Colette may have been the most gifted writer of her day, but she was also the most scandalous woman in Paris—and society didn’t have to pick up one of her books to find that out. From her disastrous marriages to her even more sordid affairs, Colette put propriety to shame in the most delicious ways possible. Yet for all that, dark and ruinous secrets stain her legacy.
1. She Was Rich
Although she has since become a one-name wonder, Colette was actually born as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in the winter of 1873 in Burgundy, France. Still, even from her first breaths, the little girl was remarkable. After all, her father was the bona fide war hero Jules-Joseph Colette, and her family had a good deal of money for the time. Sadly, her luck was about to change for the tragic.
2. Her Parents Failed Her
In her early years, Colette got nearly as good an education as a woman could in those days, and attended a public school until she was 17. But as Colette soaked up as much knowledge as she could, her family had an enormous downfall. Over the years, her parents so badly mismanaged their money, the brood was almost destitute by the time Colette exited her schooling. Maybe this explains some of Colette’s very bad decision-making.
3. She Fell In Love With A Famous Man
When she was fresh out of school, Colette met and became infatuated with the dashing writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, AKA “Willy.” Still, writing wasn’t exactly what Willy was (in)famous for. He was better known around Paris as one of the most shameless libertines the arrondissements had ever seen, and he indulged in all manner of debauchery at all hours of the night or day. Oh, but that was far from all.
4. She Liked Bad Men
Besides being a notorious bad boy, Colette’s new lover had much more sinister qualities. At 14 years her senior, Willy was much more experienced in life and the linens of the bedroom than the naïve Colette. So while Willy was all too happy to take Colette under his wing and introduce her to all the avant-garde luminaries of their day, Colette would find out too late what a double-edged sword this was.
5. She Married For Status
In 1893, at just barely 20 years old, Colette sealed the deal with her “Willy,” marrying him in an official ceremony. At first, it was all sunshine and rainbows. Not only did the marriage offer Colette some long-awaited financial stability, but she also started dipping her toes into writing herself; she published her first book, the coming-of-age novel Claudine à l’école, just a year later. Only…there was one gaping issue.
6. Her Husband Stole Her Work
Although Colette would go on to publish four Claudine novels and gain literary acclaim through them, she had to make a great sacrifice for her fame. Partly because of the social mores of the day and partly because she was still inexperienced, Colette actually published all of these novels under her husband’s “Willy” name. Yeah, as we’ll see….this was an extremely bad idea. And actually, the problems were already underway.
7. She Married A Good-For-Nothing
See, while Colette was all starry-eyed for her smart, handsome, man about town, anyone who had really been around Willy for more than a few weeks knew the truth: He was an almost complete and total fake. In fact, he barely wrote at all, and instead functioned more as an impresario and pen name for other, more talented ghostwriters to pump up his brand. Ooh girl, run away now.
8. Her Husband Pimped Her Out
In the ultimate gross guy move, Willy couldn’t help but get greedy over the success of the Claudine novels. Soon, he had branded Colette’s creative endeavors out into all manner of merchandise, including everything from soaps and perfumes to school uniforms and cigars. After all, why not treat your wife like a cash cow? In fact, why not amp up the mistreatment…
9. She Got A Disturbing Wedding Gift
During their marriage, Colette’s husband didn’t let a ring stop him from doing exactly what—and whom—he pleased, and he didn’t waste any time getting back to his side pieces around Paris. This had heartbreaking consequences. Not only did the young Colette fall into a deep depression as her rosy view of her marriage shattered, but it’s also very likely that Willy gave her gonorrhea in their early years together. Would you believe it gets worse?
10. Her Husband Treated Her Like A Prisoner
Willy’s paternal control over his wife’s publications was one thing, but behind closed doors, he was utterly chilling. According to one story that Colette herself liked to tell, during the creation of the Claudine novels, Willy often “locked her in her room until she produced enough pages to suit him.” Okay, that’s rough, but maybe she asked for the motivation to work. Well, you’re going to want to sit down for this next one.
11. She Wrote To “Please” Her Husband
Willy’s bedroom appetites were the stuff of legend around Paris, and his libido even had an enormous effect on Colette’s work. The Claudine novels weren’t just coming-of-age stories, they were also Sapphic, sensual pieces of art, and it was Willy himself who insisted on this tone. He drove Colette to write about a “girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher.”
Only, as it happened, fiction wasn’t enough for Willy.
12. She Made Scandalous Friends
A good many of Willy and Colette’s friends were in the lesbian artistic set, and when Colette was still discovering what her sexuality was, Willy pushed her to make alliances with these women to boost her star power—and, you know, maybe direct some attention away from his endless affairs. But there was one thing Willy might not have been counting on: Colette, uh, really liked these women. And she was waking the heck up.
