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Subject: Chéri (film), Gerard Hoffnung, Moulin Rouge, Mononymous person, Maurice Ravel
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Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
Born (1873-01-28)28 January 1873
Yonne, France
Died 3 August 1954(1954-08-03) (aged 81)
Paris, France
Pen name Colette
Occupation Novelist
Nationality French


Colette (French: ) was the surname of the French novelist and performer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954). She is best known for her novel Gigi, the basis for the film and Lerner and Loewe stage production of the same title.

Early life and marriage

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.[1] She studied piano as a child and received her primary school diploma with high marks in mathematics and dictation.[2] In 1893, at age 20, she married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a famous wit known as "Willy", who was 15 years her senior.[1] He was a writer, music critic, and described as a "literary charlatan and degenerate".[3]

Her first books, the Claudine series, were published under her husband's pen name "Willy".[1] 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 own daughter, Bel-Gazou."[1]

Music hall career, affairs with women

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, and remained friends until Colette's death.[4]

Colette went to work in the music halls of Paris, under the wing of Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as Missy, with whom she became romantically involved.[1] 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.[5] She also was 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."[1] Another affair during this period was with the automobile-empire scion Auguste Heriot.

Second marriage, affair with stepson

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 approached to write a ballet for the Paris Opera, which she outlined under the title "Divertissements pour ma fille". After Colette herself 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.[6]

During the war, she converted her husband's Saint-Malo estate into a hospital for the wounded, and was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1920). She divorced Henri de Jouvenel in 1924 after a much talked-about affair with her stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel.

Third marriage

Colette, painted ca. 1896 by Jacques Humbert

In 1935, Colette married Maurice Goudeket, an uncle of Juliet Goudeket alias Jetta Goudal.[7] 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.

Continued writings

Post-World War I, her writing career bloomed following the publication of Chéri (1920).[1] Chéri tells a story of the end of a six-year affair between an aging retired courtesan, Léa, and a pampered young man, Chéri.[1] 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 choice of setting—the demimonde of the Parisian courtesans—and its portrayal of the hedonistic Chéri.

After Chéri, Colette entered the world of modern 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."

During World War II, Colette remained in Paris during the German Occupation and continued to write and publish 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".[1]

She spent her final years in a wheelchair, being cared for by Goudeket, whom she called "a saint". In 1951 she attended the premiere of a documentary about her life, and at the end she was heard saying to Goudeket, "What a beautiful life I've had."

Upon her death in Paris in 1954, Colette left 50 published novels in total, 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.[8]


Colette's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

A controversial figure throughout her life, Colette flaunted her lesbian affairs.[1]

She was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy (1935), president of the Académie Goncourt (1949) (and the first woman to be admitted into it, in 1945), and a Chevalier (1920) and a Grand Officier (1953) of the Légion d'honneur.

During the German occupation of France during World War II, she aided her Jewish friends, including hiding her husband in her attic all through the war. When she died in Paris on 3 August 1954, she was the first woman given a state funeral in France, although she was refused Roman Catholic rites because of her divorces. Colette is interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash paid tribute to the writer in the song, "The Summer I Read Colette", on her 1996 album 10 Song Demo.

Truman Capote wrote a short story about her (1970) called "The White Rose".

The Colette Study Centre in France has numerous items related to Colette's life.[1] Jane Gilmour, Ph.D, wrote Colette’s France: Her Lives, Her Loves (Hardie Grant Books), which is a book "about Colette’s life through the places where she lived".[1]

In 2014, SUNY Press published Shipwrecked on a Traffic Island and Other Previously Untranslated Gems (translated by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel), a collection of sketches, mini-essays, radio talks, reminiscences, and journalistic pieces written by Colette. This was the first new work by Colette to appear in English in half a century.

Notable works

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Koski, Lorna (27 December 2013). "Book Tells Story of Colette's France". WWD. Retrieved 3 January 2014. 
  2. ^ Thurman, Judith (1999). Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 36.  
  3. ^ "Colette". 3 August 1954. Retrieved 12 May 2012. 
  4. ^ Rodriguez, Suzanne (2002). Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris. New York: HarperCollins. p. 131.  
  5. ^ Benstock, Shari (1986). Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940. Texas: University of Texas Press. pp. 48–49.  
  6. ^ "LA Phil Presents | Piece Detail - Maurice Ravel: L'enfant et les sortilèges". 21 March 1925. Retrieved 12 May 2012. 
  7. ^ Slide, Anthony. Silent Players:A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. University Press of Kentucky, 2002. ISBN 0-8131-2249-X. page 148.
  8. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Pre-Broadway Engagement of Gigi, Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Will Play Kennedy Center", November 6, 2013


  • Sylvain Bonmariage, Willy, Colette et moi, with an introduction by Jean-Pierre Thiollet, Anagramme ed., Paris, 2004 (reprint)
  • Joanna Richardson, Colette, Methuen, London, 1983
  • Judith Thurman, Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette, Bloomsbury, London, 1999

Further reading

Archival sources
  • Colette, 1873-1954. Autograph letters signed (6) : Paris; Manoir de Rozven par S. Coulomb, Ille-et-Vilaine; and [n.p.], to D. E. Inghelbrecht and Colette Inghelbrecht, 1909-1948 and n.d. are housed at the Pierpont Morgan Library.

External links

  • (French) Centre d'études Colette
  • Works by Colette at Project Gutenberg
  • Source for some material used in this article
  • Image of Colette
  • Portrait of Colette, by Irving Penn (commentary on portrait)
  • (English) Short Profile of Colette
  • Gigi on Broadway 2015 production
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