French novelist, short-story writer, journalist, essayist, memoirist, actress and music-hall performer who created some of the most memorable female characters in literature. Name variations: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette; Colette Willy; la baronne de Jouvenel. Born
in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye (Yonne), France, on January 28, 1873; died in Paris on August 3, 1954; youngest child of Jules-Joseph Colette and Adèle-Eugenie Sidonie ("Sido ") Landoy Robineau-Duclos Colette ; married Henry ("Willy") Gauthier-Villars, in Saint-Sauveur, May 15, 1893; married Henry Bertrand Léon Robert de Jouvenel des Ursins (called "Sidi"), in Paris, on December 19, 1912; married Maurice Goudeket, in Paris, on April 3, 1935; children: one daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, known as "Bel-Gazou" (b. in Paris, July 3, 1913).
Began writing first of Claudine novels (1894); made debut as a mime (1906); had affair with "Missy" (1906–11); began career in journalism (1911); was first awarded the Legion of Honor (1920); opened Institute of Beauty in Paris (June 1932); made voyage to New York (June 1935); elected to Belgian Royal Academy of Language and Literature (1936); husband Maurice Goudeket arrested by Gestapo, in Paris (December 12, 1941); elected to Academy Goncourt (May 1945), voted president (1948); given a state funeral (August 7, 1954).
The Vagrant (1912); Barks and Purrs (1913); Cats, Dogs, and I (1924); Chéri (1929); Claudine at School (1930); Mitsou (1930); The Gentle Libertine (1931); The Other One (1931); Young Lady of Paris (published in England as Claudine in Paris; 1931); A Lesson in Love (1932); Recaptured (1932); The Ripening (1932); The Last of Chéri (1932); Morning Glory (1932); The Pure and the Impure (1933); The Innocent Wife (1934); The Indulgent Husband (1935); Duo (1935); Cat (1936); Mother of Claudine (1937).
"If I were famous, I would know," Colette once remarked to her daughter. Without doubt, she was famous, and infamous too. An innocent provincial village girl, Colette had three husbands, a daughter, and several women lovers; she was vulnerable and resilient, audacious and disciplined, maligned and admired. And she created some of the most unforgettable female characters in French literature. "To know Colette, the woman, one need only read her novels," a friend stated. "She tells more about herself to those who read her than she ever told to those who knew her in person."
Born in the Burgundian village of Saint-Sauveur, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was the youngest of four children. Her pragmatic, strong mother Adèle-Eugenie Sidonie Robineau-Duclos, known as Sido, was a widow with two children when she married Captain Jules-Joseph Colette, a graduate of the military academy of St-Cyr who had lost a leg in the Crimean War. The family was financially comfortable for many years, but Captain Colette made poor investments and was forced to sell much of his wife's property and to borrow money. Colette's secure and stable childhood ended abruptly when she was 12; her strange, morose half-sister Juliette married a young doctor, and the family, unable to provide the dowry as stated in the marriage contract, was forced to sell their house and furniture at public auction. Colette's idyllic childhood was shattered by the humiliation of poverty. The family moved to Châtillon-Coligny and lived with Colette's half-brother, Achille Robineau-Duclos, a doctor. If Colette clung to memories of the halcyon days of her youth in Saint-Sauveur, her brother Léopold lived in the minutia of the past, recalling the sound of the rusty gate in Sido's garden.
Captain Colette, a man with literary pretensions, frequently corresponded with an acquaintance from his military days, Albert Gauthier-Villars, a science publisher in Paris whose son Henry visited the Colettes, fell in love with Sidonie-Gabrielle, and eventually asked for her hand. Sido did not entirely approve of this Parisian sophisticate who already had an illegitimate son, was "highly-sexed and patently a man of the world," and 14 years older than his fiancée. Known as Willy, he "wrote" reviews of literature and music for various Paris papers. Actually, he retained numerous "assistants" who wrote articles that Willy edited and signed as his own. Colette later toiled in "the factory," as she called it, writing best-selling books (the Claudine series) that Willy also claimed as his own. Willy's charm was matched by his physical repulsiveness: "M. Willy was not huge, he was bulbous," Colette recalled. "It has been said that he bore a marked resemblance to Edward VII. To do justice to a less flattering but no less august truth, I would say that, in fact, the likeness was to Queen Victoria."