13. She Was A Cool Girl
As the years wore on in her untraditional but nonetheless unhappy marriage, Colette started coping in strange ways. When she discovered that Willy was having yet another affair with his long-term mistress Charlotte Kinceler, Colette pulled the ultimate “no, I’m cool, everything is normal” move and later became Charlotte’s close friend. Then she went from making friends to getting revenge.
14. She Got Back At Her Husband
Soon enough, Colette did what many women would do and struck up her own affair, taking up with the beautiful American writer and socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval in March of 1901. With her literary star flying high and a devoted lover on her arm, Colette must have felt fully in her power. Except…as her tryst continued, there was a very crucial piece of information she was missing.
15. She Was In A Soap Opera Plot
Let it not be said that Colette and Willy were completely mismatched for each other because they apparently had the same taste in women. See, shortly after Colette seduced Georgie, her husband Willy also jumped into bed with the socialite, though neither spouse knew about their soap-opera predicament. And when they did find out, it produced their most scandalous scene yet.
16. She Had A Public Menage A Trois
Gossip always gets out, so it was only a matter of time before Colette and Willy realized they had the exact same side piece. Instead of fighting over it, however, the sexually liberated Parisians decided to become a threesome and even took Georgie to the Bayreuth festival together to partake in some music-making….as well as other things.
Still, you know what they always say: Every ill-conceived polyamorous marriage has to implode eventually. And oh, did it ever.
17. She Had A Drawn-Out Divorce
As Colette explored her sexuality, she began to look upon Willy and her marriage more as a burden than a safety blanket. In 1906, after more than a decade together, the 33-year-old Colette (finally!) split from her not-great husband, though the divorce only officially went through a full four years later, in 1910. In the meantime, Colette had an extremely rude awakening.
18. Her Ex Backstabbed Her
While Colette had been under Willy’s wing, things hadn’t been the best. But after her separation, she experienced a vicious betrayal. Because she had published the Claudine novels under the umbrella of Willy’s brand, it was her husband, not her, who owned all the extensive copyrights—and he refused to let her see a cent of the heaps of money the novels made.
Instead, the celebrated writer experienced crushing poverty once more. But she was Colette, dammit. She knew what she had to do.
19. She Went To Desperate Measures
In 1912, Colette took to the stage, playing her “Claudine” character in any production that would have her, earning pennies for her work and barely scraping by on the scraps of bread they would buy her. Only, there was quite the silver lining: Working on the stage put Colette into contact with scores of beautiful, liberal women…and Colette was ready to take full advantage.
20. She Went Both Ways
While working on the stage and still writing on the side, one of Colette’s habits scandalized “polite” society. She entered into several high-profile relationships with women, including the novelist Natalie Clifford Barney, a woman-eater if there ever was one and one of the most influential society women. But when it came to her love affairs, Colette was just warming up.
21. She Had A Scandalous Lover
After splitting from the frankly horrific Willy, Colette sowed her wild oats in a big way. One of her other lovers was the dashing trans-masculine Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, who went by the name of “Max,” or “Uncle Max” (if you’re nasty). De Morny was one of the most scandalous figures in Paris, having been assigned female at birth but who dressed and lived openly as man, defying scores of French laws with impeccable style.
In other words, handsome Uncle Max was just what the doctor ordered for the rebounding Colette, and it wasn’t long before they shacked up together. But with a pair as hot and heavy as those two, drama would always follow.
22. She Mixed Business With Pleasure
Both Colette and Max were obsessed with performing on the stage at this point, and they decided to shake up the theater world with one infamous act. On January 3, 1907, the couple put on the pantomime Rêve d’Égypte together, performing it at the notorious Moulin Rouge. The crowd that night must have been expecting a risqué act—but nothing could have prepared them for what they saw.
23. She Almost Started A Riot
During their performance together, de Morny played an Egyptologist romancing Colette’s character, and during one love scene, the pair shared a kiss for the titillation of the crowd. It was instant pandemonium. Even this libertine audience clutched their pearls at the idea of two people they perceived as women getting their PDA on, and they nearly started a riot. Still, more dire consequences were ahead.
24. She Had A Star-Crossed Love
Colette and de Morny’s kiss was no flash in the pan scandal. The authorities shut down the production entirely, and the infamy crept into their private lives as well. Where before they could live together in relative peace as, ahem, “roommates,” they now had to keep any of their cohabitations a secret, even as they continued their relationship for five more years.
Soon enough, though, Colette was moving on from high society gossip to genuine infamy.
