Happy Birthday, Colette!

By Johna Till Johnson 

Freshly Pressed on the WordPress.com home page!

You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.

Colette, in costume

Colette, in costume…

Okay, you probably didn’t know that. You might not even remember who Colette is, though chances are, you’re familiar with at least one of her works.

And you’re probably wondering why you should care about her birthday, or her.

Let me take a step back. This year,  Vlad and I have adopted a new tradition: We’ve selected a pantheon of personal heroes, and heroines—people whose spirits and lives matter to us—and are making a conscious effort to celebrate their birthdays.

Colette’s is the first, but there will be plenty of others.

So why did we select her?

Colette was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. She was a prolific and  brilliant writer, and supported herself throughout her life with her creative endeavors.

Her work included fiction, journalism, and memoirs; a contemporary described her as “the best living writer in France”, though most of her work is unfamiliar to American readers.

In the U.S., she’s most famous for the novella Gigi, which became a Broadway play, and then a movie, starring previously-unknown actress Audrey Hepburn.  (See? You’ve probably heard of the play or the movie, even if you’d forgotten who wrote it.)

In addition to being a writer, she was an actress, a dancer, and a businesswoman: She started a line of cosmetics that played off the phenomenal success of the main character of one of her early novels. This kind of “product merchandising” didn’t become commonplace until the middle of the 20th century—but Colette pioneered it early on.

Colette in her later years

Colette in her later years

Her accomplishments are impressive, and towards the end of her life she was recognized for them:  She was admitted to the Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature (the French Academy refused to admit a woman), was the second woman in history to be made a grand officer of the Legion of Honor, and was the first woman to be given a funeral of state in France.

But her achievements weren’t the reason we selected her.

It was her spirit: astonishingly forward-looking (if somewhat unorthodox), determinedly hedonistic, down-to-earth, and above all, true to herself.

She believed in the value of physical exercise—at a time when most women were warned that athleticism would damage their “womanly organs” and undermine their femininity. And she had a remarkably healthy attitude toward exercise:  She did it because it felt good and she enjoyed the play of her shapely muscles, not to burn calories.   Although she kept in spectacular shape for much of her life, she strongly disapproved of the “cult of slimness” that was just beginning to emerge.

In fact, Colette was all about feeling good for its own sake, not to meet any outside standards.

She loved sunshine, gardening, and “digging in the good earth”. (She set up her gymnastics bars so she could exercise outside, thereby predating CrossFit by more than a century.)

She was an adventuress, spending several years working as a dance-hall actress (a profession anathema to well-brought-up young French girls). This was both a way to earn a living (imperative after her first marriage ended) and a way to gather material for her work.

And she loved good food, which she defined as steak, oysters, fresh cream, and anything “fresh out of the garden”. (Again, a strikingly modern perspective, entirely in tune with the current “real food” movement.)

Her love life was unconventional—though not necessarily any more so than that of her male peers. Presumably because she was a beautiful woman, though, it got—and continues to get—a lot of attention. (Really, people: Why does the fact that Erwin Schrödinger lived openly with his wife and his mistress not even merit a mention in his Wikipedia entry, while Colette’s entry covers her romantic history in depth before even mentioning her awards and honors?)

Young Colette

Colette’s last words: “What a beautiful life I’ve had.”

What was also unusual was her refusal to apologize for her romantic choices. She divorced her first husband for philandering, and when her second did the same, she seduced his son (thereby, unsurprisingly, causing the end of that marriage). Her third marriage—to a much younger man—endured until her death. (I don’t mean to shortchange her other significant relationship, a long-term affair with a French noblewoman that ended rather tragically.)

Her choices weren’t always wise—but they were hers.

And that’s the point of Colette—she did what made sense to her. She looked at life with clear eyes that saw through hypocrisy, and kicked convention to the curb when it didn’t suit her.

We’re honoring Colette by savoring steak and oysters with some friends and colleagues. We think she’d approve.

