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