In May 1893, 20-year-old Colette married the man she admitted she never really knew. In her memoirs (My Apprenticeships, 1936), a mature Colette remembered: "My life as a young woman began with this freebooter…. Before that—except for my parents' ruin, the money gone, the furniture sold by public auction—it had been roses all the way. But what would I have done with everlasting roses?" Willy carried off his young bride to a cramped, dark apartment in Paris, a city, she said, that filled her with dread. Her response to the bottle-green and chocolate walls, to the "ugly dream" of marital sex, and the alien atmosphere of Paris, was to become ill for two months. Colette was desperately unhappy, but she resolved "that whatever happened I must hide the truth from Sido. I kept my word." If Colette ever had any illusions about marriage, they were destroyed when she received an anonymous letter that led her to Charlotte Kinceler 's apartment where she found Willy and his mistress. Without uttering a word, Colette left. Curiously, she came to like the woman and learned from her "my first notions of tolerance and concealment and the possibility of coming to terms with an enemy." When a few years later Charlotte committed suicide, Colette sadly noted, "She was twenty-six years old and had saved money." Colette's "girlhood" had died too.
Willy may have been a failure as a husband, but through him Colette was introduced to the Parisian intellectual elite and the brilliant café society of the Belle Epoque, and she became a writer. Her "insecure, useless life," as she described it, was changed forever when Willy insisted that she write down recollections of her school days. Claudine at School appeared in 1900 under Willy's name alone and sold 40,000 copies in two months. Though considered by some to be "wickedly licentious," it was not pornographic. Claudine became a sensation as clothing, soaps, lotions, and other products capitalized on the schoolgirl image. Three more Claudine novels were followed by two works based on the female character, Minne, all attributed to "Willy." Colette's literary career had been launched. Adapted for the stage, Claudine was personified by the young actress Polaire . To generate publicity, Willy coerced Polaire and Colette into appearing with him in public dressed identically as Claudines, intimating a lesbian bond between the two young women. In fact, Colette's name was already associated with some of the most noted lesbians in Paris, relations encouraged by Willy to promote public scandal and attention.
By 1905, their marriage was over. Locked in her room each day and forced to write, Colette developed a career, and living in Paris she acquired a number of illustrious friends. Her interest in the theater and music hall prompted her to take lessons in mime from Georges Wague. Willy encouraged her to go on tour with Wague's company, a not too subtle "notice to quit" the house, as Colette realized. "While I was dreaming of escape, someone beside me had been dreaming of conveniently showing me the door." In February 1906, Colette made her debut as a mime in the role of a faun. At the same time, she became the mistress of the Marquise Mathilde de Belboeuf , known as Missy, great-granddaughter of the Empress Josephine (Napoleon I's wife), descendant of Louis XV of France, and a transvestite. Such affairs conducted with some discretion were tolerated, even fashionable, among the Parisian beau monde. But Colette, having already appeared half-naked on stage in several mimes, caused outrage and a near riot at the Moulin Rouge theater. In "Dream of Egypt," a pantomime about an Egyptian mummy come to life, Colette slowly emerged from her wrappings to receive a passionate kiss from an Egyptian scholar, played by Missy. A police order forbade a second performance.
From 1906 to 1911, Colette made her living in music halls and the café-concert circuit, in Paris and on tour. She continued to live with Missy and to write novels based on her experiences. Tendrils of the Vine (1908) describes her affair with Missy, and The Vagabond (1910), an autobiographical account of her music-hall years, was nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Scandal and recognition as an accomplished writer defined Colette as a notable public figure. Her tempestuous personal life became even more complex when she added Auguste Hériot, heir to a department store fortune, to her ménage. Polaire's former lover, Hériot was doggedly devoted to Colette for two years and served as a model for a character in The Vagabond. Involved with both Missy and Hériot, Colette continued to perform on stage, and to write. But at age 38, Colette entered a new phase in her career and personal life.
I am no thinker, I have no pensées (thoughts)…. Perhaps the most praiseworthy thing about me is that I have known how to write like a woman.
This third career, in journalism, commenced in December 1910, when she began writing regular articles for the leading Paris newspaper, Le Matin, using a pseudonym; for many readers, the name Colette was associated with a libidinous lifestyle. Her reputation did not prevent the editor-in-chief of Le Matin from becoming involved with his talented contributor. Baron Henry de Jouvenel (called "Sidi") was "handsome … elegant, charming, and highly intelligent," father of two sons, one (Bertrand) from his ex-wife, the second (Renaud) from his current mistress, the Countess de Comminges , who threatened to kill Colette. But this melodramatic episode quickly passed, and Comminges and Hériot sought mutual consolation on a six-week cruise. The shuffle among lovers never interfered with Colette's pursuit of her careers.
