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French writers: Colette remembered


Born 28 January 1873 in Burgundy, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is known always just as “Colette”.

She was a writer and performer and a woman who attracted controversy, a figure who loved and lived life to its fullest.

You may think that you know nothing of Colette’s writings but many of her works are well known around the world. The film “Gigi” starring Audrey Hepburn was adapted from Colette’s book of the same name and several of her writings have been adapted for the stage and screen.

She was a fascinating woman, married at the age of 20 to a writer and music critic of whom it was said he was a “literary charlatan and degenerate”.  Whilst married to Henry Gauthier-Villars she wrote her first books (Claudine series) using his nom de plume “Willy”. The books scandalised France – and made the pair plenty of money.

Moulin Rouge

After Colette left her unfaithful husband three years after they married she worked in the Paris music halls and became romantically involved with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy”, the daughter of Napoleon III’s brother. Mathilde too was a hugely controversial character wearing trousers in public which seems to have been immensely offensive to almost everyone and the pair’s conduct was considered scandalous. When the two kissed on stage at a pantomime at the Moulin Rouge in 1907 it almost caused a riot which had to be quelled by police.

After several affairs with both men and women Colette married again. She and Henri de Jouvenel, editor of newspaper Le Matin, had a daughter – also called Colette.

Colette’s star as a writer continued to shine, she wrote a ballet for the Paris Opera, several books were published including what are now considered her best works – Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, adapted for film in 2009 (Cheri) and by 1927 she was acknowledged to be one of France’s greatest woman writers. She had by this stage been made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and was later (1953) made a Grand Officier of the Légion d’honneur. Meanwhile she had divorced Henri following a very public affair with his son.

In 1935 she married Maurice Goudeket with whom she stayed for the rest of her life. She continued to write books and poetry publishing a total of 50 novels in her lifetime. The best known is Gigi which was made into a Hollywood film starring Audrey Hepburn who it is said was “discovered” by Colette after she was spotted in a hotel as an unknown actress where she was staying to take part in a different film.

Audrey Hepburn in Gigi

The 78 year old Colette was being propelled through the hotel lobby in her wheelchair sipping a cocktail, magnificent with her red corkscrew curls. The lobby was filled with groups of actors and film technicians with their equipment and the wheelchair got caught up in the wires. Whilst being untangled Colette watched the commotion and the people with her customary curiosity. She noticed a slim girl making the most of this unplanned diversion to have fun. She was dancing about playfully and Colette was struck by her graceful but slightly awkward frolicking and the girl was eye-catchingly pretty. The old author’s eyes narrowed and she announced loudly: ‘Voilà! There is my Gigi!’ It was of course the start of a long and successful career for Audrey Hepburn.

Colette died in Paris on the 3rd August, 1954. She was the first woman to be given a state funeral in France before being laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery.


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