Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (French: [kɔ.lɛt]; 28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954), known mononymously as Colette, was a French author and woman of letters. She was also known as a mime, actress, and journalist. Colette is best remembered for her 1944 novella Gigi, which was the basis for the 1958 film and the 1973 stage production of the same name.

Colette, possibly in the 1910s
Colette, possibly in the 1910s
BornSidonie-Gabrielle Colette
(1873-01-28)28 January 1873
Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Yonne, France
Died3 August 1954(1954-08-03) (aged 81)
Paris, France
Resting placePère Lachaise Cemetery
Pen nameColette, Colette Willy
Notable worksGigi, The Tendrils of the Vine

Life and careerEdit

Family and backgroundEdit

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born on 28 January 1873 to war hero and tax collector Jules-Joseph Colette (1829-1905) and his wife Adèle Eugénie Sidonie ("Sido"), née Landoy (1835 - 1912), in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the department of Yonne, Burgundy. Jules-Joseph Colette was a Zouave of the Saint-Cyr military school. A war hero who had lost a leg in the Second Italian War of Independence, he was awarded a post as tax collector in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye where his children were born.[1]

Colette attended a public school from the ages of 6 to 17. The family was initially well off, but poor financial management substantially reduced the family's income.[2][3]

Early years, 1873–1912Edit

Colette and Mathilde “Max” de Morny

In 1893, Colette married Henry Gauthier-Villars (1859 – 1931), a well-known author and publisher who used the pen name "Willy",[4] 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.[5][6]

Colette later said she would never have become a writer if it had not been for Willy.[7][3] 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."[8]

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 ill. 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 Natalie Clifford Barney[9] and the gender ambiguous[10] Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf ("Max"), with whom she sometimes shared the stage. On 3 January 1907, an onstage kiss between Max 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.[11][9][12]

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.[11][13][14] Around this time she became an avid amateur photographer.

Writing career, 1920s and 1930sEdit

Colette, painted c. 1896 by Jacques Humbert

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.[15]

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.[11][13]

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.[16] 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.[13][11] La Naissance du Jour (1928) is her explicit criticism of the conventional lives of women, expressed in meditation on age and the renunciation of love by the character of her mother, Sido.[17]

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."[18]

During the 1920s she was associated with the Jewish-Algerian writer Elissa Rhaïs, who adopted a Muslim persona in order to market her novels.[19]

Last years, 1940–1954Edit

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.[20][21] 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).[11] She wrote articles for several pro-Nazi newspapers[22] and her novel Julie de Carneilhan (1941) contains many anti-Semitic slurs.[23]

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.[24] 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 Œuvres 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.[25]

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.[20][21][11][26]


Colette's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Colette was elected to the Belgian Royal Academy (1935), the Académie Goncourt (1945, and President in 1949), and a Chevalier (1920) and Grand Officer (1953) of the Légion d'honneur.[14]

Colette's numerous biographers have proposed widely differing interpretations of her life and work over the decades.[27] 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.[11] 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."[28]

Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash paid tribute to the writer in the song, "The Summer I Read Colette," on her 1996 album 10 Song Demo.[29]

Truman Capote wrote an essay in 1970 about meeting her, 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 he take 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.'”[30]

"Lucette Stranded on the Island" by Julia Holter, from her 2015 album Have You in My Wilderness, is based on a minor character from Colette's short story Chance Acquaintances.[31]

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.[32] 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.

Notable worksEdit

  • Claudine à l'école (1900, translated as Claudine at School)
  • Claudine à Paris (1901, translated as Claudine in Paris)
  • Claudine en ménage (1902, translated as Claudine Married)
  • Claudine s'en va (1903, translated as Claudine and Annie)
  • Dialogues de bêtes (1904)
  • La Retraite sentimentale (1907)
  • Les Vrilles de la vigne (1908)
  • La Vagabonde (1910)
  • L'Envers du music hall (1913)
  • L'Entrave (1913, translated as The Shackle)
  • La Paix chez les bêtes (1916)
  • L'Enfant et les sortilèges (1917, Ravel opera libretto)
  • Mitsou (1919)
  • Chéri (1920)
  • La Maison de Claudine (1922, translated as The House of Claudine)
  • L'Autre Femme (1922, translated as The Other Woman)
  • Le Blé en herbe (1923, translated as Ripening Seed)
  • La Fin de Chéri (1926, translated as The Last of Chéri)
  • La Naissance du jour (1928, translated as Break of Day)
  • Sido (1929)
  • La Seconde (1929, translated as The Other One)
  • Le Pur et l'Impur (1932, translated as The Pure and the Impure)
  • La Chatte (1933)
  • Duo (1934)
  • Julie de Carneilhan (1941)
  • Le Képi (1943)
  • Gigi (1944)
  • Paris de ma fenêtre (1944)
  • L'Étoile Vesper (1947)
  • Le Fanal Bleu (1949, translated as The Blue Lantern)
  • Paradis terrestre, with photographs by Izis Bidermanas (1953)