In September 1912, Colette's mother Sido died of cancer. Colette's reaction was peculiar and evoked charges of a lack of feeling. She refused to wear mourning or to attend the funeral. Sido had been the bedrock of her daughter's life, but Colette seldom dwelt on the past, or those who inhabited it. Her sister Juliette's suicide in 1908, the death of her brothers and her first two husbands likewise elicited no reaction, no sense of loss or mortality. To Colette, death was no more than a "banal defeat." Nearly 40 years old, Colette's life suddenly changed; she was pregnant. In December 1912, she married Henry de Jouvenel, and six months later gave birth to a daughter, Colette de Jouvenel , known as Bel-Gazou (beautiful gazelle). Marriage and motherhood limited Colette's freedom; in The Shackle (1913), she describes love as the shackle for "one is no longer 'free'." Instead, as she wrote, "I have become [Sidi's] watcher, anchored at his side forever." No doubt Colette was in love with the dynamic de Jouvenel, but was she capable of subordinating her desires and needs to those of a man? Colette's stepson, Renaud de Jouvenel, accused her of calumniating men in her novels, portraying them as "stupid, irresponsible and incomprehensible." "She is so inward-looking that she does not see him," he concluded, and her "monstrous ego" prevents her from loving them. Indeed, in a stinging reproof, he characterized Colette as "intellectually lesbian," as "fascinated by homosexuality," and having "almost exclusively feminine friendships."
Colette's additional career as lecturer ended abruptly in August 1914, when war broke out. Her daughter was sent to live at Castel-Novel, the Jouvenel family estate in Corrèze. Sidi enlisted in the army, while Colette remained in Paris working as a night nurse in a military hospital and writing newspaper articles. In December, she joined her husband at Verdun for three months; she also served as war correspondent in Italy at various times in 1915–16. War and separation strained their marriage as did de Jouvenel's attraction to other women. However, Colette and Sidi continued to work at Le Matin, and, in 1919, he made her literary editor of the paper. That same year, Colette began writing one of her best works, Chéri. Chéri is one of the few well-developed male characters in her fiction, an amalgam of men Colette knew: a fragile, rather effete young man who has a love affair with Léa, a strong, older woman who in many ways resembled Colette herself. Acclaimed as one of France's most distinguished writers, Colette was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government.
"What I write comes to pass," Colette noted, and in the summer of 1920 the plot of Chéri was played out at Colette's house (Rozven) on the coast of Brittany; Colette had an affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel. Her account of the affair provided the plot for The Ripening Seed (1923). Meanwhile, Sidi pursued a political career and was elected to the French Senate. He also served as French representative to the League of Nations in Geneva. A succession of mistresses and his demanding career widened the rift in their marriage. Colette was upset, but she was not an innocent victim, for she too was unfaithful. Eventually, Sidi became aware that his son and wife were lovers, and in the autumn of 1923, while Colette was on a lecture tour, Sidi "left without a word." Personal turmoil never affected Colette's literary production, however. Chéri and The Vagabond were adapted for the stage, a book of memories of her mother was completed, and a sequel to Chéri was begun. Further, she resumed acting and continued working for Le Matin until 1923. Despite her unconventional lifestyle, Colette's literary reputation grew. She never intentionally wrote to shock or titillate, but some critics and readers were offended by her realistic portrayal of male/female relations: "Can't you ever write a book that isn't about love or adultery … or half-incestuous goingson? Aren't there other things in life?" Sidi had asked. But love, in all its manifestations, was what interested Colette. In her life, and in her novels, she "eagerly picked the fruits of the earth, without discriminating those which were forbidden," as Bertrand de Jouvenel saw it.
Colette's preoccupation with love in her writing was reflected in her personal life: "love has never been a question of age," Colette said in an interview. One of her biographers states that Colette's affair with Bertrand "taught her that she needed a man who was younger than herself, a man whose career was manifestly second to her own, a man who would devote himself entirely to her service." At age 52, Colette found such a man, Maurice Goudeket, who was 35. They met through mutual friends, were lovers for ten years, married for 19 more, forever "best friends." Colette was a vagabond, constantly moving from one lover-husband to another, from one place to another. After selling her house in Brittany, she bought another near Saint-Tropez, and frequently changed apartments in Paris. If Colette's life as wife and lover, and as writer and performer, was unconventional, her role as mother verged on the unacceptable. To Colette and de Jouvenel, the pursuit of satisfying careers and love affairs left their daughter largely out of their lives. Bel-Gazou, who bore a strong resemblance to her father, resented her mother's lack of attention and overtly disliked Goudeket. Like many successful artists, Colette was self-centered, unwilling to sacrifice her career for a daughter who represented a past she preferred to forget. Colette was only secondarily a mother, wife, or lover; she was Colette, "both legally and familiarly…. I now have only one name, which is my own."