25. She Married Up
By 1912, Colette seemed to have moved on from both de Morny and this more bohemian phase of her life. She met and then married her second husband, the respectable Henry de Jouvenel, who was the editor of the French daily paper Le Matin and came from a long line of lawyers and politicians. The next year, they even had a child together, a daughter they named Colette and nicknamed “Bel-Gazou,” which is colloquial French for “beautiful babbling.”
Yes, it seems like Colette finally had it all…but appearances can be deceiving.
26. She Abandoned Her Daughter
One of the early warning signs in Colette’s new marriage was her relationship with little Bel-Gazou. Which is to say, she had very little of one. Although she had waited a long time to have children, Colette seemed to regret the one she did have, and she was regularly away from the girl for six months at a time during her most formative years. Unfortunately, that’s not even the whole story.
27. She Was Physically Abusive
Colette had very little patience for grown men, and she seemed to have even less for her daughter. One day, it came to an extremely disturbing climax. Colette confessed that, at one point, Bel-Gazou angered her so terribly, she grabbed a horsewhip to whack her with. Thankfully, a friend intervened, tearing it out of her hand to prevent her from using it.
Perhaps most tragic of all, Colette made no apologies for her behavior. Quite the opposite, actually.
28. She Was Proud Of Her Negligence
Sure, it was difficult to be a woman let alone a mother during this time, and Colette endured more than her fair share of hardship before having Bel-Gazou. Even so, being a bad parent gave her a sense of pride; she believed that her refusal to be a “happy and tender” mother prevented her from becoming “a mediocre author.” And then there was her husband…
29. Her Husband Betrayed Her
While Colette’s financially stable marriage to de Jouvenel seemed placid on the surface, underneath they were hiding dark secrets. For one, Colette’s new husband seemed to value fidelity as little as her first, and he was constantly having affairs with a multitude of women around Paris. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is bad. But Collette’s actions were much, much worse.
30. She Was A Cradle-Robber
De Jouvenel had been married before, and had a young son, Bertrand de Jouvenel, with his first wife. For a long time, Bertrand was out of the picture in their marriage, but in 1920, the nearly 50-year-old Colette finally met the now 16-year-old Bertrand…and sparks flew. Before long, the teenager stepson and the seasoned stepmother struck up an affair right under daddy’s nose.
In case you’re wondering, this went nowhere good.
31. Her Husband Found Out Her Secret
Whether she was getting back at her husband or too lost in her young lover, Colette really went off the deep end when it came to Bertrand—and she wasn’t subtle about it. Although they managed to carry on their tryst for a whopping four years, Henry de Jouvenel eventually found out about the cradle-robbing situation, as one usually does. His reaction was swift and brutal.
32. She Had A Bitter Split
Henry de Jouvenel was (pretty justifiably) horrified at the thought of his wife getting it on with his son, and he gave Colette no mercy. In 1924, the same year that he discovered the affair, de Jouvenel divorced the writer, pushing her out of her cushy existence and setting the Parisian gossip grapevines atwitter. Did Colette learn from this colossal mistake? No, not at all.
33. She Rushed Into Her Third Marriage
For all that Colette had sacrificed her second marriage for her young lover Bertrand de Jouvenel, they didn’t survive the humiliation of the discovery and divorce and stopped seeing each other almost immediately after. But this only pushed Colette into more and more risky decisions. Just a year after the split, she met her next husband, Maurice Goudeket.
And there were a lot of alarm bells ringing right off the top.
34. She Liked Younger Men
Besides the fact that Colette probably should have been taking a breather from love and not jumping into a committed relationship, there were other issues with Maurice Goudeket. Like the fact that, like Bertrand, he too was significantly younger than Colette, being 16 years her junior. I guess Colette now had a type. Even so, this third marriage was doomed for much more shocking reasons.
35. Her World Changed For The Worse
During the 1940s, Colette was in her 60s and still married to Maurice Goudeket when the world turned upside down. The Germans now occupied Colette’s beloved France in the middle of WWII, and far worse was on the way. See, Goudeket was actually Jewish, and he and Colette waited breathlessly for a knock on the door in the middle of the night from the Gestapo. One day, it came.
36. She Witnessed Her Husband’s Arrest
In December 1941, Colette’s worst nightmare happened, and the Germans forcibly arrested her husband on trumped-up charges. For a handful of months, Colette was on tenterhooks about Goudeket’s fate, until at long last she had a stroke of luck. The French wife of a German ambassador managed to convince the Gestapo to let Maurice go, and he and Colette had a tearful reunion.
Yet tragically, the damage was very much done.
37. She Had Bad Opinions
Colette had lived her life up until this point on the cutting, libertine edge of everything, but she then went through a terrifying transformation. Whether out of inborn prejudice or a desire to please the authorities and keep her husband from more jail time, she spent the final years of WWII writing for pro-Reich newspapers, and her writing featured anti-Semitic language.
