Colette The NBP
Colette at the opening of her beauty salon, 1932. Courtesy: CSU Archives / Everett Collection

Colette’s libertinage: a spirit free from all constriction

Writer, she started being writer on the shade and ended presiding the Goncourt Academy. Theatre actress and dancer. Screenwriter and film director. Bisexual, atheist and promiscuous. War reporter and musical reviewer. Icon of conflicting style and opinions. Product designer. Colette, the French author with more long sellers today, summarized her life like this: "Love was the bread of my life and my pen".
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n August 3rd, 1954, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette died, internationally renowned for her novel Gigi, taken to the movies shortly after by Vincente Minnelli in 1958. A film that did not allow her, as she liked it, to bless and condemn. Two crucial verbs. Colette, the only woman who is a member of the French Légion d’Honneur, was not entitled to a religious funeral in a deeply Catholic France due to her status as an atheist and having divorced twice, apart from her life morally scandalous at that time. However, paraphrasing Bob Dylan, times were changing in the French country and the Republic organized a state funeral for her. It was the first time that this ceremony had place to honour a woman. Today, she remains at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Colette, with an admirable career, is one of the icons that does not need political vindication. Just look how she opened the way for women to live freely, in the broadest sense of the word freedom, without being objects but subjects. There is a long way to go but the path of Colette is inspiring and captivating.

Coco Chanel, Sylvia Plath, Montserrat Roig, Virgina Wolf, Lee Miller, Frida Kahlo, Clara Campoamor, Marie Curie, Rigoberta Menchú, Madonna, Maria Mercè Marçal, Lady Gaga, Victoria Kent, Maria Luz Morales, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and many others. In the words of one more, the great Simone de Beauvoir: “No woman is born, one becomes so“. Centuries and decades up and down -lots of discrepancies are welcomed-, on March 8th we celebrate a day that I personally think that there is no need for. Every day we are women, every day we fight for our rights, but, again, in the face of the political circumstances that assault us, it is necessary that we take the street to be who we are and vindicated a very necessary equality that we will not leave behind. “No” means “no”.

Colette was not a feminist. In fact, when in 1910 a journalist asked for this matter, she said, in her usual cynicism: “Feminist, me? Are you joking? 2019: Colette, with an admirable career, is one of the icons that does not need political vindication. Just look how she opened the way for women to live freely, in the broadest sense of the word freedom, without being objects but subjects. There is a long way to go but the path of Colette is inspiring and captivating.

The daughter of a free-thinking mother, an atheist and a learned woman, went to the public school, far away from religious references.

 

Her long red-haired train that reached her ankles and her provincial behaviour, free of taboos, landed in Paris with her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known in the bourgeois spheres as Willy. Compulsively unfaithful, lowlife and exploitative, moved in the circles of the intellectuality and lust of the French capital of the late nineteenth century by exploring professors without a penny who wrote for him scholarly texts that he attributed to himself, frightening also those who were eager to confess the truth.

LITERARY CAPTIVITY

Colette, the lover of nature, the girl of challenging behaviour, did not know it, but when she became her wife she suffered this situation of literary invalidity in her own flesh. “Willy ask her to answer his correspondence and, afterwards, to write theatre and musical reviews for the daily La Cocarde. What never crossed his mind is that he was sowing his own destiny. When, just over a year later, he urged his wife to write their memories of primary school, asking them to include spicy details, Sidonie-Gabrielle understood it was a unique occasion”, explains Justine Ferrer, literary critique of Le Monde.

Mistreatment, persecution at the cottage where Colette spent most of her time (as a breathing flood, we could describe that farm), locked whole days in a room without eating and unable to go to the bathroom, that was the torture imposed by Willy

Claudine à l’école is the first episode of a series of different volumes (some voices say that some were destroyed by herself when she realized she was a unique writer) that became a literary success.

In a moment of economic despair, Willy, who for years kept these manuscripts in a drawer, recovered them, added an editing that only consisted of brush strokes superfluous eroticism, and published the first story, Claudine à l ‘école. Madness. In 1907, half a million copies had already been sold. Mistreatment, persecution at the cottage where Colette spent most of her time (as a breathing flood, we could describe that farm), locked whole days in a room without eating and unable to go to the bathroom, that was the torture imposed by Willy

To take advantage: granting the authorship of these books and, by publishing them every so often, continue their life of economic and sexual waste.

From that barbarity and during a stay at Monts-Boucons, Colette decided to stop writing only the stories of Claudine and began with the essay in a biographical tone: “I woke vaguely with a duty: to write something different (…) I realized the pleasure, not acute, but honourable, not to mention love, when moving my pen“. Since then, she began to publish all kinds of literature assiduously.

At that time, she had already signed up some pieces like Willy Colette, but it would not be until many years later, already divorced from him, that she would fight legally to recover the authorship of her books, demonstrating it through the few changes and annotations (only focused on accentuating the morbid part of the story) that he had done with respect to the original notebooks.

DANCE AND EROTISM

It was precisely in Paris and at the soirées to which she attended with Willy where she began to discover her bisexuality. After a love triangle with a rich American, she became aware that her husband did not care for her infidelities if they were female, he only cared if they were with men. Actually, shortly after she met Mathilde de Morny -known as Missy- a lesbian, transvestite and ex-drug addict with which they spent time all three on multiple occasions and without any other sexual encounter than theirs two.

During those years, Colette had begun to receive pantomime lessons and resumed dance. What’s more, she decided to dedicate herself professionally to theatre, which at that time was like devoting oneself to prostitution. “Some people called her a cabaret-lady, but in the end she was an incredible dancer and choreographer with authentic Dadaist geniuses, who would lead her to friendships with other styles, such as Debussy and Ravel, among others”, exposes Claire Van De Velde, contemporary dance choreographer of Belgian origin and established in Bayerout.

Her show, titled Dream of Egypt, in which Missy simulates an archaeologist and she, a mummy that pulls the bandage, caused a lot of noise on the day of her release at the Moulin Rouge. Shouting, flying objects, insults… After the second session, the next day, the spectacle was banned by the prefect Lépine for its “obscene” content.

Nothing would stop her: for years she travelled across Europe from room to room with different extremely innovative works and in which the female nude was practically the leitmotif.

HUNGRY JOURNALIST

Her love for life was so pyrotechnic and convulsive that, as many journalists have said, her biographies are read as if they were novels. After Missy and other lovers, Colette married Henry de Jouvenel, editor-in-chief of the Le Matin newspaper. The result of this marriage was her only daughter, also called Colette. Her maternity did not stop her from having an affair with her husband’s son, 23 years younger than her. When Henry found out, he asked for the divorce.

From Le Matin she goes on to write for Le Figaro, L’éclair and Bertrand. Shortly after, she married Maurice Goudeket, a Jew who, once detained by the Gestapo, Colette saved from the Nazi gangs thanks to her political friendships.

She was fascinated by all journalism genres, she even was a reporter of war during Normandy’s disembarkation, as shown by the photographs that took of her another journalist and photographer, the great Lee Miller, for Vogue.

“Colette said that the only reason why she did not bother to follow a diet was to wear a Chanel. They had very different ideologies, but they were women wearing pants, short hair and that imposed the chic-comfortable style, which Coco popularized and became a true revolution in women’s clothing of the time”, explains Pilar Pasamontes

THE PANTS AND CHANEL

“Colette created what we could call the modern adolescent of that time. In fact, she was who dragged Coco Chanel to the Moulin Rouge. There are many legends about it, such as the one that says that Chanel was reflected in some of Sidonie-Gabrielle’s literary characters, but nothing is well documented. Now, there is a fact that is true. “Colette said that the only reason why she did not bother to follow a diet was to wear a Chanel. They had very different ideologies, but they were women wearing pants, short hair and that imposed the chic-comfortable style, which Coco popularized and became a true revolution in women’s clothing of the time”, explains Pilar Pasamontes, scientific director of the Istituto Europeo di Design in Barcelona and a Coco Chanel expert.

What’s more, Colette opened in the 1940s at the rue de Miromesnil in Paris a beauty products centre. This attempt, however, was not successful. Its minimalist and unconventional aesthetic was not what Parisians, fascinated by Dior’s New Look, looked for at that time.

Nominated for the Literature Nobel Prize in 1948, shortly before her death and for years president of the Goncourt Academy, Colette is still an example of what, by nature, women are: living beings, in all senses.

In the same way that the movie Coco avant Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, offers a very nickel-plated look about a woman who not only loved Capel, but with a very strategic mind and, often, for the simple enjoyment (as it should be), had multiple lovers, the movie Colette, released last year, with Keira Knightley and Dominic West, is also a too decaffeinated look of the writer and artist. It seems that the icons cannot be displayed as they were when they appear on the big screen, as in the case of Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and, even, Freddie Mercury, among others.

 

Nominated for the Literature Nobel Prize in 1948, shortly before her death and for years president of the Goncourt Academy, Colette is still an example of what, by nature, women are: living beings, in all senses.

Let’s remember her today, remember her every day and enjoy her art, because as Montserrat Roig said: “You do not die so much if you can read. In silence, share the words of the writer, which are past, share them with your present and soon will be future, to understand better the world”.