Writing was always laborious for her, and she complained that it made her ill and bored her. But she persisted because, she said, "I do feel the honour of my profession … [though] I never work easily." This may explain in part Colette's fictional characters who are based on people she knew and reflect her own prejudices and attitudes. Henry de Jouvenel and his various mistresses (in The Other One, 1929) and Colette's gay friends (in The Pure and the Impure, 1932) were thus made immortal. The latter, "a study of sexual inversion," produced a public furor and was withdrawn from serialization after only four installments. Colette considered it her best book—an opinion not universally shared by critics.
Eager to supplement her income during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, Colette opened an Institute of Beauty in June 1932, in a fashionable section of Paris. Her skill with words did not transfer into a skill for applying cosmetics to her customers, and, despite her dedication to the enterprise, it closed in 1933.
Though Colette had "a horror of writing," she never contemplated giving up the profession that made her famous. While running her business, she had written one of her most original works, The Cat (1933). A love triangle involving a man, his cat, and his young bride serves as the vehicle for Colette to express her love for animals; the young woman competes with the cat for the love of her husband, and she loses. "Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet," Colette wrote. Voted "the greatest living writer of French prose" by French writers in 1935, Colette's place in literature was secured when she was elected to the Royal Academy of Belgium. Membership in the prestigious French Academy would elude her due to her gender; founded in 1635, no woman would be elected until Marguerite Yourcenar in 1981.
Colette and Goudeket maintained separate residences and avoided the subject of marriage. But when invited to write an account of the maiden voyage of the Normandie to New York, they decided to marry rather than create a scandal in the more prudish United States. A ten-minute civil ceremony in Paris united Colette and her "best friend." Colette was not well-known in the States, but she enjoyed the sights of New York and the attention she received.
Bel-Gazou's "unsettled life" had caused her mother some concern. Moreover, Bel-Gazou's marriage to the dull Dr. Denis Dausse in August 1935 (Colette did not attend), ended in disaster. Two months later, they divorced. Colette blamed the breakup on "physical revulsion" on her daughter's part; Henry de Jouvenel cited boredom as the compelling reason. "I left many women because of that," he told Bel-Gazou. Many years later, Renaud de Jouvenel asked Bel-Gazou why she had married at all. "To normalize myself," she told him. From this remark, he speciously concluded that "she must have begun very early to have relations with girls or women." At least one of Colette's biographers agreed that "Colette had damaged her more than she knew." There is no question but that Colette herself was bisexual—"There are no unisexuals," she had written to a friend.
In early 1936, Colette published her memoirs of Willy, her first marriage, and on becoming a writer (My Apprenticeships). Her often poignant observations reveal much about her novitiate as wife and writer. Married to a "man I never understood," she admitted that "to have worked for him and beside him taught me to dread, not to know him better." Unhappy, exploited, and lonely, Colette was, however, "learning to live…. To endure without happiness and not to droop, not to pine, is a pursuit in itself, you might almost say a profession." Willy had also taught her that discipline was a virtue, and she was grateful for that. Time and distance had not dimmed her recollections of marriage where she discovered that "the worst thing in a woman's life [is] her first man, the only one you die of." Colette states frankly that she "did not think highly" of the four Claudine books she wrote under Willy's tutelage and had not changed her mind. But she still resented that he had sold all rights to the books without consulting her and had kept the proceeds.
Despite being promoted to Commander of the Legion of Honor and initiated into the Belgian Royal Academy, Colette retained doubts about her talent; she prided herself on her self-doubt: "When a writer loses self-doubt, the time has come to lay aside his pen." This is not false modesty, for Goudeket confirms that Colette was constantly amazed and delighted by public appreciation of her work.
At age 65, Colette finally relinquished her nomadic ways, moved into an apartment overlooking the charming courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris, and sold her house near Saint-Tropez. Filled with nouveau riche and celebrities, the resort town had impinged on her privacy. Further, Europe appeared poised for war, and its proximity to Italy was dangerous.
