Her name arouses extreme reactions among readers of her steamy novels. Passionate devotion or disgust, there is nothing in between.
Colette’s admirers see her as a pioneer who lived a life of sexual liberation entirely by her own rules, decades before the permissive society. Others dismiss her as a bourgeois nymphet, an unprincipled exploiter of men — and women — and a voracious libertine who bedded either sex with a wilful abandon.
She was also the first woman to go up in an airship, among the first women to have a facelift and a permanent wave in her hair, owned a beauty parlour and even had a gym installed in her home.
Keira Knightley (pictured) is playing the author in a new biopic of her life released this week. Colette’s admirers see her as a pioneer who lived a life of sexual liberation entirely by her own rules, decades before the permissive society
One of Collete’s husband’s many mistresses was Georgie Raoul-Duval, an heiress from Louisiana. Willy and Colette bedded her on alternate nights. In the film, Georgie is played by Poldark star Eleanor Tomlinson (pictured)
Colette (pictured) was married three times, slept with one husband’s mistress, had her first child at 40 and seduced her 16-year old stepson when she was 47
She was married three times, slept with one husband’s mistress, had her first child at 40 and seduced her 16-year old stepson when she was 47. But she wrote quite brilliantly about the pleasures and the pain of a self-centred life, flaunting her greed and her excesses.
Even so, when she appeared on stage at the notorious Moulin Rouge in Paris and shared a lingering lesbian kiss with her cross-dressing female lover, a full-scale riot broke out. The outraged audience, crying ‘down with the dykes’, hurled coins and garlic at the two women.
Such an uproar could have ended most careers but Colette, so famous she was known to her readers just by her last name, thrived on notoriety. What the French adored — although some could not disguise their distaste at her vulgarity — was that in the prim, buttoned-up era of the early 1900s, she wrote about sex, concealing nothing from her besotted readers.
When she fell in love, she wrote it up in instalments even as it happened, publishing them in magazines and newspapers. When the affair ended, that, too, was described in her weekly columns.
Such was her fame that when she died in 1954, aged 81, and was refused a mass by the Roman Catholic church on account of her scandalous life, she became the first woman to be honoured with a state funeral instead.
Keira Knightley, who plays the author in a new biopic of her life released this week, says: ‘Colette had female lovers and had what, I suppose, we would call a transgender lover. She felt it was her right to experience pleasure and give pleasure. That’s still a revolutionary idea for women.’
So what is the racy truth about this literary icon who was also a music hall star, produced her own range of cosmetics and was the first woman to report from the Front during World War I?
To many, her ideas about sex, desire and morality seem so modern that it comes as something of a shock to discover that she was born in 1873 in a village three hours by train from Paris that was the epitome of French provincial life. Her family, however, was anything but typical.
Her father, a one-legged war veteran-turned-tax-collector, married her mother less than a year after her first husband died in his sleep — indeed the second of that unfortunate man’s children was widely believed to have been fathered by Captain Jules Colette.
It was into this rural backwater one day, when Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was 16, that a man named Henri Gauthier-Villars arrived. He was nearly twice her age, and had served in the army with her father.
Pot-bellied Henri, a prolific author who wrote under the pen-name Willy, had an insatiable appetite for young female flesh and was a renowned Parisian rake.
But though still a teenager, dark-haired Colette was no puritan, and exuded a ripe sensuality. In the new film Willy, played by Dominic West, makes love to her in a barn near the home she shares with her parents and siblings.
Keira stars as Colette (born Gabrielle Sidonie Colette) in the biographical movie following the story of the French novelist and her tempestuous relationship with husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as ‘Willy’ (played by Dominic West)
In 1893, while she was still only 19, Willy married Colette and moved his child bride, as she was dubbed by an acquaintance, to Paris, where they floated between high society salons and the demi-monde.
Marriage, however, was no obstacle to Willy’s compulsive womanising. West describes Willy as ‘a total s***, a narcissist and an exploiter, who drank and ate to excess, smoked heavily and was having sex three times a day.’
He was also what can only be described as a ‘literary entrepreneur’. Rather than writing himself, he employed an army of ghostwriters to churn out books under his name.
To keep his wife from becoming bored, he encouraged her to write, locking her in a room at their flat on the Rue Jacob.
She wrote four novels about a sexually reckless teenager. The first, Claudine At School, was regarded as extremely racy and became a huge hit when it came out in 1900. Willy published his wife’s first four books under his own name — they were all bestsellers — and kept the copyright, thus depriving her of a small fortune in royalties.
Only after their divorce did Colette extract from him the admission that it was she who wrote the books.
While his wife wrote, the libidinous Willy took one mistress after another. In return, Gauthier-Villars told his wife she could cheat on him, but only with women, a stipulation she scrupulously adhered to. In the beginning she had been wildly jealous of Willy’s other women, but she came to accept his infidelity as incurable.
Petite and striking, with piercing hazel eyes, Colette was proud of her firm and athletic body. Men and women fell for her. One of Willy’s many mistresses was Georgie Raoul-Duval, an heiress from Louisiana. Willy and Colette bedded her on alternate nights.