Happy birthday, Colette, and many happy returns…  to Colette, and the upcoming heroes and heroines of 2013.

199 responses to “Happy Birthday, Colette!

  1. what a great post! thank you for the summary of her life; she was a strong woman! i look forward to the lineup of birthday posts! z

  2. Fantastic post!!
    She has two other books that are made into movies: ‘Cheri’ which I highly recommend. And ‘Bel Ami’ I watched it recently and loved it.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I didn’t realize that “Cheri” was made into a movie. It’s actually one of my favorite works of hers–it’s beautiful and bleak all at once.

      If they did it today, I would imagine Nicole Kidman as Lea…but who would play Cheri?

      Have not read/seen Bel Ami but will look out for it… thanks for the tip!

  3. Yes, it was a great post about a terrific woman (my mother was a fan – of Colette and that era in France – and had a few of her books, so I did know of her), and I look forward to all the other birthdays on your heroes list this year – but what I think is terrific is that you’ve come up with yet another wonderful idea (observing and photographing your ‘spot’ in Central Park was inspired!). I’m sure you’ll enjoy celebrating today’s heroine as much as she would have :)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! Actually I have to confess the idea isn’t original–it was inspired by a guy named Raymond Barnett, a retired biologist and adventurer who wrote a wonderful book about the everyday practice of the Dao (“Relax, You’re Already Home”). Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have a blog or much of a social media presence, though he does have a site.

      But hey, I guess we get the credit for putting Barnett’s idea into practice!

      And his book is well worth reading, from many perspectives…

  4. Didn’t know that is was Colette’s birthday but we’ll certainly celebrate it with you. What an incredible woman she was and as you say, very much ahead of her time.

  5. What a wonderful idea. And thank you for this passionate post. I had heard if her but didn’t know about her life. I am now determined to read one of her books. I’ll let you know what I think.

  6. What a wonderful homage to Colette. Great post.

  7. Heard of Gigi, but knew none of the rest. Very interesting and kind of inspiring, actually. To thine own self be true, huh?
    Thanks.G

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Gemma! Be warned… her other work isn’t quite–how shall I put this?–as sweet and gentle as “Gigi”. :-)

      Cheri in particular is quite bleak in the end, but utterly captivating… that’s the mark of a great writer, I guess, to tell a dark story beautifully.

      Anyway, I’m glad you find her inspiring!

  8. Wow, this was an interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  9. Thanks for this great article about a great woman. Colette is not forgotten – at least not among intellectuals in England and Germany. As Johna commented already Colette`s work is quite dark, indeed, not an easy read.
    Greetings from the sunny coast of North Norfolk
    Klausbernd

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for reading, and posting–it’s good to know that today’s writers haven’t forgotten yesterday’s!

  10. Ah…”she did what made sense!” Still today it is so hard for women to follow their hearts, to dream big, to live an authentic life that suits them. Always good to be reminded that other women who marched at the beat of their own drum are the ones we remember. Because, after all, well behaved woman never make history! Thank you, Johna!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      You are most welcome, Anna! And you’re so right–it’s still hard today for most women to listen to their hearts. (Men, too.) Why is that, I wonder? Topic for another blog, I guess!!

      Thanks for reading, and posting.

  11. Great story and images. Looking forward to more heroes and heroines! Love the concept.

  12. Very interesting….and thank you for sharing this. I have not read her although I do own a couple of her books. Perhaps now I will actually crack them open. I did see “Gigi” (movie version with Leslie Caron) and loved it!

  13. Love this! Thanks for introducing me to Colette! Although I feel like I already know her. :)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks for reading and posting, Kelly! And believe me, there is plenty of Colette to explore… you might appreciate this quote: “Then, bidding farewell to The Knick-Knack (her house at the time), I went to collect the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.”

      :-) Happy reading!

      • The Knick-Knack! LOVE that quote! All my favorite things rolled into one fabulous sentence. Thank you for sharing it with me. And congrats on being Freshly Pressed for this post! It is well deserved. K.

