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The Most Charming 20th Century Woman

March 24, 2013

Colette4 Colette2Colette3

“These pleasures which are lightly called physical…”  Colette

Who was Colette? A 1974 Penguin paperback of Cheri provides a good intro…

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, twentieth-century France’s greatest woman writer, was born in 1873. At first a music-hall dancer and mime, she began writing when her husband, a literary hack whom she soon divorced, locked her in a room and ordered her to produce novels for him to sign.

First husband “Willy” pocketed the profits from four “Claudine” books Colette ghost-wrote, one a year, from 1900 to 1903, when she was barely out of her teens.

Willy kept telling her to play up the sex, so Colette did, and these spicy “shockers” about “naughty” school girls scandalized French readers. Fifteen years her elder, Willy made Colette dress up like Claudine in public and added a second “school girl” on his other arm. Eyebrows crashed into hairlines, protests were raised, and all editions sold out.

A quarter-century later Colette finally proved authorship of those delightful novels by displaying the student’s blue-cover copy books she had written them in. By then, ever since the publication of Cheri in 1920, at age forty-seven, her genius had become undeniable.

However, before mere respectability overtook her, Colette had divorced Willy in 1906 and one year later debuted in Paris music halls as a protege of Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf. “Missy,” as she was known, dressed exclusively in men’s clothes. Their famous kiss on-stage at the Moulin Rouge during the 1907 pantomime Rêve d’Égypte touched off an audience riot. Police had to be called in. Yet meanwhile, even so, Colette took flamboyant Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio for her lover, as well as keeping an automobile mogul, on the side.

In 1912, Colette married Henri de Jouvenel, urbane and handsome editor of the daily newspaper Le Matin. During the First World War, she turned their estate into a hospital for wounded soldiers, for which she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1920. She divorced de Jouvenel in 1925 during a notorious affair with her stepson Bertrand.

Finally, in 1935, Colette married Maurice Goudeket, who supported her work and cared for her deeply in her later infirmities. She called him “a saint.” While Nazis occupied World War II France, Colette helped their Jewish friends and her husband, too, by hiding Goudeket in her attic until the Liberation of Paris.

Colette’s most famous novels are Cheri and The Last of Cheri — the definitive study of an affair between a very young man and a middle-aged woman — and Gigi, later adapted into one of the most successful musical comedies of the 20th century. Audrey Hepburn, who created the role on Broadway, was discovered when Colette happened to see the until-then unheralded young actress walking through a hotel lobby.

Colette turned to a friend. “There is my Gigi.”

A great author, then, and authentically romantic, but how does this add up to Colette being the most charming woman of her century? The allure of her stage performances may be lost to us — save for a glimpse of those lovely breasts — but of her literature…? Choosing almost at random, take a paragraph from the 1919 back-stage novella Mitsou.

Mitsou is a twenty-four year old revue star at the Montmartre in 1917. Here, disguised as Mitsou’s friend Bit-of-Fluff, Colette pins her future second husband’s brother’s mistress to the page like a wildly fluttering butterfly.

Finally, a noise, and with it a series of squeaks like a nest of mice disturbed; and into the dressing-room bursts Bit-of-Fluff. Is Bit-of-Fluff plain or pretty? A good figure or not? She is a scrap of woman whose incessant and intentional writhing prevents you making any judgment on things like that. Dyed hair in a cloud comes almost down to her nose, which anyway turns up to meet it. Mascara’d lashes, clown’s cheekbones, the corners of her mouth — they turn up as if they had been blown by a gust of wind. Her shoulders quiver, her bottom dances, her hands grasp her breasts ( to hold them or to call attention to them?) and if her knees rub against each other, is it because Fluff is cold? or is playing for a laugh? or is just knock-kneed? No way of telling. If Fluff were to fall in the Seine, her closest friends couldn’t identify her at the morgue. For nobody has ever really seen her.

Pick up any of her stories. Read a few lines, a couple paragraphs. Turn a page. Nothing else like her spell in all of 20th century literature. You either fall in love, or you must stop reading. Colette passed away on the third of August 1954 and became the first woman ever to be given a state funeral in France.

The paperback bio, begun above, concludes…

Madame Colette went on to write some eighty books that are as much admired for their dazzling style as for their unerring psychology. She died in Paris in 1954. Her last years were spent in an apartment in the Palais Royal. There, on a garden wall, a plaque now reads, “Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide-open on life.”

(CORRECTION: Mrs. Herbork points out the error in Penguin’s bio.  Colette never was “At first a music-hall dancer and mime.” The nineteen-year-old girl married Willy straight out of her mother Sido’s house. Sido suspected the worst of this older suitor but could not refuse such a socially advantageous match for a daughter without a dowry. So, Colette became a music-hall artiste only after her divorce from Willy. By then, all Paris knew her scandalous reputation but nothing about who really wrote the “Claudine” novels. Going on the stage and “showing herself” was the best and perhaps only way for such a controversial young woman to earn her living.)

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