August 3, 1954—For a woman who had taken up acting upon her arrival in Paris 50 years before, few things could match for drama the death of the 81-year-old writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, better known simply as Colette. The first woman president of the Academie Goncourt and the second woman to be named a grand officer of the Legion d’Honneur, accustomed all her life to storming literary barricades, was now to leave the world in a storm—in fact, the worst thunderstorm to assail her adopted city in 67 years.
Even for someone like this elderly woman who had become known for her sophistication, however, you could take the girl out of the country, but you couldn’t take the country out of the girl. And so, as the storm raged outside, Colette gestured toward the lightning and, in her last conscious act, said the same words uttered by her mother so often when she was a farmgirl in the French provinces: “Look! Look!”
Colette was right when she recalled that urging in a memoir written in her 40s: it’s great advice when you want to develop the observational skills necessary for a fiction writer. But another one of her statement says even more about what cost her to look: “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and a longer time at what pains you.”
Love did both, and the great preponderance of Colette’s work dealt with that theme. She might be best known for her 1944 novel Gigi. It’s hard to say which irony she would appreciate more: The thought that her novel about the education of a courtesan would be turned into a 1958 G-rated musical, or that Hollywood, the land of the casting couch, where few females of any age are safe, would take special delight in a particular Lerner and Loewe tune from this Oscar-winning Best Picture, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
The writer was made of decidedly tougher stuff. She had to be: She was married four times, with the first three marriages decidedly unhappy experiences. She took to the stage in her early 30s because of the need to survive on her own after divorcing her philandering first husband.
In the years immediately before and after WWI, Colette took the lead in breaking down boundaries. A semi-nude photo of her from 1906 caused a sensation between of its frank acknowledgement of female sexuality. Her own writings partook of the same spirit, dealing with lesbianism, bisexuality, and love between older women and younger men.
Her last years mixed triumph and tragedy. Widely acknowledged the best female writer in her country, she had also produced Gigi, often considered her best work, in her early 70s. But, having finally married happily, she had watched in horror as the anti-Semitic attitudes of so many of her countrymen put his life at risk. Unable to leave her apartment in Paris because of illness, she received her many well-wishers surrounded by her treasured cats. Thousands attended her state funeral, a highly unusual honor for a woman at the time.