Colette was born to retired military officer Jules-Joseph Colette and his wife Adèle Eugénie Sidonie “Sido” Colette (nėe Landoy) in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Yonne, in the Burgundy Region of France. She studied piano as a child and received her primary school diploma with high marks in mathematics and dictation. In 1893, at age 20, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a famous wit known as “Willy”, who was 15 years her senior. He was a writer, music critic, and described as a “literary charlatan and degenerate”. Her first books, the Claudine series, were published under her husband’s pen name “Willy”. Claudine still has the power to charm; in Belle Époque France it was considered shocking, much to Willy’s satisfaction and profit. According to one writer, “Colette had a poor relationship with her daughter, Bel-Gazou.” In 1906, she left the unfaithful Gauthier-Villars, living for a time at the home of the American writer and salonist Natalie Clifford Barney. The two had a short affair but remained friends until Colette’s death in 1954. Colette went to work in the music halls of Paris, with the support of Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as Missy, with whom Colette became romantically involved. In 1907, the two women performed together in a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge. Their onstage kiss nearly caused a riot which the police were called in to suppress. As a result of this scandal, further performances of Rêve d’Égypte were banned, and Colette and de Morny were no longer able to live together openly, though their relationship continued for five years. She was also involved in a heterosexual relationship during this time, with the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio. According to one writer, Colette “never gave Missy as much love” and took “advantage of her and more or less appropriating Rozven, a Brittany villa, from her after they split up.” Another affair during this period was with the automobile-empire scion Auguste Heriot.
In 1912, Colette married Henri de Jouvenel, the editor of the newspaper Le Matin. The couple had one daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, known to the family as Bel-Gazou (“beautiful babbling/chirping” in local dialect). Colette de Jouvenel later stated that her mother did not want a child and left her in the care of an English nanny, only rarely visiting her. In 1914, during World War I, Colette was asked to write a ballet for the Paris Opera, which she outlined under the title “Divertissements pour ma fille”. After she chose Maurice Ravel to write the music, he reimagined the work as an opera, to which Colette agreed. Ravel received the libretto to L’enfant et les sortilèges in 1918, and it was first performed on 21 March 1925. During the war, Colette converted her husband’s Saint-Malo estate into a hospital for the wounded, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1920. She divorced Henri de Jouvenel in 1924, after a much talked-about affair with her stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel. In 1935, Colette married Maurice Goudeket, an uncle of Juliet Goudeket, alias Jetta Goudal. After 1935, her legal name was simply Sidonie Goudeket. Maurice Goudeket published a book about his wife, Close to Colette: An Intimate Portrait of a Woman of Genius. An English translation was published in 1957, by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, New York.
After World War I, Colette’s writing career blossomed following the publication of Chéri (1920). Chéri tells a story of the end of a six-year affair between an aging retired courtesan, Léa, and a pampered young man, Chéri. Turning stereotypes upside-down, it is Chéri who wears silk pajamas and Léa’s pearls, and who is the object of gaze. In the end, Léa demonstrates all the survival skills which Colette associates with femininity. The story continued in La Fin de Chéri (1926), which contrasts Léa’s strength and Chéri’s fragility and decline. Considered nowadays to be Colette’s masterpiece, Chéri was originally met with controversy because of its setting—the demimonde of the Parisian courtesans—and its portrayal of the hedonistic Chéri.
After Chéri, Colette entered the world of Modernism, with emphasis on modernist poetry and painting revolving around Jean Cocteau, who was later her neighbor in Jardins du Palais-Royal. Their relationship and life is vividly depicted in their books. By 1927, she was frequently acclaimed as France’s greatest woman writer. “It … has no plot, and yet tells of three lives all that should be known”, wrote Janet Flanner of Sido on its publication in 1930. “Once again, and at greater length than usual, she has been hailed for her genius, humanities and perfect prose by those literary journals which years ago … lifted nothing at all in her direction except the finger of scorn.” Colette remained in Paris during the German Occupation and continued to write because “she said that she had to make a living”. Gigi, set in the same Belle Époque world as Cheri, became a bestseller because it took place during a glamorous time and the story would “sweep her readers away from their everyday concerns of wartime shortages and danger”. She spent her final years in a wheelchair cared for by Maurice Goudeket, whom she called “a saint”. In 1951, she attended the premiere of a documentary film about her life, and at the end, she was heard saying to Goudeket, “What a beautiful life I’ve had.” By the time she died in Paris in 1954, Colette had written 50 published novels, many with autobiographical elements. Her themes can be roughly divided into idyllic natural tales or dark struggles in relationships and love. All her novels were marked by clever observation and dialogue with an intimate, explicit style.
Her popular novella Gigi was made into a Broadway play in 1951, starring Audrey Hepburn and a highly successful Hollywood motion picture of the same name, starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, and Maurice Chevalier. Colette is directly credited with the discovery of a young, unknown Audrey Hepburn, whom the elder chose on sight to play the eponymous Broadway lead in Gigi. According to Hepburn herself, she was garrisoned with the 1952 film production company of Monte Carlo Baby at a hotel in the south of France for brief location shooting, the relatively unglamorous assignment part of a standard contract. Hepburn at the time commanded barely more stature than many unknowns after the Armistice in a European film industry devastated by World War II. Colette chanced to see the young Hepburn walking across the lobby of the hotel and immediately said to her companion of the moment, “There is my Gigi!” In 2009, an adaptation by Christopher Hampton of both Chéri and La Fin de Chéri was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, and Kathy Bates and directed by Stephen Frears. A pre-Broadway production of the musical, newly adapted by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs) and directed by Eric D. Schaeffer (Follies, Million Dollar Quartet) is planned to run at the Kennedy Center in January 2015.
- January, 28, 1873
- Yonne, France
- August, 03, 1954
- Paris, France
- Père Lachaise Cemetery
- Paris, France