January 28, 1873– Colette:
Do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.
Her name was Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette Gauthier-Villars de Jouvanel Goudeket, but smartly, she went simply by “Colette”.
Colette put herself out to the world as an ingénue, an innocent young wife of the Paris belle époque, a scandalous lesbian, a risqué music-hall performer, a serious novelist of prodigious output, a theatre critic, a beautician, and a world-class seducer of both sexes.
Her writing is playful, teasing, and sexually suggestive. She is an elegant stylist, perceptive and shrewd.
Colette’s 50 novels and collections of short stories were popular with housewives, shop girls and intellectuals. Her writing emphasis was on women’s obstacles in love and she lived as passionately as she wrote. Sex was front and center in her writing, embellished with a spicy style and sparkling dialogue. She wrote about love, licit and illicit.
When Colette was 6-years-old, her politician father permitted her to try to match him, wine glass for wine glass, while he stumped to local bars looking for votes. Her free-thinking mother taught her the importance of being a female, and she shocked the neighbors by refusing to wear mourning clothes when her husband died.
When Colette was 20-years-old, she fell in love with the writer Henri Gauthier-Villars who took her from her village in Burgundy to Paris to be his wife. He was a popular writer of pulp novels under the pen-name Willy, and was famous around Paris for being a cad.
He encouraged Colette to write down stories about her childhood. He liked what he read and after some suggestions, he sent them off to an editor under his own name. The resulting series of Claudine novels made Gauthier-Villars rich and famous. He would lock Colette in a room until she turned out more stories. He was a vile, ruthless man. When Colette became ill and nearly died during their first year of marriage, Gauthier-Villars simply began a long string of affairs. He forced Colette to acknowledge his mistresses and to entertain them in their home. After 13 years, Colette had enough and she divorced him.
She continued writing books, but under her own name, but she had less success and had to find other ways of making a living.
Colette became a music-hall dancer, which gave her new material for books. She worked as a theatre critic, political writer, fashion critic and she wrote a cooking column. She published her first novel, Dialogues De Betes, under her own name. It sold well and received good reviews. Colette began to explore the depths and direction of her own sexual identity. But, with Chéri (1920), Colette wrote about a character entirely different from herself. She adapted Chéri for the stage and played the leading role herself.
Portraying messy sexual boundaries on stage gave Colette the perfect opportunity to explore her own feelings. Performing as a dancer gave her the chance to meet new people in an exciting new venue while providing her an opportunity to earn a living, not easy for a divorced woman in late 19th century Paris.
Solitude, freedom, my pleasant and painful work as mime and dancer, tired and happy muscles, and, by way of a change from all that, the new anxiety about earning my meals, my clothes, and my rent, such, all of a sudden, was my lot. But with it too went a savage defiance, a disgust for the milieu where I had lived and suffered, a stupid fear of man, of men, and of women too.
Colette’s career in the theatre gave her the freedom to act on her own vexing fantasies. Working as a performer on stage provided her with the opportunity to explore her voracious sexual appetite, and Colette did just that.
In a performance at the famed Moulin Rouge, Colette caused a near riot by miming sex acts on stage. She had affairs with other women. One of her lovers was Emperor Napoleon III’s niece, Mathilde De Morny. Colette moved into De Morny’s château. After a brief, unhappy marriage, De Morny became the Marquise de Belboeuf, although she was better known in Paris lesbian circles as “Monsieur Belboeuf”.
De Morny supported Colette with money and introduced her to the high society crowd. She also showed Colette the gay underground of drag queens, beautiful men and cross-dressing women. Colette gave De Morny love, affection, and plenty of sex. She also gave De Mornay a role in her act at the Moulin Rouge, with Colette playing an Egyptian mummy who unwrapped her bandages and boldly made love to De Mornay who played the role of a male archaeologist. The act was banned by the censors.
Colette loved the publicity. It also set the pattern for her next decade, performing and writing, and revealing her gayness.
In the 1930s, Colette was a success and widely regarded as the greatest writer in France. She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy.
In 1935, Colette married again. Her new husband was a jewelry salesman who had lost his business during the Great Depression. He was Jewish, and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the era made it difficult for him to find work. Colette supported him financially and helped hide him during the Nazi occupation of Paris during WW II.
Throughout the war years, Colette continued writing. She published her most famous novel, Gigi (1945) when she was 72-years-old. Three years later, the novel was adapted into a French film. In 1951, it was adapted for the American stage by Anita Loos, and was produced on Broadway starring Audrey Hepburn, who was selected personally by Colette for the role. In 1958, it was remade as a musical film by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I seem to be alone in this opinion, but am not a big fan of this film. The story of a child being groomed to be a prostitute makes me a bit uneasy and the score sounds like the cast-offs from My Fair Lady. I much prefer the excellent film version of Chéri (2009), directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
She is played by Keira Knightly in Colette (2018), a thoroughly entertaining biopic and an overdue testament to Knightley’s underrated gifts as an actor. It is a perfect film for our #MeToo era, Colette embodies the power of forward thinking in more ways than one.
Colette was a lifelong passionate lover of animals of all kinds, but especially cats. Felines figure in many of her stories and her novel Dialogue Des Betes is presented as conversation between a cat and a dog. It is sweet and insightful. Le Chatte (1932) is a curious story about a love triangle between a man, a woman and, obviously, a cat.
Sadly, Colette never saw the musical that is sort of her legacy. She left this world in 1954. She was given an official French State Funeral, highly unusual for a woman at that time. Thousands of fans attended the service.
Colette was never admitted to the Academie Francaise… because it is for men only.