He says I can try. I try. I write commercials for Camay soap and Bonux washing powder. Procter & Gamble buys them. I’m being paid to write stuff.

1970-75. I work as a copywriter in several agencies. I don’t wear a suit and tie anymoree.

1974. I write articles in a little satirical magazine published by the French Advertising Art Directors Club. I need to interview the art director of Marie Claire magazine.He tells me that Marie Claire’s editor in chief reads and likes my articles and that I should meet him.

1975. I am a journalist at Marie Claire. From 1975 to 1980 or so, I work with the editor in chief and a colleague on switching staid Marie Claire to an unheard-of “feminist" tack, following the example of Ms magazine in America. I report and write about rape, incest, prostitution, and other subjects I have studied neither in the lycée nor in École Polytechnique, which were all-male places. I learn a lot.
Around 1980, I start reporting in foreign countries about “human rights” subjects, for example Vietnamese boat people, exploited children, etc.
In 1987, I create a section in the magazine where I publish interviews of ordinary people, readers of the magazine, who tell me about important events in their lives. (Enlarge the picture at left)

2011. End of my career at Marie Claire.

 

1972, 1975, 1984. Birth of my three children. A boy, a girl, another boy.

1975. My son goes to the neighborhood public pre-school. He doesn’t like it. I don’t either.

1976. I find a school we both like. It is a small American school. At least, he learns English.

1978. Three of the school’s teachers want to secede and create their own primary school. We belong to a group of parents that follows and supports them. In 1983, as our children are growing up, we create an experimental high school.

1982-87. I teach physics and French in the new school – or class, as we have between eight and fifteen students every year. I write stories for my students. A work I start with them becomes a documentary book on computers and robots, published by Hachette Documents Jeunesse in 1987.
Taking care of the school and teaching is heavy work. As we also have regular jobs and three children to look after, we close the secondary school after five years. The primary school goes bankrupt soon after.
Our children move to French public schools, which they find somewhat dull. They get good marks and diplomas.
Our elder son lives in Los Angeles, where he has a small company and a son, born in 2007. Our daughter is a psychiatrist like her grandfather. She lives in Lyon and has two children, born in 2006 and 2008. Our younger son designs web sites.

 

1985. Cathie teaches mathematics in Paris 7 university. She knows computers. She buys a Macintosh. I convince Marie Claire to switch from typewriters to computers.

1987-95. I write computer how-to cards or leaflets for my colleagues at Marie Claire. A friend shows them to a publisher. I then write some twenty computer manuals in French (published by Dunod) and seven in English (published in England by Computer Generation and in America by Peachpit Press). As I doubt English people would trust a Frenchman with computer advice, and as American people don’t get a name like Jean-Jacques, I use my middle name, Adam.
In my books, I sometimes write stories, with characters and dialogue, to explain a certain way to use a database or other software. “You”re not a computer book author, my American publisher tells me, but a novelist.”

 

February 1996. My first novel for teenagers, De trop longues vacances, is published by the magazine Je Bouquine. It tells what happened during World War II in a summer camp near Bordeaux. I know this summer camp: Michel and I used to spend our summers there in the fifties. Madame Christiane, the camp’s owner, told me the story when I interviewed her for Marie Claire.

September 1996. First novel published by l’École des Loisirs, a leading French publisher: Le Paradis du Miel. Fifteen more will follow. Some tell the story of a famous person: Marilyn Monroe, Einstein, Joan of Arc, Mozart. Sometimes, the main character is not so famous: my mother, for example.
She died in 1978, aged sixty-two. When illness kept her at home, I suggested she write the story of her life for her grandchildren. Then I met all her old friends from Lwów at her bedside. I thought they also had good stories to tell. Because of my terrible laziness, I started interviewing them in 1985 only. I worked at it for years. I typed more than a thousand pages.
After writing several novels for children about talking apes, Japanese warriors, I tried to turn the lives of my mother, my father and their friends into novels for young adults. Four such novels were published: Une nouvelle vie, Malvina, Lonek le hussard, Le ring de la mort, Kama. These books are read and studied in French high schools. I have visited many schools and met many young readers.
I also meet adult readers in book fairs. Some of my young adult books have been published in general literature series when translated. I have written three books for adults in France.
My own translation of Le ring de la mort was published in the States, as The Fighter, by Bloomsbury.

 

 

2011. I write books, and I am also trying to make an “app” for the iPad, aimed at young children. I live in Paris.

I can be reached by e-mail: greif.jj@gmail.com