After war was declared on September 3, 1939, Colette began to broadcast overseas for Paris Mondial, describing Parisian daily life. In June 1941, before German troops entered Paris, Colette, Goudeket, and her longtime maid and companion, Pauline, fled by car to the de Jouvenel château in Corrèze, now owned by Bel-Gazou. Safe but restless, they returned to occupied Paris in September. "I am used to spending my wars in Paris," Colette explained. Her apartment and the Palais-Royal were Colette's retreat in the empty, hungry city where she recreated her own "little province." Increasingly immobile due to crippling arthritis, her world was shrinking. Two novellas, Looking Backwards and From My Window, reflect her pensive mood, the need to reconsider times past. The horror of the German occupation appeared at her door at 7:30 am on Friday, December 12, 1941, when the Gestapo arrested Maurice Goudeket who was Jewish. Colette contacted everyone who might have influence with the German authorities, including French collaborators. Without explanation, Maurice was released in early February 1942 and soon left to stay with friends in the unoccupied zone of France. During the war years, Colette wrote her last fictional work, Gigi, later a successful stage play and movie. Set in the late 19th century, an age of famous courtesans, the story is about love and youth, with a happy ending. Several years later, Colette was spending a summer in Monte Carlo when she met a young actress doing a scene for a French film. "There is our
Gigi for America," she told Maurice; Audrey Hepburn consequently played the role in the comedy on Broadway.
The liberation of Paris in August 1944 brought a rapid return to normal living. A few days before the war ended in Europe (May 1945), Colette was elected to the Academy Goncourt, only the second woman ever to be so honored; she became its president in 1948. After a series of medical treatments for arthritis, Colette was able to attend a revival of her play Chéri and began to assemble her voluminous writings for the publication of her collected work, a rare distinction for a living author. Colette also received the star of "Grand Officier" of the Legion of Honor, the highest rank ever accorded a woman. And as France's most eminent literary figure, she was given the Gold Medal from the City of Paris and an award from the American ambassador.
Fiction was replaced with four books of reminiscences and reflections on the past, on Saint-Sauveur and life in Paris. She conceded that "forty-five years in Paris haven't made me anything but a provincial, searching twenty arrondissements [districts] and two river banks for her lost province." But Colette had created her own "province," described in From My Window. She sustained a zest for living that characterized her 81 years: "Throughout my existence I have studied flowering more than any other manifestation of life," she told a group of university students. "There is never a time when discoveries end … and I shall cease to flower when I cease to live." To Colette observing and recording the wonders of nature and of humanity constituted living. "We never look enough," she lamented, "never exactly enough, never passionately enough." Just before she died on a warm and sultry day in early August 1954, some swallows flew past her window: "Look, Maurice, look!" were her last words. As one critic wrote, "One doesn't read Colette. One sees what she sees. One breathes what she breathes; one touches what she touches."
Colette was the first Frenchwoman ever given a State funeral; ceremonies were held in the court of honor of the Palais-Royal (just beneath her window). There would be no religious service, no priest officiating at the funeral. Archbishop of Paris Feltin refused Maurice's request for the service to be held in the Église (church) Saint-Roch, on the grounds that Colette had been twice divorced. Colette was buried in a private service in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, among the most renowned figures of France. The Place Colette, located at the entry to the Palais-Royal, celebrates her memory, her lasting presence in the city.
In 1952, Colette had attended the première of a documentary film of her life. "What a wonderful life I've had!" she declared, "What a pity I didn't realize it sooner."
Belles Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook. Edited by Robert Phelps. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Colette. My Apprenticeships. Translated by Helen Beauclerk. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
Crosland, Margaret. Colette: The Difficulty of Loving. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.
Richardson, Johanna. Colette. NY: Dell, 1983.
Colette. Earthly Paradise. Edited by Robert Phelps. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Cottrell, Robert D. Colette. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1978.
Lottman, Herbert. Colette: A Life. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1981.
Sarde, Michèle. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller. NY: William Morrow, 1980.
Colette (play), starring Zoe Caldwell , opened at the Ellen Stewart Theater in New York City in May 1970.
Gigi was adapted as a French film in 1950, starring Daniele Delorme and directed by Jacqueline Audry ; adapted as a stageplay by Anita Loos and presented on Broadway in 1951, starring Audrey Hepburn; produced as musical by MGM, 1958, starring Leslie Caron , Maurice Chevalier, and Hermione Gingold , music by Alan Jay Lerner.
Mitsou was also brought to the screen by Jacqueline Audry in 1957, again with Delorme in the title role.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah