French resistance fighter during the second world war who went on to become a successful art dealer in Paris
The course of Daniel Cordier’s life changed for ever a few weeks before his 22nd birthday. Parachuted into France in July 1942, he had been sent by the Gaullist Free French in London to act as a radio operative.
Cordier, who has died aged 100, was also instructed to take some papers to Jean Moulin, Charles de Gaulle’s representative to the French resistance, in Lyon, which was then the organisational centre of the resistance. Having taken the documents to Moulin on 30 July, Cordier was startled to be invited to dine with him that evening. The next day, Moulin appointed Cordier as his secretary.
It is unclear as to why Moulin so impulsively decided to take Cordier into his service. He was desperately in need of assistance and it may be that Cordier arrived at the right moment. Whatever the reason, for the next 11 months Cordier lived in daily proximity to Moulin and became indispensable to him: decoding messages from London and coding Moulin’s replies, organising his meetings with resistance leaders, finding him places to hide, distributing funds to resistance leaders, and carrying message to politicians. He also prepared his breakfast and sorted his post.
Cordier’s exhausting days were spent scurrying around Lyon from one rendezvous to another with the threat of arrest hanging over him at every moment. One day he asked Moulin if he could procure a bicycle out of the funds they received from London. Moulin agreed but a few days later the bicycle was stolen. “Buy another one,” Moulin told him. But when that too was stolen – bikes were a rare commodity under the occupation – Moulin lost patience: “Now you will have to walk.”
Although Cordier played a subaltern role, it was an important one. The leaders of the French resistance in the unoccupied zone resented De Gaulle’s attempt – through Moulin – to enrol them into his cause. Often the young Cordier found himself caught in the firing line between his boss and the resistance leaders. This was especially the case in March 1943 when Moulin, called back to London for a few weeks, left Cordier in charge.
At this moment the resistance was especially desperate for the funds from London that Moulin could provide, and it was to Cordier that the resistance leaders had to address themselves, leading one of them, Henri Frenay, to explode in fury one day: “The resistance has been left in the hands of a choirboy.”
On 27 May Moulin achieved, after painstaking negotiations, the setting up in Paris of the National Council of the Resistance. Cordier was not present at the meeting, However, his job was to meet and escort participants to the ultra-secret venue. But by now the noose was tightening around Moulin. Cordier saw him for the last time on 15 June. Five days later Moulin was arrested and died after being atrociously tortured by the Gestapo.
Cordier went on working as a Gaullist agent for London in occupied Paris (in this role he is depicted in Roger Vailland’s novel Drôle de Jeu, 1945, published in English as Playing With Fire, 1948) but, as he himself became increasingly exposed, he was called back to London in March 1944.
Daniel was born in Bordeaux, to a prosperous and conservative bourgeois family. When he was four, his parents, Jeanne (nee Gauthier) and René Bouyjou, divorced and his mother married Charles Cordier. The boy was sent to various Catholic boarding schools from which he was regularly expelled for undisciplined behaviour and sexual impropriety.
As an adolescent, he was passionate about literature, politics and music. In literature his hero was André Gide whose writings preached the gospel of personal and sexual self-fulfilment; in politics his hero was the extreme rightwing, anti-democratic and antisemitic polemicist Charles Maurras.
As an ardently patriotic young man, Cordier refused to accept France’s defeat by Germany in 1940. He got himself on to a boat heading (as he believed) for North Africa, from where he intended to continue fighting. Instead the ship took him to Britain where he joined the exiguous forces of General de Gaulle. Having enlisted in the Gaullist secret services, he was parachuted back into France.
In the service of the Free French, Cordier gradually grew out of his rightwing opinions. He could see only too clearly that the extreme anti-republicans he had once admired were usually the most ardent collaborators. One moment of epiphany occurred on the day in Paris when he saw an old man wearing a yellow star that identified him as Jewish. Cordier witnessed for the first time the abject reality to which his abstract antisemitic convictions had led. Moulin, a man of pronounced leftwing views, had also played a role in Cordier’s political evolution. He was both Cordier’s educator and a surrogate father figure.
After the war Cordier embarked on a new career as an art dealer. Between 1956 and 1964, his gallery in Rue de Miromesnil, with outposts in Frankfurt and New York, was one of the most important in Paris. In 1961 he organised the first Robert Rauschenberg exhibition in Paris. At the end of his life he became a major donor of paintings to the Pompidou Centre.
This new existence was also a homage to Moulin, a talented amateur painter and collector, one of whose covers during the war had been to run an art gallery in Nice. Often Moulin would talk to Cordier about modern art, about which the young man was completely ignorant. “Who is Picasso?” he asked Moulin one day. Moulin became his tutor in art, as in politics.
In the postwar years Cordier was not totally disconnected from politics. In May 1958, when De Gaulle came back to power through an army coup in Algeria, Cordier, now a committed man of the left, was one of those who feared that the man he had once revered would become a French Franco. Along with a number of other former resisters, he helped found (and fund) the Club Jean Moulin to defend democratic ideas in France. Democracy turned out to be safe but the club remained an influential political thinktank.
In 1976 Cordier embarked on a third career, which would last more than 30 years, as Moulin’s biographer. It started when Cordier found himself invited to participate in a television debate on the resistance. Among the other participants was his old adversary Frenay, who had recently published a book arguing that Moulin had been a crypto-communist.
Cordier, although outraged, lacked the evidence to prove Frenay wrong. What started out as an attempt to refute Frenay became a quest on Cordier’s part to reconstitute every moment of Moulin’s activity in the war. His researches on Moulin swelled to monumental proportions. By the time he had finished, the five volumes he devoted to Moulin ran to more than 4,000 pages. He may not have said the last word on Moulin, but his books are the starting point for any understanding of this significant figure.
Increasingly, Cordier’s work on Moulin made him a celebrity in his own right. He wrote a brilliantly readable memoir of his time with Moulin, Alias Caracalla (2009), which was made into a film. In 2018 he was awarded the Grand Croix of the Légion d’honneur and, after the death of Pierre Simonet two weeks ago, became one of the last two survivors of the 1,038 companions of the Ordre de la Libération.
Well into his 90s Cordier remained remarkably vigorous intellectually and physically, enjoying the limelight, and revelling in the fact that he had had the last word against those resisters who had once so disdained him. Charming and prolix, he was also elusive, slippery and difficult to pin down. Like Moulin he was a man of masks and disguises.
Always discreet about his private life, although he came out as gay in the late 1990s, in the early 60s he became the guardian of an orphaned teenager living on the streets of Paris. Thanks to Cordier’s patronage, the boy, Hervé Vilard, became a successful French pop singer. Until the end of Cordier’s life they would speak on the phone regularly, and Hervé survives him.
• Daniel Bouyjou-Cordier, French resistance agent, art dealer and writer, born 10 August 1920; died 20 November 2020