Colette: The Grit & Grandeur of Paris

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of The Vagabond, Colette's classic novel that describes the simultaneous decadence and grittiness of Paris in 1910. The book is set against the backdrop of the music-hall dressing room, the vaudeville stage, and — probably most interesting to Apartment Therapy readers — the bohemian Parisian flat.

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Henri de Tolouse Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/1895

Like many of Colette's books, The Vagabond is about a woman — Renée Néré — who has chosen an unconventional path. As the book begins, she's divorced, making a living at the music-hall, and renting an apartment in a building that "compassionately shelters quite a colony of 'ladies on their own'." This passage offers a glimpse into the way the author used interior décor to allude to a character's outsider status:

    "The problem is, since I have been living alone, that I have had to live, then divorce, then to go on living. To do all that demands incredible activity and persistence. And to get where? Is there, for me, no other haven than this commonplace room done up in gimcrack Louis XVI?"


A celebrated novelist in her lifetime, Colette wrote about the material world — including fashion, nightlife, food, and interior design — in a way that was substantial enough to earn her a lasting place in the literary canon but commercially appealing enough to inspire a branded mini-empire.

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Michelle Pfeiffer in the 2009 film adaptation of Cheri

Her first novels — a series of semi-autobiographical books about a heroine named Claudine — inspired "Claudine" cigarettes and face powders at the beginning of the 1900s. Even today, her legacy is tied to commercial success. Her name now belongs to a contemporary cutting-edge Parisian boutique, located just blocks away from her former apartment at the Palais Royal, and just last year, Michelle Pfeiffer starred in the 10th film adaptation of one of her novels, the 1920 book Chéri.

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Colette in a publicity still for the 1907 pantomime Reve d'Egypte

Colette's books were often described as "shocking" and "scandalous," and her life was no less so. In her twenties, she married a man 15 years her senior. In her thirties, she divorced him, began performing at the Moulin Rouge, and had a long lesbian relationship with the Marquise de Belboeuf, a fellow performer known as "Missy." In her thirties, Colette married newspaper editor Henri de Jouvenel, had a notorious affair with his son, and divorced. (Like many of the events in her life, the affair inspired a book, The Ripening Seed.) In her sixties, she married her third husband, a man 17 years her junior.

She lived in many different homes, from a house in St. Tropez to an apartment in the Palais Royal, where she stayed into old age. It was there, during WWII, that she hid her third husband — Maurice Goudeket — in an attic to keep him from being found by Nazis. After the war, she hosted local luminaries at her home, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau.

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Colette, 1905 and 1951

In 1945, she became the first woman ever admitted into the prestigious Académie Goncourt, of which she later became president. In 1953, a year before her death, she became a Grand Officier of the French Légion d'Honneur.

It was around this time that Julia Child spotted the "Grande Dame" in her special seat reserved at the Véfour — Paris' ancient and famous "restaurant gastronomique." "She was a short woman," Child wrote in My Life in France, "with a striking, almost fierce visage, and a wild tangle of gray hair. As she paraded regally through the dining room, she avoided our eyes but observed what was on everyone's plate and twitched her mouth."

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The Vagabond (1910) and Break of Day (1928)

Like Paris itself, Colette was both elegant and rough around the edges. Biographers and journalists have followed her life through various French addresses (see links below), from her origins in Burgundy to the gardens near the Louvre, where she often walked in her later years. But the best way to get a sense of Colette's Paris is to read her books — she wrote 80 of them, many now out of print, but others confirmed classics.

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Photos: (1) Colette, 1951, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, (2) Un petit marin au regard mutin, 1901, Collection De Jouvenel - Musée Colette - Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye dans l'Yonne, used under public domain, (3) Collette by Jacques Humbert, 1896, used under public domain via Wikimedia Commons, (4) Colette rue de Courcelles, 1905, Collection De Jouvenel - Musée Colette - Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye dans l'Yonne, used under public domain, (5) Henri de Tolouse Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/1895, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, used under public domain via Wikimedia Commons, (6) Colette in a publicity still for the 1907 pantomime Rêve d'Égypte, used under public domain via Wikimedia Commons, (7) Colette et Henry de Jouvenel, 1917, Collection De Jouvenel - Musée Colette - Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye dans l'Yonne, used under public domain, (8) Colette, the Vagabond, at Amazon.com, (9) Colette, Break of Day at Amazon.com, (10) Michelle Pfeiffer playing a Colette-inspired character in the 2009 film, Cheri via IMDB