This Day In Writing History
On January 28th, 1873, the legendary French writer and actress Colette was born. She was born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Yonne, France. In 1893, at the age of twenty, Colette married writer and music critic Henri "Willy" Gauthier-Villars.
Willy, fifteen years her senior, was known for having a staff of ghostwriters that he would direct in producing his works and for his notorious sexual exploits, which didn't end with his marriage.
A few years after they were married, Colette decided to try her own hand at writing. In 1900, her first novel, Claudine a L'ecole (Claudine At School) was published - under her husband's name.
It would be the first in a series of semi-autobiographical novels featuring Claudine, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. The novel takes the form of Claudine's journal as she records her home and school life. She lives in Montigny with her father, who ignores her.
At school, Claudine falls in love with Miss Lanthenay, the assistant headmistress, and they have an affair. Miss Sergent, the headmistress, finds out about the affair and gets Miss Lanthenay to break it off. She eventually takes Miss Lanthenay as her own lover.
Heartbroken and feeling betrayed, Claudine turns to her friends - tough, cynical Anais and sweet-natured Marie - to help her cause trouble for the headmistresses. In addition to chronicling her love affairs with both female and male paramours, Claudine records other events in her journal.
Chronicling her school year, she records evens both mundane and important, such as the opening of a new school, a ball given in the honor of a visiting politician, and preparations for final exams.
Claudine a L'ecole caused an outrage with its frank and honest depiction of female bisexuality and a sensation with the quality of its prose. Colette's husband Willy, who served as her editor, later tried to claim that he was the real author of the Claudine books.
This, along with his constant philandering, put an end to their marriage. When she first discovered that he was cheating, she had an affair of her own with another woman, then learned that the girl was one of her husband's mistresses! When she revealed this to Willy, he suggested that they make it a menage a trois.
Colette agreed, but the relationship didn't last. She left Willy in 1906 and moved in with her friend, American writer Natalie Barney. The two women had a brief affair, but remained lifelong friends. Colette took up acting and became a music hall actress in Paris.
Her mentor in acting was Mathilde "Missy" de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf. They became lovers, and in 1907, while doing a pantomime called Reve d'Egypte at the Moulin Rouge, the performance included an onstage kiss between the two women that caused a riot.
The ensuing scandal resulted in the banning of future performances of Reve d'Egypte. Though Colette and Missy were no longer able to live openly together, their relationship lasted for five years. After it ended, Colette had relationships with male lovers.
Her male paramours included Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio and French car magnate Auguste Herriot. In 1912, Colette married her second husband, Henri de Jouvenel, editor of the newspaper Le Matin. She bore him a daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, who was called Bel-Gazou.
In 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, Colette was approached by the Opera de Paris and asked to write a ballet. She accepted the offer and chose legendary composer Maurice Ravel to write the music. He turned it into an opera, and by 1918, Colette gave him her finished libretto.
L'Enfant et les Sortileges, aka The Child and the Spells: a Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts, premiered seven years later. During the war, Colette had converted her husband's estate in St. Malo into a hospital for the wounded. For this, she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1920.
That same year, she resurrected her literary career, publishing her classic novel Cheri. Cheri is a young man of 25 involved in a passionate, albeit casual relationship with Lea, a retired courtesan nearly twice his age.
When Cheri enters an arranged marriage to a young woman from a wealthy family, he and Lea realize that they are in love with each other. After nine months of misery in a loveless marriage, Cheri returns to Lea, who rescues him from the depths of depression.
She gives him the courage to return to his wife, realizing that she has to let him go for his own good. Colette would follow Cheri with a sequel, La Fin de Cheri, published in 1926.
Colette, now regarded as France's finest female writer, struck up a friendship with legendary writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and became part of his literary circle. She divorced her husband after engaging in a scandalous affair with her stepson, Bertrand.
In 1935, she married again, to Maurice Goudeket. During World War II, at the time of the Nazi occupation of France, Colette hid her husband and their Jewish friends in her attic, where they remained throughout the war.
In 1945, after the war ended, Colette published her most famous novel, Gigi. Set in turn of the century Paris, it told the story of Gigi, a young girl who is well-educated at a girls' school and taught etiquette, dress, and style by her female relatives.
They're grooming Gigi to follow in their footsteps and become a courtesan - a mistress of wealthy, cultured married men - and support them. But Gigi doesn't want to be a courtesan - she wants true love.
That true love takes the form of family friend Gaston Lachaille, a wealthy thirtysomething year old man who is bored with high society and his current mistress. He falls in love with Gigi - and ultimately marries her.
Gigi would be adapted as a Broadway play by Anita Loos in 1951. In 1958, the book would be adapted as an acclaimed albeit sanitized movie musical starring Leslie Caron in the lead role and co-starring Louis Jordan and Maurice Chevalier.
Featuring a soundtrack of songs by Lerner and Loewe, including the endearing Thank Heaven For Little Girls, Gigi is rightfully considered a classic film. It won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Colette died in 1954 at the age of 81. She had written around 50 novels and become a feminist icon - a brilliant writer, intellectual, and free spirit who flaunted her bisexuality, determined to live her life on her own terms with apologies to no one.
Quote Of The Day
"On this narrow planet, we have only the choice between two unknown worlds. One of them tempts us - ah, what a dream, to live in that! The other stifles us at the first breath." - Colette
Today's video features a 1951 short film documentary on Colette, in French with English subtitles. Enjoy!