Scandalous French femme fatale, literary rebel and inventor of the first “lesbian kiss” publicity stunt – Gigi author Colette was a thoroughly modern mademoiselle in 1920s Paris.
Having had the misfortune to be born a woman in a world dominated by male writers such as Proust and Gide, Colette was France’s most famous novelist they’d never heard of until she finally revealed her secret identity as author of the period’s best-selling books – along with her breasts.
Played by Keira Knightly in the new bodice-ripper Colette, the 19th century IT girl’s journey from innocent provincial child bride to gender-bending Moulin Rouge showgirl wouldn’t look out of place in today’s celebrity gossip columns.
She loved to eat sushi, went to an acupuncturist, and even famously had a facelift in the 1920s when she was in her mid 40s.
At a time when 19th century French ladies were constrained by corsets and edicts of etiquette and decorum, the beautiful and searingly-clever Colette courted controversy with her freethinking and debauched lifestyle, throwing caution – and often her clothes – to the wind.
Born the youngest of four in 1873 to a well-heeled bohemian family in Burgundy, France, the actress, writer and journalist was no lover of society’s rules, breaking most of them – and plenty of both male and female hearts – along the way.
“You will do foolish things but do them with enthusiasm,” Colette is quoted as saying. Taking a leaf out of her own book, she had three husbands, many lesbian affairs, and when she retired from cavorting around half naked on stage in the name of art, turned her cougar attentions to younger men, including her teenage stepson.
Her full names was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and she is probably best known for her 1944 book Gigi, which was turned into a Hollywood stage and screen musical and starred Maurice Chevalier’s decidedly dodgy song “Thank ’eavan for leeetle girls” in the 1958 film version.
But in a case of art imitating life, Colette’s first series of semi-autobiographical erotic novels about the awakening desires of a country girl called Claudine were published under her charlatan husband’s name – and became an instant hit in turn-of-the-century France.
Unworldly village girl Colette was just 16 years old when she met 30-year-old Henry Gauthier-Villars in Burgundy – and was seduced by the notorious Parisien playboy. The couple were married four years later in 1893 before the dashing cad, played by Dominic West in the film, whisked her back to his Paris lair.
Plunging his new young bride into the city’s louche literary scene, it wasn’t long before Henry spotted Colette’s writing talent and put her to work along with his team of ghostwriters.
Despite Henry’s dubious claims to be an author, the unfaithful rake suffered from permanent writer’s block and took all the credit for his young wife’s work under his rather apt pen name Willy.
The erotic bonkbuster Claudine was an overnight success, and over the next few years the couple enjoyed a wild hedonistic lifestyle financed by the proceeds of Colette’s bestselling series of novels about the young heroine’s exotic sexual adventures.
After one ménage à trois too many and finding out she and her husband shared the same woman lover, Colette insisted on being outed as the real author of the books.
When she refused to continue writing, Henry reverted to Victorian husband and locked her in a room until she put pen to paper again.
Eventually she left him and they divorced in 1906, but Colette still didn’t see a penny of the royalties from her Claudine books.
Refusing to let a little thing like lack of money stand in her way, Colette took off with her beautiful aristocratic lesbian lover – known as Missy – and made ends meet by embarking on a flamboyant stage career in the French music hall scene.
If baring a breast during her act didn’t quite make her famous enough, Colette’s notoriety was sealed when riots broke out outside the Moulin Rouge after she kissed Missy on stage.
It was a publicity stunt that has been copied often since then by many modern day female celebrities, including Madonna and Britney Spears, who recognise a sapphic short-cut to promote an album when they see one.
By this time Colette had published her first successful book The Vagabond under her own name but it wasn’t until she was married to her second husband Henry de Jouvenel, the editor of French newspaper Le Matin, in 1912 that she started writing again in earnest.
She was also surprised to find herself pregnant at 40 with her first and only child, Colette de Jouvenel, whom she nicknamed Bel-Gazou.
Little Bel-Gazou often spent time alone in her father’s chateau while her parents were working in Paris during World War I – Colette writing for newspapers and Henry on diplomatic missions.
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The marriage eventually failed when Bel-Gazou was 13 years old, not because of the couple’s long-distance relationship, but because Colette had seduced her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand de Jouvenel.
In his memoirs, Bertrand later enthusiastically describes the night he lost his virginity to his stepmother. Accidentally on purpose meeting him on the stairs on the way to bed, the lustful 47-year-old told the teenager: “It’s time for you to become a man.”
It’s just as well that Colette led such a colourful life, as much of her work was based on her own sexploits. In 1920 she published Chéri, a tale about love between an aging woman and – funnily enough – a very young man. The fabulous La Belle Epoque period in Paris set the scene for much of Colette’s novels throughout the 1920s and 30s, and she finally achieved critical acclaim for her writing.
However, despite being known for her love affairs and outrageous bed-hopping, cat lover Colette was perhaps at her happiest with her feline pets, once saying, “Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.”
Not one to be put off by the temporary nature of her marriages, in 1925, aged 52, Colette wed her third and final husband Maurice Goudeket, who at 36 was 16 years her junior.
Finally Colette got to enjoy her happily ever after – the couple spent the next 30 years together, and were only briefly separated when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1941 and Maurice was arrested for being Jewish. However, the 67-year-old writer managed to pull a few strings and got her husband released.
Although crippled by arthritis in her later years, Colette continued to write novels and became a grand dame of the Paris literary scene, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948.
Toy boy Maurice devoted his life to looking after Colette until she died in 1954, aged 81. And finally the extraordinary life of a woman who once said, “What a wonderful life I’ve had. I only wish I’d realised it sooner,” was recognised with France’s highest honour of a state funeral.
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