  14. Realy great post!!!

  15. I love the adopted tradition! Can’t believe this is my first time hearing of her.. Thanks for the schooling segment!

    -Skye Davis

  16. Wonderful portraits of her, especially the one on top. Thanks for posting.

  17. Fully enjoyed your post! . . . I raise a glass to Colette – a woman ahead of her time!!

  18. Love it! Thanks for sharing your inspiration.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Mika! And speaking of inspiration… loved your post on vision board overhaul!! Mine’s getting a bit long in the tooth, too… for one thing, there’s no photo of Colette! :-o

      You have a great blog… thanks for visiting ours!

  19. What a great idea! And an inspirational post on a fascinating woman!

  20. Woohoo! Freshly Pressed! (Can I say “I knew you when?”)

    Great post on a fascinating woman. I’m looking forward to more in this series.

  21. Finally, a blog I follow made it to Freshl Pressed! It’s been a while since. What a very interesting, eventful life she lived.
    Congrats!

  22. Thank YOU for sharing this wonderfully written article! And congrats on being PF’ed, which it deserved muchly, doubtless. This is the kind of inspired and inspirational read one needs at least once a day.Truly interesting, well-narrated, making one want to go on learning.
    Most interestingly, it opens up a question and many a soul (such as myself) will go dig her out, Colette I mean, and enrich their life experience. Just today I was thinking that there actually are some good uses to “social networking” (a FB contact had shared a really good and unpretentious -unreligious, unegotistic, unselfish. etc.- amateur video to raise awareness against underage smokers).
    Oh if only there were more dreamers… the kind that dream out, dream aloud without either keeping their dreams to themselves or turning them into plots, stratagems and weapons to destroy others’ otherness!
    BTW I share my ‘dreaming out’ (in the form of short writing and poem-like stuff) on my own sibling blog. Everyone welcome to come have a read ;)
    Cheers!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks (and you’re welcome!) If you’re interested in learning more about Colette, I’d recommend Judith Thurman’s wonderful biography, “Secrets of the Flesh”. Very well-written, and (despite the title) not over the top when it comes to the salacious bits…

      And thanks for the link to the blog… it’s good to see fiction and poetry are not dead!

  23. She must have been a woman of great courage.

  24. First of all, congrats for being freshly pressed! And wow I’ve heard of this woman but it’s the very first time that I’ve read such a detailed post on her, and I admire her already very much! Doing what she think is right… that’s exactly how we should behave! :) Being bold and true and open…
    Great post!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! Yes, it’s kind of amazing how thoroughly she’s been forgotten… given how thoroughly she dominated French culture for much of a century. But hey.. that just gives us the chance to rediscover her!

  25. I had no idea about Colette! Looking forward to the fruits of your new tradition as other birthdays are celebrated. (and congrats on the Freshly Pressed recognition!) ~ Kat

  26. Good to remember the talented woman of our past. Thank you. I remember her after reading about her life in this amazing blog.

  27. An interesting woman – with great taste in fashion.

  28. Great post. Audrey Hepburn was on stage in 1951 as Gigi, but Leslie Caron was the 1958 film Gigi. IMDb says Hepburn was busy in 1958 when the film was cast.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Wow, I didn’t realize that! I knew Audrey Hepburn was the stage Gigi, didn’t realize they switched out Gigis for the movie.

      Another interesting factoid, which I discovered when I went back to check on the reference: Apparently Colette actually discovered Audrey Hepburn–she told the director (?) “There’s my Gigi!”.

      Thanks for reading, and for the clarification!

  29. Absolutely wonderful! I look forward to more. Great job.

  30. You’re using up all the Fresh Presses! Kidding, of course. Your blog is so upbeat and inspirational! I love this idea of celebrating birthdays like this. I’m going to find something/someone worth raising a toast to (when’s your birthday?)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hey! There seem to be enough to go around–judging from the one you received recently! :-) Thanks for the praise. Vlad’s birthday is June 1. I’m December 10 (conveniently separated by 6 months). I’ll leave the years up to your imagination. :-)

      Thanks for reading, and posting.

