By Johna Till Johnson
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You probably knew this, but January 28th is the 140th birthday of the French writer Colette.
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.
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?)
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.