HIS­TORY TRAIL

The au­thor of Gigi de­fied con­ven­tion in her per­sonal and pub­lic lives, says San­dra Hau­rant

France - - Contents -

Fol­low the writer Co­lette from a vil­lage in Bur­gundy to the bright lights of Paris.

From her birth in 1873 in Bur­gundy un­til she died in 1954 in the heart of Paris, Si­donie-Gabrielle Co­lette lived many lives. Cel­e­brated writer of around 80 works, in­clud­ing the Clau­dine se­ries of books, Gigi, The Vagabond and more; jour­nal­ist and re­viewer; mu­sic-hall star; even beau­ti­cian. Co­lette is per­haps best known for liv­ing pre­cisely as she pleased.

Co­lette was born in the vil­lage of Saint-sauveur-en-puisaye in the Yonne dé­parte­ment. Her beloved mother, Si­donie, or Sido, had an enor­mous in­flu­ence on Co­lette’s life, and ap­pears, along with her sib­lings and child­hood home, in her writ­ing. “It was her mother who taught her the im­por­tance of re­ally look­ing, of ob­serv­ing,” ex­plains Elis­a­beth Le­droit, di­rec­tor of the Musée Co­lette.

Whisked to Paris

When the fam­ily ran into fi­nan­cial trou­ble and lost their house, Co­lette, aged 18, moved in with her brother, a doc­tor. The fu­ture looked dif­fi­cult – she was in­tel­li­gent and beau­ti­ful but pen­ni­less. En­ter Henry Gau­thier-vil­lars, a jour­nal­ist writ­ing un­der the name of Willy. They mar­ried, and Co­lette was whisked to Paris where she met writ­ers, artists, politi­cians and lib­ertines – a world that she was soon to make her own.

Her hus­band soon no­ticed Co­lette’s lit­er­ary tal­ent, and made her write the fa­mous Clau­dine nov­els – which would have brought her lit­er­ary renown sooner if Willy had not in­sisted on hav­ing the books pub­lished un­der his name. He not only kept the credit, but the roy­al­ties, too.

She left him in 1906, and be­came a per­former in the cap­i­tal’s mu­sic halls – as one of the char­ac­ters says in her 1910 novel, The Vagabond, the story of a di­vorcee who be­comes a dancer: “What else could I do? Needle­work, typ­ing, street­walk­ing? Mu­sic hall is the pro­fes­sion for those who have never learned one.”

Later, when her tal­ents had truly made her name, Co­lette was caught up in the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of the 1930s. In an ef­fort to fill holes left by fall­ing book sales, Co­lette launched a cos­met­ics busi­ness, work­ing with a chemist to cre­ate her own prod­ucts. “It was very pro­fes­sion­ally done,” ex­plains her bi­og­ra­pher Gérard Bonal, co-au­thor of Co­lette and Co­lette In­time. “She toured France, vis­it­ing 30 towns to demon­strate her prod­ucts, and set­ting up a room in Saint-tropez.” The en­ter­prise didn’t last, but Co­lette sim­ply moved on to the next idea.

She also tried her hand at ad­ver­tis­ing, writ­ing copy and often ap­pear­ing in pho­to­graphs en­dors­ing prod­ucts. Was she con­cerned that peo­ple would say she was sell­ing out? Not at all. “She sim­ply didn’t care what peo­ple said about her,” says Bonal.

Her at­ti­tude was the same in love. “She was com­pletely ahead of her time,” says Le­droit. She mar­ried twice af­ter her di­vorce. Her mar­riage to Henry de Jou­venel, with whom she had a daugh­ter, Co­lette de Jou­venel, broke up af­ter she se­duced her teenage step­son. She had nu­mer­ous re­la­tion­ships with women, most no­tably, Mathilde de Morny, or Missy.

Co­lette’s life spanned the belle époque and both world wars, and she was no stranger to hard­ship and worry. Her third hus­band, Mau­rice Goudeket, who was Jewish, was ar­rested in 1941 and, though he was sub­se­quently re­leased, the anx­i­ety of liv­ing with the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion was huge.

Co­lette died on 3 Au­gust 1954 in her apart­ment in the Palais-royal, aged 81. She was given a state fu­neral, and burial at Père Lachaise ceme­tery, hav­ing been, it would seem, faith­ful to her own words: “I love my past. I love my present. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve had, and I’m not sad be­cause I have it no longer.”

ABOVE: Co­lette in 1906, dressed as a faun for a stage pro­duc­tion dur­ing her brief mu­sic-hall ca­reer

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