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
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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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.
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
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
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."
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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