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Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Paris, 1903.  Centuries of literary convention and social mores had evolved to this very moment.  The time was ripe for a new French Revolution.  The Gay Nineties were gone.  The Roaring Twenties lay far off in the distance.  Before them, World War I would rear its ugly head and grow to be known as, the "war to end all wars."  It would showcase man’s inhumanity toward man and destroy the very essence of social fabric as society had known it.  It would become the proving ground for all future wars.

But for now, life was good.  H. G. Wells was about to publish his futuristic novel, A Modern Utopia.  Paris was about to become the center of the literary universe.  Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was about to publish her first novel and prepare to leave her first husband.  And the world of literature was about to change forever.

In a whirlwind of success and failure so intertwined that she could barely tell them apart, Colette put aside a career as a populist writer and, following her divorce from a philandering husband in 1906, began dancing and singing in Parisian music halls, from La Chatte Amoureuse to L'Oiseau de Nuit.  Destined to explore her own failing self-image, to define what it meant really to be a woman, she would push the envelope of public sexuality beyond even what she believed she could do.  In the process, she would open the opportunity for the expression of sexuality for women around the world.

Colette was born on January 28, 1873, in the French village of Saint-Saveur-en-Puisaye.  Her father, Jules, was a retired army captain turned tax collector.  Her mother, Sidonie—Sido for short—was Colette's greatest influence and strongest supporter; she had grown up among artists and political radicals in Belgium. 

Among her school friends, Colette insisted on being called by her last name, a European practice normally extended only to boys.  She grew up sturdy and energetic, rambunctious at school and determined to set herself apart from her young colleagues.  Her mother’s own cavalier attitudes toward the social mores of the day rubbed off on the daughter, who felt her first yearnings for another female by the age of 11.

Colette began her odyssey of sexual self-realization one chilly Parisian night in 1906.  Caught up in the covertly charged sexuality rampant in pre-war France, she appeared on stage, as she had done many times before.  But this time was different.  This time, she brazenly exposed one breast, later reenacting the event for a photographer’s lens.

The exhibition created worldwide controversy, rocking Parisian society to its very core.  But not all of the reaction was negative.

Dancer/poetess Toni Bentley remembers both her first encounter with Colette’s writings and the now-famous photograph.  “I was eighteen when I discovered [Colette’s] novels and, while interest quickly became obsession, I devoured as many of them as I could find in fast succession.  I fell completely in love with this woman who seemed to speak the unspeakable about the pursuit of love, the pain of desire, and the tenderness that binds the two.”

Then Bentley saw the photograph that would change her life.  “...she was dressed in a torn slip of white linen, her left breast exposed and aiming at the camera lens with shameless pride.  The nakedness continued down the left side revealing a rounded, expertly posed thigh that ended its length in a slipper tied with suggestive black laces.  She offered her bosom with a demure gesture of surrender tempered by the grace of an aristocrat.

“Her breast was beautiful and the woman of words suddenly became flesh and blood -- and curiously naughty.  Colette’s Breast, as I came to think of the image, symbolized for me something that I wanted for myself though I was not sure exactly what that was.  Did I want the power of her pen? Or the power of her bosom?  Her assertive intellect?  Or her alluring magnetism?”

The photograph, Colette realized at the time of its taking, was more than a mere two-dimensional representational image.  It was an announcement to the world that womanhood—femininity in all of its convoluted, convulsive, conductive, and ethereal forms—had escaped Pandora’s box.  More than that, it was an announcement that she, Colette, was the one who had freed it.  For good or evil, women were no longer confined in literature to the roles of cookie-cutter characters, to cardboard recreations that neither lived, breathed, felt, nor cared. 

It was so in society, as well.

The photograph of Colette liberated millions of women throughout France and the world.  It gave hope to sexual feelings that dared to reach beyond the normal.  But it created more than vivid images, a feeling of euphoric awakenings, and runaway publicity.  It created scandal.  It generated among the people of Europe an enormous amount of interest-desire-hate-love-lust for a woman whose four previously written novels had been published by her husband, writer and music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, under his own pseudonym of Willy. 

Scandal was nothing new to Colette: she had at first dreamt about it and then written about it years later.  Now, by acting it out, she was merely liberating it from the darkest recesses of her mind.  She was liberating the female sex, and she was liberating years of repressed emotions deep within her own tortured bosom.  How appropriate that a photograph of that bosom would be the very vehicle by which she would leap from carnal desires to unbridled reality.

Colette had met Gauthier-Villars on a trip to Paris with her father.  The bewitching 16-year-old was taken by the rakish man-about-letters and could not put him out of her mind.  Then 30, Gauthier-Villars had revolted against his bourgeois family and slipped comfortably into the artistic and Bohemian world of the Belle Époque.  An author, columnist, and reviewer, he already possessed a stable of mistresses, but he was overwhelmed by Colette's impish purity, fresh beauty, and boundless vitality.  At the age of 20, Colette agreed to become Mrs. Gauthier-Villars and left the countryside to conquer Paris. 

Teasing and experimenting with androgyny, Colette appeared in the drawing rooms of the City of Lights costumed in jaunty sailor suits at a time when cross-dressing was forbidden by law except on the stage.  Long before it was fashionable, she was already reinventing her persona, exposing and concealing herself at will, all the while daring anyone to decide which Colette was real.

Her first series of books came out between 1900 and 1903.  They proved to be enormously popular.  Conceived when her husband was short of funds, Gauthier-Villars asked Colette to record her schoolgirl experiences, admonishing her to put a little something “extra” into the stories. 

The "extra" that he demanded began with a lesbian headmistress.  In Claudine at School (1900), the main character, a tomboyish girl of 15, develops an intense crush on a pretty assistant mistress, Aimée.  It was the first time in modern literature that a girl looked at another woman and described her as an object of sexual pleasure.  In the follow-up Claudine Married (1902), Claudine’s husband arranges an affair between his wife and another woman for his own voyeuristic pleasure.

Initially, Gauthier-Villars dismissed his wife’s stories as “commercially worthless.”  In time, though, he found himself becoming strangely aroused at the thought of his wife’s expressions of fantasy through her characters.  He suspected that there might be a market for the stories after all.  He was rumored to have locked Colette in her room for hours each day, refusing to let her out until she created more titillating scenes.  She was up to the task.  And Gauthier-Villars’ hunch was right. 

The highly popular novels spun off into a treasure trove of wealth for the newlyweds: a musical stage play, Claudine uniforms, Claudine soap, Claudine perfume, even Claudine cigars and cigarettes.  The success of Claudine also gave Gauthier-Villars more attention than he’d ever known, and he preyed mercilessly upon the opportunities that arose from it.

By the time Colette had met Gauthier-Villars, he was already a flamboyant, headstrong man-about-town.  Monsieur Willy, as he liked to be called, was also a literary charlatan whose numerous published works were written mostly by ghostwriters, including a number of male homosexual friends.  In time, he would use Colette to the same selfish end.

To Gauthier-Villars, using his wife to advance his own career was no foreign concept.  She was merely one more player in a long list of credits and, for a short time at least, quite a willing one.

Locally well known as a sexual degenerate, Gauthier-Villars was a vile and ruthless man.  His marriage to Colette was a matter of convenience that quickly turned tumultuous and destructive.  When Colette nearly died of a mysterious illness during their first year of marriage, Gauthier-Villars shrugged it off, resuming a long string of affairs.  After Sido succeeded in nursing her daughter back to health, Gauthier-Villars forced Colette to acknowledge his mistresses and, at times, to entertain them in their home.

Suffering at the hands of her husband’s indiscretions, Colette recalled her mother’s philosophy: “There is only one person in this world you can count on, and that's yourself.”  Colette and Gauthier-Villars separated in 1904.

After deciding to end the marriage, Colette released the first novel published under her own name.  Although Dialogues de Betes was well received, it did little to resolve the questions swirling around the author’s mind regarding her own sexuality.  She needed to explore the depths and direction of her sexual identity. 

Examining her boundaries on stage seemed to offer the perfect opportunity.  Performing as a dancer and a mime—both disciplines that she had studied earlier in life—allowed her to meet new people in an exciting new environment while providing her an opportunity to earn a living, a task not easily accomplished by a divorcee in turn-of-the-century France.  The fantasy world of the stage also provided Colette a measure of safety to which she could retreat should the heat of her real-world passions grow too strong to endure comfortably.

“Solitude, freedom, my pleasant and painful work as mime and dancer,” Colette wrote years later, “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.”

More than anything, Colette’s new career offered her an opportunity to act-out her own tormented fantasies.  They provided her with the opportunity to feed her voracious sexual appetite.  She lost little time in doing just that.

In a sketch performed at the Moulin Rouge, Colette caused a near riot by miming on-stage copulation.  By then, she had already had affairs with several women.  One of her femme fatales was the youngest daughter of the Duc de Morny and the Emperor Napoleon III’s niece, Mathilde, better known as Missy.  Colette moved into Missy’s château.  After enduring a brief and unhappy marriage, Missy had become the Marquise de Belboeuf, although she was better known in Paris lesbian circles as Monsieur Belboeuf. 

Missy supported Colette with money, introduced her to the society people with whom she ran, and opened up her underground world of beautiful men with long tresses and intense young women with fire in their eyes.  Colette, in turn, showered Missy with love, affection, and sex.  She also took Missy into a new production at the Moulin Rouge.  In it, Colette played the role of an Egyptian mummy who unwrapped her bandages and kissed Missy—who played the cross-dressed role of the archaeologist—boldly.  The 15-minute scene was banned by the Paris police commissioner.

The publicity she received served Colette well.  She felt happier, more fulfilled, and more alive than ever before.  It also set the groundwork for the next ten years of her life—years during which the author-turned-performer would fall back, once again, on her writing, which began revealing the true unbridled sexual nature of the beast...and it would pave the way for other female writers to follow in her footsteps.

By the end of the 1920's, Colette was widely regarded as the greatest woman author in all of France.  She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy and in her later years achieved the same legendary status as Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate living in Paris.

When her book, The Ripening, was introduced in 1932, the New York Times ran a review of it.  "A book about adolescents," it said, "The Ripening is certainly not for adolescent reading.  But one can recommend it to the more mature as a little masterpiece of its kind."

In 1935, Colette married her third husband, a pearl salesman who had lost his business during the Great Depression.  He was Jewish, and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the time made it difficult for him to find work.  Colette supported him financially and helped him hide out when Germany occupied France during World War II.

Throughout the war years, Colette continued writing.  She published her most famous novel, Gigi, in 1945 when she was seventy-two years old.  Three years later, the novel was adapted into a film, and in 1958 it was made into a hit musical.

Sadly, Colette never saw the musical.  She died in 1954.  She was given an official French state funeral, highly unusual for a woman at the time.  Thousands of mourners attended the service, and the entire nation--along with most of Europe--mourned the loss.

Colette said, "By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings.  But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet."

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