José Giovanni

José Giovanni in 2001

José Giovanni (22 June 1923, Paris, France – 24 April 2004, Lausanne, Switzerland) was the pseudonym of Joseph Damiani, a French writer and film-maker of Corsican origin who became a naturalized Swiss citizen in 1986.

A former collaborationist and criminal who at one time was sentenced to death, Giovanni often drew his inspiration from personal experience or from real gangsters, such as Abel Danos in his 1960 film Classe tous risques, overlooking that they had been members of the French Gestapo. In his films as well as his novels, while praising masculine friendships and advocating the confrontation of the individual against the world, he often championed the underworld but was always careful to hide his own links with the Nazi occupiers of France during World War II.



Of Corsican descent, Joseph Damiani received a good education, studying at the Collège Stanislas de Paris and the Lycée Janson de Sailly. His father, a professional gambler who was sentenced to a year in prison for running an illegal casino, owned a hotel in the French Alps in Chamonix. Joseph worked there as a young man and became fascinated by mountain climbing.

The Occupation and Collaborationism

From April to September 1943 Damiani was a member of Jeunesse et Montagne (Youth and Mountain) in Chamonix, part of the Vichy Government youth movement controlled by Pierre Laval.

In February 1944 Damiani came to Paris and through his father's friend, the LVF leader Simon Sabiani, he joined Jacques Doriot's fascist French Popular Party (PPF). His maternal uncle, Ange Paul Santolini alias "Santos", who ran a restaurant patronized by the Gestapo, and his elder brother, Paul Damiani, a member of the Vichy paramilitary Milice, introduced Joseph into the Pigalle underworld.

In March 1944 Joseph Damiani went to Marseille where he became a member of the German Schutzkorps (SK), an organization which hunted down Service du travail obligatoire - STO (Compulsory Work Service) dodgers. He served as bodyguard to its Marseille chief and took part in many arrests, often blackmailing his victims.

In Lyon, in August 1944, posing as a German police officer along with an accomplice (Orloff, a Gestapo agent who was shot for treason at the Liberation), Damiani blackmailed Joseph Gourentzeig and his brother-in-law Georges Edberg, two Jews who were in hiding. Gourentzeig had bribed a member of the Milice - a friend of Damiani’s – in an attempt to secure his parents' release from a detention camp. They were not and Gourentzeig's father, Jacob, was shot by the Germans shortly after, on 21 August 1944, along with 109 Jewish hostages in the Bron (Lyon airport) massacre.

The triple murder

After the Liberation, in Paris, on 18 May 1945 Joseph Damiani, his brother Paul, Georges Accad, a former Gestapo agent, and Jacques Ménassole, a former member of the Milice wearing a French Army lieutenant's uniform - all posing as Military Intelligence officers - abducted Haïm Cohen, a wine merchant, accusing him of being a black marketeer. He was tortured until he gave them the key to his safe and a check for 105,000 francs. He was then shot and his body thrown into the Seine. Joseph Damiani cashed the check at Barclay's Bank under the identity of "Count J. de Montreuil".

A few days later, on 31 May 1945, the same gang, still masquerading as French Army Intelligence, abducted two brothers, Jules and Roger Peugeot, electrical appliance manufacturers in Maisons-Alfort. The brothers were forced, at gunpoint, to write a letter stating that they had been in business with the Germans and in contact with the Gestapo. The gang then demanded a million francs for destroying the letter. The Peugeot brothers refused and were tortured until they revealed where they had hidden 125 Louis d'or gold coins. They were then shot and their bodies buried in the woods near Versailles.

Joseph Damiani, who had accidentally shot himself in the leg during the struggle with the Peugeot brothers, was arrested at home in early June 1945. Accad was also apprehended. On 12 June 1945 Ménassole, on the point of being arrested, committed suicide in the Rue Montmartre métro station. Paul Damiani was arrested in Strasbourg in July 1945, escaped in December and was shot dead in a gunfight between gangsters on 17 July 1946 in a bar in Nice.

Twenty years hard labor and Dégradation nationale for Collaboration with the enemy

On 20 July 1946 Joseph Damiani was sentenced to twenty years hard labor by the Marseille Court of Justice for his participation in the German Schutzkorps and in the arrest of Frenchmen sent to the STO (Compulsory Work Service) in Germany. He was also sentenced to Dégradation nationale (deprivation of all civil rights) for life for having been a member of the PPF fascist party.

Sentenced to death for three premeditated murders

Damiani had admitted during the investigation that he had shot Roger Peugeot, but he denied it in court. Tried by the Paris Cour d'Assises, Georges Accad and Joseph Damiani were sentenced to death on 10 July 1948 for the premeditated murders of Haïm Cohen, Roger Peugeot and Jules Peugeot. Damiani escaped the guillotine when his and Accad's sentences were commuted by President Vincent Auriol on 3 March 1949 to hard labor for life.

Ten years imprisonment for blackmailing hidden Jews during the Occupation

On 25 May 1949 Damiani was sentenced by the Paris Correctional Tribunal to ten years imprisonment for having blackmailed at gunpoint Joseph Gourentzeig (hiding from the Gestapo under the name "André Courent") and his brother-in-law Georges Edberg in Lyon on 11 August 1944.

Eleven and a half years in prison

On 14 November 1951, Damiani's sentence was reduced to twenty years hard labor. Finally, President René Coty remitted the sentence on 30 November 1956 and Joseph Damiani was released from prison at the age of thirty-three on 4 December 1956 after serving eleven and a half years.

The writer and film-maker

Straight after his release from prison, Damiani wrote his first novel, The Break (Le Trou), under the name of "José Giovanni". It tells of the escape he attempted from prison with four other inmates by digging a tunnel from their cell into the Paris sewers in 1947 when he was awaiting trial for murder. His lawyer, who had encouraged him to write, took the book to author and editor Roger Nimier through whom it was published by Éditions Gallimard. His style, at times uncouth and clumsy, can surprise the reader with its strong and sometimes disturbing scenes. The novel was turned into a film by Jacques Becker in 1960.

In 1958 the editor Marcel Duhamel introduced Giovanni to the Série noire publishing imprint, where he came to notice with the publication of three novels that same year:

José Giovanni wrote twenty-one novels and a volume of memoirs (Mes Grandes Gueules).

After having worked with Jacques Becker on the adaptation of The Break, Giovanni wrote thirty-three film scripts and directed fifteen movies.

Revelation of a hidden past

In January 1984 Joseph Damiani had been "rehabilitated", which did not absolve him - there was no retrial - but restored his civil rights.

During his lifetime José Giovanni never gave a clear explanation for his death sentence, though he took pride in being a former gangster and having been on death row. However, he never mentioned that he had been convicted for Collaborationism with the Nazis or for extorting money from Jews during the Occupation.

On 14 October 1993 two Swiss dailies, La Tribune de Genève and 24 Heures, revealed his past and that José Giovanni was in fact the same person as Joseph Damiani, the convicted fascist militant. At first Giovanni denied the accusations, claiming he had helped the Résistance and then insisting that he had been sentenced to death for a crime that had nothing to do with Collaborationism. He threatened to sue the press for slander but never did. Finally, he stated : "I've paid. I am entitled to forgiveness and oblivion".

Last years

José Giovanni defended right-wing values, the family, law and order and tougher punishment but was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. However, he believed in personal vengeance: "Any man that snatches a child from its mother's arms deserves death".

In his last years he spent time visiting prisons. From 1968 on, he lived in the Swiss village of Marécottes, not far from Chamonix, and died from a brain haemorrhage on 24 April 2004 in Lausanne.



[FD] : film director, [Sc] : screenwriter, [DW] : dialogue writer, [Wr] : writer of the original novel

Further reading

The only accurate and exhaustive study of Damiani/Giovanni's hidden past (in French):

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/14/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.