Mérode, Cléo de (c. 1875–1966)

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Mérode, Cléo de (c. 1875–1966)

Celebrated French dancer and mistress of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Name variations: Cleo de Merode. Born around 1875 (some sources cite 1873); died of arteriosclerosis on October 17, 1966, in Paris, France.

Joined Paris Opera corps de ballet (c. 1887); met King Leopold II of the Belgians (c. 1893); made tour of United States (1897).

Cléo de Mérode was a celebrated dancer of the Belle Epoque era whose name became inextricably linked with that of Belgium's aging king when she became his mistress. De Mérode was ranked along with other noted and iconoclastic beauties of the day, such as Liane de Pougy and Emilienne d'Alençon , and lived and thrived in an era of opulence and amoral scandals that was brought to an end with the onset of World War I.

De Mérode was probably born around 1875, and joined the corps de ballet of the famed Paris Opera around the age of 12. She met King Leopold II of the Belgians probably about six years later. The king was vilified both in the press and privately, described as the most despised monarch in Europe even before the 1904 revelations of his brutal treatment of the population of his Congo colonies, and gleefully lambasted in political cartoons for his randy ways, parsimonious habits, and mercenary callousness towards his sister Carlota , empress of Mexico, his wife Maria Henriette of Austria , and his daughters Louise of Belgium, Stephanie of Belgium , and Clementine of Belgium . He preferred to spend his time in Paris—his wife, in fact, would die alone—and had long exhibited a fondness for Parisian dancers. Legend has it that Leopold summoned de Mérode to his private box for an introduction during the intermission of Aïda; her delay in returning postponed the rise of the curtain for the second act by half an hour. Subsequently, de Mérode spent ten years as his mistress—Leopold was well over 60 by then—and she also became a target for the European papers. One cartoon depicted Leopold showering her with jewels and saying, "These are only part of what I stole from my daughters, cherie!" Both denied that they were having an affair, but his ministers in Brussels nevertheless derisively referred to him as "Cléopold" behind his back.

De Mérode continued in her career as a well-regarded dancer during the liaison, and performed all over Europe, including before King Edward VII of England and at the courts of Denmark and Russia. She starred at the Opera Comique in Paris, but found little success on her one American tour in 1897. She was so well known that an adaptation of her stage coif (her hair was parted in the center and the rest gathered in a chignon) became popular and was called the "Cléo de Mérode." Although Leopold subsequently went on to other mistresses and other scandals before his death in 1909, for the remainder of her long life de Mérode was unable to sever her name from her royal affair. She lived in the French countryside during World War II, and in 1950 launched a libel suit against a book that she felt portrayed her in an unflattering light. She was awarded a symbolic single franc by a French court. Cléo de Mérode died in Paris at the age of 91 in October 1966.


Kelen, Betty. The Mistresses: Domestic Scandals of Nineteenth-Century Monarchs. NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1966.

The New York Times (obituary). October 17, 1966.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan