Colette, possibly in the 1890s
28 January 1873
Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Yonne, France
|Died||3 August 1954 (aged 81)|
|Resting place||Père Lachaise Cemetery|
|Pen name||Colette, Colette Willy|
|Notable works||Gigi, The Tendrils of the Vine|
Colette (French: [k?.l?t]; Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 28 January 1873 - 3 August 1954) was a French author and woman of letters nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948; also known as a mime, actress, and journalist. Colette was most widely known for her 1944 novella Gigi (1944), which was the basis for the 1958 film and the 1973 stage production of the same name.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born on 28 January 1873 to war hero and tax collector Jules-Joseph Colette and his wife Adèle Eugénie Sidonie ("Sido"), née Landoy, in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the department of Yonne, Burgundy. The family was initially well off, but poor financial management substantially reduced the family's income, and Colette attended a public school from the ages of 6 to 17.
In 1893, Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars (1859 - 1931), a well-known author and publisher who used the pen name "Willy", and her first four novels - the four Claudine stories: Claudine à l'école (1900), Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s'en va (1903) - appeared under his name. (The four are published in English as Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie). The novels chart the coming of age and young adulthood of their titular heroine, Claudine, from an unconventional fifteen-year-old in a Burgundian village to a doyenne of the literary salons of turn-of-the-century Paris. The story they tell is semi-autobiographical, although Claudine, unlike Colette, is motherless.
Colette later said that she would never have become a writer if it had not been for Willy. Fourteen years older than his wife and one of the most notorious libertines in Paris, he introduced his wife into avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles and encouraged her lesbian alliances, and it was he who chose the titillating subject matter of the Claudine novels: "the secondary myth of Sappho... the girls' school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher", and "locked her in her room until she produced enough pages to suit him."
Colette and Willy separated in 1906, although their divorce was not final until 1910. Colette had no access to the sizable earnings of the Claudine books - the copyright belonged to Willy - and until 1912 she initiated a stage career in music halls across France, sometimes playing Claudine in sketches from her own novels, earning barely enough to survive and often hungry and unwell. This period of her life is recalled in La Vagabonde (1910), which deals with women's independence in a male society, a theme to which she would regularly return in future works. During these years she embarked on a series of relationships with other women, notably with Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf ("Missy"), with whom she sometimes shared the stage. On 3 January 1907, an onstage kiss between Missy and Colette in a pantomime entitled "Rêve d'Égypte" caused a near-riot, and as a result they were no longer able to live together openly, although their relationship continued for another five years.
In 1912, Colette married Henry de Jouvenel, the editor of Le Matin. A daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, nicknamed Bel-Gazou, was born to them in 1913. During World War I Colette devoted herself to journalism. The marriage allowed her to devote her time to writing.Around this point in time she became an avid amateur photographer.
In 1920 Colette published Chéri, portraying love between an older woman and a much younger man. Chéri is the lover of Léa, a wealthy courtesan; Léa is devastated when Chéri marries a girl his own age, and delighted when he returns to her, but after one final night together she sends him away again.
Colette's marriage to Jouvenel ended in divorce in 1924, due partly to his infidelities and partly to her affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel. In 1925 she met Maurice Goudeket, who became her final husband; the couple stayed together until her death.
Colette was by then an established writer (The Vagabond had received three votes for the prestigious Prix Goncourt). The decades of the 1920s and 1930s were her most productive and innovative period. Set mostly in Burgundy or Paris during the Belle Époque, her work focused on married life and sexuality. It was frequently quasi-autobiographical: Chéri (1920) and Le Blé en Herbe (1923) both deal with love between an aging woman and a very young man, a situation reflecting her relationship with Bertrand de Jouvenel and with her third husband Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior.La Naissance du Jour (1928) is her explicit criticism of the conventional lives of women, expressed in a meditation on age and the renunciation of love by the character of her mother, Sido.
By this time Colette 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 (1929). "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."
Colette was 67 years old when the Germans defeated and occupied France, and she remained in Paris, in her apartment in the Palais Royal. Her husband Maurice Goudeket, who was Jewish, was arrested by the Gestapo in December 1941, and although he was released after a few months through the intervention of the French wife of the German ambassador, Colette lived through the rest of the war years with the anxiety of a possible second arrest. During the Occupation she produced two volumes of memoirs, Journal à Rebours (1941) and De ma Fenêtre (1942; the two were issued in English in 1975 as Looking Backwards). She wrote articles for several pro-Nazi newspapers and her novel Julie de Carneilhan (1941) contains many anti-Semitic slurs.
In 1944 Colette published what became perhaps her most famous work, Gigi, which tells the story of sixteen-year-old Gilberte ("Gigi") Alvar. Born into a family of demimondaines, Gigi is trained as a courtesan to captivate a wealthy lover, but defies the tradition by marrying him instead. In 1949 it was made into a French film starring Danièle Delorme and Gaby Morlay, then in 1951 adapted for the stage with the then-unknown Audrey Hepburn in the title role, picked by Colette personally; the 1958 Hollywood musical movie, starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and a score by Lerner and Frederick Loewe, won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In the postwar years, Colette became a famous public figure, crippled by arthritis and cared for by Goudeket, who supervised the preparation of her OEuvres Complètes (1948 - 1950). She continued to write during those years, bringing out L'Etoile Vesper (1944) and Le Fanal Bleu (1949), in which she reflected on the problems of a writer whose inspiration is primarily autobiographical. She was nominated by Claude Farrère for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Upon her death, on 3 August 1954, she was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church on account of her divorces, but given a state funeral, the first French woman of letters to be granted the honour, and interred in Père-Lachaise cemetery.
Colette's numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades. Initially considered a limited if talented novelist (despite the outspoken admiration in her lifetime of figures such as André Gide and Henry de Montherlant), she has been increasingly recognised as an important voice in women's writing. Just before Colette's death, Katherine Anne Porter wrote in the New York Times that Colette "is the greatest living French writer of fiction; and that she was while Gide and Proust still lived."
Truman Capote wrote an essay about meeting her in 1970 called "The White Rose." It tells how, when she saw him admiring a paperweight on a table (the "white rose" of the title), she insisted that he take it it; Capote initially refused the gift, but "...when I protested that I couldn't accept as a present something she so clearly adored, [she replied] 'My dear, really there is no point in giving a gift unless one also treasures it oneself.'" 
In the 1991 film Becoming Colette, Colette is played by the French actress Mathilda May. In the 2018 film Colette, the title character is played by Keira Knightley. Both films focus on Colette's life in her twenties, her marriage to her first husband, and the publication of her first novels under his name.