Recalling memories of times spent in Villefranche in the mid-1950s is not hard to do. Each of the five visits I made there during 1955-57 was an adventure worth remembering. Villefranche was the gem of the Mediterranean, unknown to most of the world, and tourists, particularly American, were a novelty. Those in the Sixth Fleet, however, knew it well. As a young, brand-new ensign disbursing officer on the USS Betelgeuse (AK-260), a Victory class cargo ship serving the Sixth Fleet out of Norfolk, VA, my first visit to Villefranche was on Sunday, 13 November 1955. We had arrived late the day before from Genoa and moored to a buoy. Before we arrived, I had been told about Mom Germaine and that she had a warm feeling for the Betelgeuse because her daughter had married a sailor on the ship some years earlier. One of our chief petty officers also told me the story of Bloody Mary and that she became a member of the French Resistance in WWII following the execution of her husband and son by the Gestapo. She had reportedly been given her sobriquet by reason of having killed several German soldiers in revenge. I was told she always met the ship upon arrival at Villefranche and might come aboard to sell flowers, having once even gone down into the chiefs’ quarters. I was warned to avoid her because she was very unpredictable and thought to be crazy.
Late that afternoon, I rode one of the ship’s boats ashore, and, after stepping out at the landing, I looked to see if I could spot other junior officers from the ship already ashore when, suddenly, I felt some one’s hand reach into my right pants’ pocket and empty it. I quickly turned to see a short, very stout woman, with strong arms, who then opened her hand to show the money she had retrieved from my pocket, took out what she evidently considered satisfactory, then handed me the rest with a bouquet of flowers and a wry grin. I didn’t have to be told that I had just had my first encounter with Bloody Mary. I was astounded that someone would do something like that and saw that she was definitely unpredictable. I didn’t stand around to talk and walked with the flowers in hand over to Mom Germaine’s where I saw one or two other junior officers. One of the officers and I decided to have dinner at Mom Germaine’s. My seat at the table faced the kitchen, and, while waiting for our food to be served, I found myself suddenly being choked hard by something from behind and could barely breathe. The chair was falling backwards, and, just before I fell to the floor, the grip was quickly released. I turned around and saw Bloody Mary, who had choked me with the crook in her walking cane. She snickered and gave a smirk. Mom Germaine, seeing what had happened, came from the back and made her leave. I now believed that Bloody Mary must be crazy but was shocked by what she had just done. I had not wanted any encounter with her, but now I had already experienced two very unsettling incidents with her on my first day in Villefranche. I surely did not want a repeat performance of the second one.
Mom Germaine’s was a very popular place, and the tables in front were usually crowded, particularly in the evening. Locals from the area, including musicians and artists, would come, and I recall a man on a unicycle riding around among those in the crowd, while some of our crew members were always present. On that first visit, I learned that our commanding officer, Captain Russell H. “Snuffy” Smith, a Naval Academy graduate and survivor of the sinking of the USS Wasp (CV-7) in WWII, was always melancholy when the ship came to Villefranche. In 1938-39, while he served on the USS Jacob Jones (DD-130) at Villefranche, his young child died there. Mom Germaine was said to have known him back then and was familiar with the tragedy. I never heard him talk about it, though.
During our time in Villefranche, several vendors came on board to market their products for sale in the ship’s store. One vendor from Germany was a former U-boat commander with a black patch over one eye, who sold cameras and/or binoculars. The one who stood out the most was an attractive, demure young lady named Eliane Hugues from Cannes, who represented, as I recall, Lancome perfumes. She always came to the ship upon our arrival in Villefranche, and it was always a pleasure to see her. The next afternoon I took the bus to see Nice, and, upon returning to the boat landing, I was met by Bloody Mary, who offered me a bouquet of flowers, and, in spite of her past actions toward me, I gave her 100 Francs. The Betelgeuse departed Villefranche the next day for Barcelona.
Our next visit to Villefranche was on Thursday, 16 February 1956, when we arrived that morning from Naples, with the USS Newport News (CA-148) present as the 6th Fleet flagship. Errol Flynn’s sleek, black yacht, the “Zaca”, was present on either this occasion or on our next visit later that summer. I feel certain I saw Bloody Mary that day but do not recall any encounter with her. We got underway early the next morning for Cannes, where we joined other ships of the Sixth Fleet.
We returned to Villefranche the morning of Thursday, 16 August 1956, this time from Barcelona. The USS Salem (CA-139), now flagship of the Sixth Fleet, was present. That day, I transferred $550,000 in cash to the disbursing officer of the Salem, having been ordered to obtain those funds in Norfolk and then transfer them to that officer on the Salem. When he came over by boat to the Betelgeuse to get the cash, he was accompanied by several heavily armed Marine guards. That afternoon, I went ashore and took the bus to Nice with two other junior officers from our ship. Bloody Mary boarded the bus right behind us, and I noticed something was said between her and one of the other officers sitting across from me before she sat down behind him. No other passengers boarded the bus. The next thing I knew Bloody Mary had put her cane around his neck, choking him and pulling him backwards. His face turned very red, and he could not speak. Finally, she let up on the cane and placed it beside her. She was definitely not a person to cross in any sort of way. Her biceps were huge for a woman. She seemed to be all muscle and “strong as an ox”. I had the duty the next day and stayed on the ship. The following morning about 9 am, we got underway for Cannes.
We next came to Villefranche from Naples on Tuesday, 9 April 1957. No other U.S. Navy ships were present. I went ashore in one of the ship’s boats with our executive officer, and we walked over to the foot of Rue de l’Eglise next to the Welcome Hotel. We were just starting to walk up the long, stone stairway that leads into the upper part of the town, when about 50 yards above us on the stairway, we spotted Bloody Mary. Seeing us, she began to wave her cane in the air, shouted something excitedly in French and started down the stairway. We both felt she was headed for me, and he said that I must have reminded her of her son in some strange way. I told him I didn’t know why she acted this way, but I did not want to find out and must leave. I walked over to the entrance to Rue Obscure and entered it, thinking that I could exit the underground street somewhere on Rue de l’Eglise above the place where she had been standing, even though I had never done that. I quickly walked through the darkened tunnel until I came to a place where I had to make a turn and was startled to see Bloody Mary standing right in front of me, grinning as she gave a quick laugh. She had somehow known what I intended to do and surely knew everything about Rue Obscure. I was simply amazed at what she had done. Flustered, I quickly turned around and headed back the way I came and exited Rue Obscure. Abandoning my attempt to walk up Rue de l’Eglise, I took a bus into Nice to avoid her. I remained perplexed as to why she seemed to focus her attention on me the way she did. In any event, that was the last time I ever remember seeing Bloody Mary. The weather was unpleasant while we were there this time, and the next day the wind was very strong, reaching a speed of about 46 mph, and all boating had to be canceled. The ship, while moored to a buoy, was swung around back and forth by strong winds all during the day. At about 6 am the next day, Thursday, 11 April, we left Villefranche for Gibraltar.
On Tuesday, 25 June 1957, we returned to Villefranche from a large 6th Fleet exercise at sea and moored to a buoy about 8 am. At 11 am, I left the ship as Shore Patrol Officer and remained ashore until shortly after midnight the following day. I did not see Bloody Mary in the port area at any time on this occasion and wondered if something had happened to her. I now missed her presence in the port area and hoped that she was all right. The Betelgeuse got underway for Naples about 10:30 am on Thursday, 27 June. This was the last voyage I made on the Betelgeuse to Villefranche and to the Med.
I did not get back to Villefranche until 25 May 1998, some 41 years later, during a visit to France with a few retired Navy friends and their spouses. I was intent on getting back to Villefranche and particularly to Mom Germaine’s. Another couple agreed to join us in driving over from Nice, where we had just checked into a hotel, and we arrived at “La Mere Germaine” about 2:30 pm, not having eaten since we left Carpentras much earlier that morning. The maitre d’ at Mom Germaine’s, we learned later, was Thierry Blouin, and he told us that, unfortunately, the chef had gone home, and they were no longer serving lunch. I told him that I had been waiting more than 40 years to get a chance to come back to Mom Germaine’s and had spent much time there while on Navy duty in the mid-50s. He paused and then said he wanted me to follow him to meet his mother, Josiane Blouin, who was in the kitchen area at a cashier’s desk. Upon meeting Josiane, we talked about Mom Germaine and Josiane’s older sister, Claire, and her marriage to an American sailor. Josiane did not remember “Bloody Mary” and said she was probably too young at the time but that her older sister, Claire, who lived in Pensacola, FL, might and gave me her address. Thierry said he was sorry for being unable to serve us lunch but offered to serve us a salad and wine. We accepted with great appreciation and were seated at a table overlooking the bay. The salad, wine and dessert were perfect for the occasion. The kindness extended to us by Thierry and Josiane gave us a lasting memory of La Mere Germaine and one for which we were deeply appreciative. After saying goodbye, we walked over to the Rue Obscure entrance, and I walked a short way inside, recalling my last encounter with Bloody Mary and wishing I had known her in a different way. We then departed Villefranche and returned to Nice.
Back in the U.S., I called Claire Kelley, who confirmed that her husband had served on the Betelgeuse when she married him but that he had transferred shortly afterwards to the Salem. After his retirement as a Navy chief petty officer, he was employed as a radar technician, repairing radar equipment on U.S. Navy ships in the Med. Claire remembered Bloody Mary and said she had been afraid of her. She had heard the story about the American naval officer whose baby drowned in the harbor at Villefranche. She was told they had left the baby on a bed in his stateroom and stuffed a pillow in the porthole, thinking the baby could not get through it. However, the baby did exactly that, fell through the porthole into the water and drowned. I told her the baby was the child of Captain “Snuffy” Smith, who had been my commanding officer on the Betelgeuse and his sadness when we visited Villefranche.
For many years before and after my last visit to Villefranche in 1998, I had tried to discover the truth about Bloody Mary and her real name but was unsuccessful until I found her name mentioned on the website of the USS Des Moines Association, where I learned her real name was Madame Edith Duhamel and that she had been honored by the City of Villefranche with a street named after her. My thanks go to Jerry Aheron, who served on the Des Moines, for bringing to light her real name and story. At long last, the mystery of Bloody Mary had been solved, not just for me but for countless others. I also found that I was evidently not the only one who had difficulty in interacting with her, seeing that it apparently took some time before the City of Villefranche officially recognized her service. I was very glad to see that was done.
Thomas G. Lilly
Oxford, MS, USA
USS Betelgeuse (AK-260)