Films about ColetteEdit

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Jules Joseph Colette (1829 - 1905) at Wikitree, a service of
  2. ^ Tilburg 2008, p. 78.
  3. ^ a b Portuges & Jouve 1994, p. 79.
  4. ^ Koski, Lorna (27 December 2013). "Book Tells Story of Colette's France". Women's Wear Daily. Retrieved 3 January 2014.
  5. ^ Southworth 2004, pp. 111–112.
  6. ^ Flower 2013, p. 78.
  7. ^ Ladimer 1999, pp. 51–53.
  8. ^ "8 Fascinating Facts About Bisexual Legend Colette That You Should Know Before Keira Knightly's Biopic". Autostraddle. 24 July 2018. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  9. ^ a b Rodriguez 2002, p. 131.
  10. ^ van Sant, Cameron (8 October 2018). "Despite Trans Casting, 'Colette' Still Fails Trans Viewers". Into. Retrieved 20 March 2021. Max de Morny is certainly transgender, even if the exact specifics of his identity are difficult to determine.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Flower 2013, p. 145.
  12. ^ Benstock 1986, pp. 48–49.
  13. ^ a b c Portuges & Jouve 1994, p. 80.
  14. ^ a b Cottrell 1991, p. 262.
  15. ^ Jouve 1987, p. 109–111.
  16. ^ Ladimer 1999, p. 57.
  17. ^ Ladimer 1999, p. 57–58.
  18. ^ Flanner 1972, p. 70.
  19. ^ lorcin, patricia m e (2012), Akyeampong, Emmanuel K; Gates, Henry Louis (eds.), "Rhaı¨s, Elissa", Dictionary of African Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780195382075.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-538207-5, retrieved 17 January 2021
  20. ^ a b Portuges & Jouve 1994, pp. 80–81.
  21. ^ a b Rosbottom 2014, p. unpaginated.
  22. ^ "Terry Castle Reviews Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman". London Review of Books. 16 March 2000. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  23. ^ "Wild, controversial and free: Colette, a life too big for film". The Guardian. 7 January 2019. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  24. ^ Snodgrass 2015b, p. unpaginated.
  25. ^ "Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in the Nomination Database". The official website of the Nobel Prize - Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  26. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3rd ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 9128–9129). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  27. ^ "Claudine All Grown Up". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  28. ^ "A Most Lively Genius". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  29. ^ Dana Andrew Jennings (7 April 1996), "POP MUSIC; Songwriters Who Followed Their Literary Muses", The New York Times
  30. ^ Capote, Truman (2007). Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote. Random House. p. 368. ISBN 9780812994391.
  31. ^ "'There's Always A Piece of Me': Julia Holter on Storytelling". NPR. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  32. ^ Hoffman, Jordan (22 January 2018). "Colette review – Keira Knightley is on top form in exhilarating literary biopic". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  33. ^ Norell, Donna M. (1993). Colette: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. Routledge. ISBN 9780824066208.


Further readingEdit

  • Colette: 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.
  • Sylvain Bonmariage, Willy, Colette et moi, with an introduction by Jean-Pierre Thiollet, Anagramme ed., Paris, 2004 (reprint)
  • Annie Goetzinger, The Provocative Colette, NBM, New York, 2018
  • Joanna Richardson, Colette, Methuen, London, 1983
  • Judith Thurman, Secrets of the flesh : a life of Colette, Bloomsbury, London, 1999
  • Petri Liukkonen. "Colette". Books and Writers

External linksEdit