Monique was born on Dec. 22, 1925 in Metz, France to Victor Libotte, a Belgian-born tailor's cutter, and his French wife, Suzanne. Her parents were divorced soon after her birth, her mother moving to Paris with Monique and Marie-Luce, her older sister. But because Monique was a frail child who suffered several attacks of whooping cough and was a burden at home, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Nogent-en-Bassigny, a village in the northeast of France. "It was nice to have a garden," she says, "but Nogent was a very cold place and I missed my sister very much."
The only truly happy event Madame remembers of that period was when she was allowed to travel to Paris alone at the age of six. "It was quite an adventure," she says. "I had to change trains twice. I had this horrible country hat on, and when my mother saw me, she screamed and immediately cut off all the ribbons."
When Monique was 10 years old, she was reclaimed by her mother, who had married Eugène Berlioux, a physical education instructor. Madame Suzanne Berlioux had become the swimming coach of the secondary school in Paris where she was teaching, and whenever she took her classes to the piscine for lessons, Monique and her sister had to come along. "My mother thought it was much better for us to swim after school than to play," Monique says. "It was school, swim, then go to bed. When we were one minute late for swimming she yelled at us."
Monique went on to become a world-class competitor, winning her first national championship, in the 100-meter backstroke, at age 12. She swam competitively for 14 more years, winning 40 national titles in the backstroke at various distances and in the 400-meter freestyle. She also won the annual eight-km. swim in the Seine six times.
For the family, the World War II years were filled with fears. The pool she swam in was frequently used by German soldiers, and one day one of them accidentally dived in on top of Monique. In a flash Maman Berlioux took off her wooden shoes and, as Parisiennes around them froze in terror, threw them at the German's head. When the soldier came out of the pool, Maman beat at him with her fists. Sheepishly, he retreated before the onslaught. Another time, when Monique was about 17, she and her mother spent two days in jail because they had been caught in an area off limits to the French. "We were doing a little bit of résistance," says Berlioux. "We were couriers. Fortunately, we had already delivered the papers when we were caught.
"My mother is 82 now. She takes care of my country home in France, which is just a couple of miles from hers. She has been breeding cats, but now she is promising to put them on the Pill."
When the war was over, Berlioux set her sights on the 1948 Olympics in London. Her chances of winning a medal were wiped out by an appendectomy three weeks before the Games. She made it to the semifinals in the 100 backstroke, but a sixth place eliminated her from the finals.
"I remember seeing Monique at the London Olympics," says Piaget. "She struck me as a very headstrong girl. 'My appendectomy will not stop me from competing,' she told the press, and she had this defiant attitude. I never forgot her eyes, so very bright, glaring at you. I thought, this one is not easy to deal with."
The French swimming federation was to discover that in 1952. Berlioux was still France's best swimmer, but she refused to compete in the Helsinki Olympics because of two pounds of jam that hadn't been delivered to her. "We still had a lot of food problems," Madame says, "and the federation gave jam to all the swimmers except me. So I told them I would not go to Helsinki. I was very stubborn. And after Helsinki, unfortunately for them, I won the French championship again."
At this point Berlioux decided to retire from competition and devote herself to journalism. She had studied at the Sorbonne—Spanish, English, history and literature—and received a Master of Arts degree in 1948. While in school in the war years, she had been a sports reporter for an underground paper that later became France-Soir. In 1954, Berlioux was invited to join 200 members of an international "Association of Communist Women" on a trip to Peking. She accepted, but told her hosts that she wasn't a Communist and that her reporting might not be favorable. Her articles landed her a job with L'Aurore, a right-wing newspaper in Paris.