In the film, Georgie is played by Poldark star Eleanor Tomlinson, who is seen allowing Colette to unbutton her silk blouse to expose a breast.
Colette is set for release in the UK at the beginning of January. Joining Keira and Dominic in the movie is Eleanor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart and Fiona Shaw
Then, in 1901, Willy met 16-year old Marguerite Maniez, who called herself Meg and who would become his second wife. It is said that Colette, Willy and Meg were at one point a threesome.
Whatever the truth, it was around this time that Colette met the woman she would leave Willy for — Sophie-Matilde de Mornay, Marquise de Belbouef, or Missy as she preferred to be known.
Colette and Willy separated in 1906 but their acrimonious divorce was not settled until 1910, when Colette’s life began to follow the plot of her latest novel The Vagabond, the tale of a divorcee who becomes a dancer.
That was when she appeared, half-naked, at the Moulin Rouge. Missy, ten years older than Colette and a niece of Napoleon III, a former emperor of France, was a renowned lesbian who always dressed as a man.
Colette took to wearing a silver bracelet engraved with the words ‘I belong to Missy’. As she wrote in The Vagabond: ‘What else could I do? Needlework, typing, streetwalking? Music hall is a profession for those who have never learned one.’
In the uproar that followed when she bared a breast on stage and performed entirely naked beneath a see-through veil, even her mother intervened. ‘How do you dare pose practically naked?’ she asked.
The relationship, however, was not to last. After a string of affairs with men and women — occasionally at the same time — she met Henry de Jouvenal, editor of Le Matin, Paris’s leading morning newspaper.
‘Can’t you write a book that isn’t about love, adultery, semi-incestuous couplings and separation?’ he asked her. So Colette started to write a weekly column for Le Matin. It prompted one senior staff member to threaten to resign if this ‘circus performer’ was taken on — she was and he did.
It was with de Jouvenal that Colette had her first and only child at the age of 40, conceived, apparently, on the night her mother died in 1913.
Colette was not a good mother, and sent her daughter to live far away with an austere English nanny, sometimes going a year without seeing her. Years later, when her daughter announced she was a lesbian, Colette was disgusted.
Colette and Willy separated in 1906 but their acrimonious divorce was not settled until 1910, when Colette’s life began to follow the plot of her latest novel The Vagabond, the tale of a divorcee who becomes a dancer
While her war reporting flourished, her second marriage did not. Like Willy, de Jouvenal never gave up other women. In 1920, Colette took her revenge — scandalously bedding her unfaithful husband’s teenage son, Bertrand, during a family holiday. Colette was three years short of her 50th birthday, Bertrand just 16.
Again the encounter mirrored the plot of another of her books, Cheri, about the love between an older woman and much younger man. First she kissed the trembling youth on the lips, and then after intercepting him on the stairs told him: ‘It’s time you for you to become a man.’
He later told a friend that it took ‘all of her skills’ to complete his initiation. But he also said his stepmother had been a ‘demanding, voracious, expert and rewarding professor of desire’.
This relationship, so exquisitely French, continued in secret for almost five years. It wasn’t just sex, she saw it as an education since she was also opening his mind to literature.
In 1991, Colette’s biographer Judith Thurman interviewed one of Bertrand’s surviving friends, Rene Aujol.
Though frail, he was lucid and when asked why Colette had seduced her stepson, observed: ‘There was the thrill of incest, a bit of that. Her whole life was a theatre piece . . . there was also the thrill of vengeance against an unfaithful husband.
‘You must also understand that Colette was a provocatrice. She belonged to the first generation of 20th-century sexual revolutionaries . . . the more fundamental a taboo, the better to defy it. And one must not underestimate the carnality, the very genuine and passionate physical attraction between the two of them.’
But in 1924, Colette parted from Henry and Bertrand for her future third husband Maurice Goudeket, a dealer in pearls, who was 16 years her junior.
Remaining in occupied Paris throughout World War II, she worried constantly that her Jewish husband might be arrested by the Gestapo. He spent much of the war years hidden in an attic.
Towards the end of the conflict, she penned perhaps her most successful story, Gigi.
For West to portray Colette’s husband Willy, measures had to be put in place when it came to his costume and Dominic was forced to wear a fat suit throughout filming – which Keira reveals proved to be problematic for the pair’s intimate scenes
The novella tells the story of a young woman being groomed for life as courtesan and her relationship with a rich older man, and was later made into a musical starring Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.
The American writer Martha Gellhorn, who married Bertrand a few years later, described Colette as ‘a terrible woman. She was hell. She hated me from the first look. She would sit on her deckchair like an odalisque. Her green feline eyes and her little nasty lips had a bitter shadow.’
To the public, however, she was still feted. Despite all the scandal she was welcomed into the heart of the French establishment and made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
To the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Colette was ‘the only great woman writer in France’. She added: ‘She was the most beautiful woman, she danced in music halls, slept with a lot of men, wrote pornographic novels and then good novels.’
In later life, she was plagued by arthritis and confined to a wheelchair, often pushed by her devoted husband Maurice.
Her former teenage lover Bertrand continued to adore her. Yet as Martha Gellhorn said acidly: ‘He never understood when he was in the presence of evil.’