  31. I love that picture at the top of the post, I had never seen that one before. Thanks!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Me too! All too often, we think of writers the way they looked towards the end of their lives—and we forget how young, vital, and dramatic they might have been for the rest of their lives. Thanks for reading!

  32. Very informative and entertaining. I look forward to the series!

  33. Beautifully written! I have become intrigued by Colette from your words and as a book lover, cannot wait to read her works.

    Adieu, scribbler

  34. It’s awesome that she and my Mom share the same birthday. Thank you for the background, now I’m anxious to look into Colette some more.

  35. FYI jan 28 is my daughters birthday. Hmmmm!

  36. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Colette! « evealexandrastafford

  37. Been meaning to read Collette. Just learning more about her. Glad I read your post. She’s on my list of writers I must get to this year.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Glad to hear it, and thanks for posting! Make sure you get a good translation (unless of course you read French…) You will appreciate her, I”m certain.

  38. Wow that was wonderfully written, I’ve tried about famous individuals before but never handled as well as you. I will take some pointers from this article ^^ thanks. You managed to keep it alive and interesting as – just as Colettes life really was.

  39. Johna, this is such a wonderful tribute to Colette. When I met my wife, many years a go, she introduced me to Colette, not just to her writing, but to her way of thinking, and her way of embracing life. She remains, for both of us, a guiding spirit.

    Sorry to take so long in commenting, but didn’t want to let this post slip by without saying thank you.

  40. Hmmm. Reading this post makes me feel alive – as if I need to go and touch every branch of every tree and break every icicle in half, kick every pile of dirty snow and just run and roll and do whatever the hell I want. That’s what I’ve always done so why stop now?

  41. I have been in love with Colette since I “met” her in “Chance Acquaintances.” I spent a great deal of time looking for her works that I have in my collection a few titles in French, though I couldn’t read French. Colette was as intricate and powerful, perhaps more intricate and powerful, than women immortalized by style history — Chanel, Wallis Simpson, Jackie O — but her memory seems to have been preservedpreserved among bookphiles. She was rather aptly a “Chance Acquaintance” for me. I am in love with her work, with her life, with her unconventional lifestyle, the envelopes she pushed, the lines she crossed.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Wonderful! And yes, I’m a bit puzzled by the fact that women who dressed well and lived adventurously seem to have gotten more airplay over time… but who knows? Perhaps we’re on the verge of a Colette renaissance.

  42. Congrats on FP again! I am so happy that I am your blog’s follower!

  43. Cheers to Colette. I am a writer and a teacher. I love learning, and today I learned something. Thank you.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Tee! Thanks for reading, and posting—and sharing your AMAZING blog. (I’m still chuckling at the Idaho customs house—I’m sure it means something, but WHAT?)

  44. I’m aware of Colette but haven’t read anything of hers. You prompted me to find a site that gives some quotations from her writings,

    http://www.evene.fr/citations/colette

    and here are translations of a few of them:

    There are only two kinds of people, those who have killed and those who haven’t.

    Vice is the wrong that you do without getting any pleasure from it.

    You do well only what you love. Neither science nor conscience shape a great chef.

    The human face was always my great landscape.

    Nobody writes a novel about love while making love.

    I’m capable of fantasy only within order.

    A woman who thinks she’s intelligent demands the same rights as a man. An intelligent woman gives that up.

  45. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/jmsabbagh86@gmail.com

    Sensational post about the French writer.Thank you for liking my post (farewell/welcome) hope you will visit again.have a wonderful day.jalal

  46. A good idea – I look forward to seeing what other interesting people you choose. I used to have a volume of her diaries – wonderful reading. She was complex!

  47. Congratulations on being FP.
    What a great idea to remember past heroes by celebrating their lives on their birthdays.

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