Somehow, though, Colette’s influence only rose in her final years, and all because of one book.
38. She Wrote Her Most Famous Novel Late In Life
In 1944, the aging Colette went from French celebrity to international superstar when she published Gigi, her novel about a courtesan who falls in love with one of her clients. The book became an instant success, and in 1949, just five years after its publication, a French film came out starring Danièle Delorme and Gaby Morlay. Then suddenly, Colette hit Hollywood in a big way.
39. She Discovered A Famous Starlet
As Gigi continued to reap success and rewards on the page and on the screen, producers decided to turn it into a stage play as well and began casting about for the titular character. Colette ended up turning an unknown actress into a star. The writer personally picked a young Audrey Hepburn to star as Gigi, launching Hepburn’s storied career.
But Audrey wasn’t the only famous person Colette hobnobbed with.
40. Truman Capote Was A Huge Fan
During this time, Colette hung out with literary luminaries like Truman Capote, and she made quite an impression on the writer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In his essay “The White Rose,” Capote recalls being with Colette and noticing a paperweight of a white rose on her table. It struck Capote as beautiful, and he said as much to the older writer. Her response was surprising.
41. She Gave Some Good Advice
Colette wasn’t necessarily famous for her warm, fuzzy demeanor, but when Capote complimented the item, Colette immediately insisted that he take it home with him. When Capote objected because she so clearly loved the paperweight, she only pressed further, saying, “My dear, really there is no point in giving a gift unless one also treasures it oneself.”
42. She Was Second-Best
Throughout her life, Colette had countless dramatic romances, but she had only one arch-enemy. For decades, many considered Colette as a close second to the French writer Marcel Proust, who wrote the infamously difficult In Search of Lost Time. Still, in recent years others have contested this second-best position, with the New York Times declaring in 1951 that “She is the greatest living French writer of fiction [and] she was while Gide and Proust still lived.”
43. She Hated Other Women
Colette may have justly earned her reputation as one of France’s greatest writers, but—even besides her anti-Semitic writings—not all of her opinions were heroic. While she valued women’s freedoms, she also despised suffragettes and political collectives of women. As she once said, “You know what suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”
44. She Was A Jack Of All Trades
Colette didn’t just stick to writing and acting throughout her life but also took up a host of other passions and hobbies. At one point, she even opened a chain of beauty salons, using her long-suffering daughter Bel-Gazou as one of her makeover models. Given Colette’s shaky reputation as a mother, this may have been more of a backhanded compliment than anything.
Some of her other interests, however, were even more provocative.
45. She Kissed And Told
Many of Colette’s extensive writings were based on her own personal experiences, and she wrote about subjects like marital intimacy, motherhood, and friendship with an honestly that raised even her friends’ eyebrows. In one book, Claudine Married, Colette even divulged on a threesome she was having in real time, and with such detail that the other woman tried to get the book destroyed.
46. She Never Forgot Her First
Even in her later years, Colette could never fully renounce her first husband Willy’s influence over her life. According to her, she would never have even picked up a pen and started writing if it weren’t for her husband acting as her mentor and, you know, passing off her work as his own. Okay, I added that last part, but show me the lie and I’ll take it back.
47. She Was A Modern Woman
Colette truly was a woman ahead of her time, and this happened beyond the pages of her writings. She was also an avant-garde proponent of modern pastimes like sushi, perms, and weightlifting, and she actively participated in beautification like facelifts as well as health tactics such as acupuncture. After all, she was the Colette, and she strove to uphold her celebrated reputation at all costs.
But although the end of her life was full of success, tragedy came back for Colette at last.
48. Her Last Years Were Full Of Pain
Although Colette spent her later years as the toast of Paris—she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948— she was in unbelievable pain. She suffered with debilitating arthritis, and her younger, healthier husband Maurice Goudeket had to act more as her nurse than her lover as she entered the twilight of her life.
But all the same, she did have one last scandal up her sleeve.
49. The Church Refused To Bury Her
On August 3, 1954, Colette passed at the ripe old age of 81, having achieved things most women of her generation could only dream about. Nonetheless, she still had powerful enemies. The Catholic Church, officially because of her many divorces, refused to let her have a Catholic burial. Don’t worry, though, Colette still managed to one-up the government from beyond the grave.
50. She Lies With The Greats
In the end, Colette didn’t need no stinking Catholic burial; she got a state funeral instead for her contributions to French letters. Indeed, she was the very first woman writer to receive a state funeral. If you ever want to visit her grave, she is interred in the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, alongside other scandalous women like the Countess of Castiglione.