Today in Literary History – August 3, 1954 – French novelist Colette, author of “Chéri” and “Gigi,” dies at 81

The French novelist Colette died on August 3, 1954, at the age of 81. Because she had been twice divorced she was denied a Catholic funeral but she was given a French state funeral, the first female author to be given that honour.

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Colette (who was born in Burgundy in 1873 as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) is one of France’s most beloved writers but she was also a trailblazing feminist icon who fought hard to be recognized as the creator of her own work.

She was a writer, a performance artist, and a celebrity, who used her own taboo-breaking sex life as inspiration for her art. She had affairs with women, men, and boys (including her own stepson, when she was 49 and he was 16), and a long relationship with her artistic partner who might today be called transgender.

The most important influence on Colette’s life and work was another single-named celebrity, Willy, the first of her three husbands.

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Willy and Colette

Henry Gauthier-Villars, who wrote under the pen name “Willy,” was a popular stage reviewer, publisher, novelist, and wit in Paris during the Belle Époque.

Willy was at heart an entrepreneur who carefully cultivated his own brand. He had a stable of ghostwriters who actually did the work of writing the articles and books that he published as Willy.

Colette and Willy married in 1893. Willy, 14 years older and already famous, encouraged Colette in her writing. Although the word “encouraged” may be too mild.

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Willy convinced her to write her first four semi-autobiographical novels (the “Claudine” series) about the experiences, mostly sexual, of a 15 year old schoolgirl. But, as usual he published them under the name Willy and retained the copyrights and all the royalties.

Willy was, to say the least, a controlling force in Colette’s life, famously locking her in a room, refusing to let her out until she produced another Claudine installment. He also had countless infidelities. He was fascinated by Colette’s bisexuality and encouraged (that word again) her to have affairs as well, but only with other women.

After Colette left Willy in 1906 she was penniless, with no stake in or recognition for her bestselling novels. She began to appear on the stage in avant-garde mime and dance routines.

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She also began a six-year romance with the aristocrat Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, universally known by the single name “Missy.” Missy wore her hair short and cut like a man’s and wore men’s clothing. She is believed to have had a double mastectomy to help present as male.

Colette and Missy collaborated on various stage productions. In January, 1907 they appeared together in a mime play, “The Dream of Egypt,” at the Moulin Rouge. Missy played a male archaeologist and Colette was a mummy who did an erotic Salome-like dance. When the pair shared a long kiss, the audience erupted in near riot.

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Missy and Colette in “The Dream of Egypt”

Judith Thurman, Colette’s biographer writes “the stage was immediately bombarded with coins, orange peels, seat cushions, tins of candy, and cloves of garlic, while the catcalls . . . and shouts of ‘Down with the dykes’ drowned out an orchestra of forty musicians.” (Willy was in the audience himself and, to his credit, led the faction of the audience which cheered loudly.)

Colette began to write under her own name in 1910 and gained credit (and royalties) for the Claudine books much later. Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1944) are her best known works. They and her two dozen other novels are breezy, witty, and full of transgressive sex, yet they are also quite tender in their explorations of the human need for love and acceptance.

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Colette with Audrey Hepburn

Gigi was adapted as a Broadway play in 1951. Colette personally chose a then unknown Audrey Hepburn for the role, which made Hepburn a star.  Gigi was also filmed as a musical starring Leslie Caron in 1958, winning the Acadamy Award as Best Picture.

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