Saturday, October 13, 2018

Update on Colette--Paris's Most Scandalous Woman

Yesterday I saw the new film "Colette", directed by Wash Westmoreland and starring Keira Knightley as Colette.  I absolutely loved it!  It was thrilling to see the various adventures and scandals of France's most famous female author--whom I wrote about in a January post, based on five antique French postcards in my collection--brought to vivid life on screen, presenting scenes of decadent Parisian life and fashion circa 1900.   I was knocked out by the accuracy of historical detail in the settings and fashions--including the theatrical scenes in the antique photos below.  But my blog post, republished here, recorded even more of Colette's scandals than the film.  That ends when Colette, having gained notoriety as an actress in the music hall, undertakes to write novels under her own name.  But the film doesn't tell that Colette in 1912 married  the editor of the newspaper Le Matin and had a daughter with him a year later, but  that marriage ended when he learned she was having an affair with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand, child of his first marriage.  Colette was 51.

When I first bought this set of five French postcards dating from fin de siècle Paris, I didn’t realize that one of the actors in this melodrama, named Colette Willys, was in fact the Colette--who wrote such books as “Gigi”, “Chéri”, and the saucy series of “Claudine” novels.   She was the single-named author (full name Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), who was called the most important woman writer in France and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
These postcards are advertising an over-the-top melodrama called “La Chair” (“The Flesh”), which was the hit of Paris in 1907, and was presented throughout France for four years and 250 performances.   As is stated on the cards, the actors were Christine Kerf (dressed as a man), Georges Wague and Colette Willy.  The photographs were taken by a photographer named Walery, and the performance was a pantomime, with no dialogue, but music by A. Chantrier.

 The reason the play was such a huge hit in Paris, selling out every night, was due to a “wardrobe malfunction” more famous than Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl.  In every performance, the actor playing Colette’s lover, as he tried to stab her, would tear her blouse so that one breast (the left), would be exposed.  (Surely this must be the origin of the term “bodice ripper”?)  Throughout France, Colette’ breast was celebrated in newspaper cartoons, poems, post cards that became pin-ups, and gossip.  Eighteen-year-old Maurice Chevalier, an unknown actor at the time, said that Colette’s breasts were “cups of alabaster.”
Here’s the plot of the play:  Hokartz, a smuggler (Georges Wague) discovers his beautiful wife Yulka (Colette) has been unfaithful to him with a handsome officer  (Christine Kerf).  He lunges at his wife with a dagger and tears open her dress.  Overwhelmed by her beauty, he then kills himself instead.  

I’m sorry my five postcards don’t include the one showing Colette’s breast, but I’ll add that photo –taken from the internet—at the end of this post.

 Having Colette’s lover played by an actress in drag was as critical to the success of “La Chair” as the bare breast.  Just months before the opening of this pantomime, Colette appeared in another musical drama at the Moulin Rouge, in which she passionately kissed the aristocratic Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy”, who was her lesbian lover in real life, and was wearing mannish clothes.  (The premise of that performance was that an ancient Egyptian mummy comes to life, sheds her bandages, dances for and then kisses the archeologist who found her.) That kiss caused a riot among the audience and the police shut the production down immediately.
 Lesbianism among upper-class Parisian ladies was much discussed and decried in the newspapers of the day, and Colette’s own erotic interest in women was well known.  The success of “La Chair” was a personal triumph for Colette because, for the first time, she became self-supporting.  Her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as “Willy”, was a 14-years-older author and publisher in Paris, and a notorious libertine.  He encouraged his young wife to write a novel about her schoolgirl days and eventually published it with his own name as the author--“Claudine at School.”   That book and three more naughty “Claudine” novels became instant best sellers, but the real author never profited from them.
Willy would lock Colette into her study for four hours and not let her out until she had written enough pages toward the next Claudine book. (Like Colette, Claudine began as a 15-year-old girl from a small town in Burgundy who got in trouble at school and indulged in lesbian affairs.)  When Willy and Colette separated, they continued to see each other, but Colette constantly had problems with money and poor health, until the success of “La Chair”.
Despite her interest in women, Colette never lacked for male lovers throughout her long life. By June 1910, Colette’s divorce from Willy was final, and she was acting in another melodrama featuring nudity-- “Sisters of Salome”. In 1912 she married the editor of the prestigious newspaper Le Matin, Henry de Jouvenal.  She had a daughter with him in 1913.  The marriage allowed her to concentrate on her writing career and she produced two well-received novels Chéri in 1920 and Le  Blé en Herbe in 1923.  Both dealt with the subject of an older woman falling in love with a much younger man.
Like most of her novels, these books were drawn from Colette’s own experience. The marriage to Jouvenal fell apart when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand, child of his first marriage. They divorced in 1924. Colette was 51. The following year she married her final husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior. By then she was considered France’s greatest woman writer. 
Colette’s husband Maurice was a Jew, and he was arrested by the Gestapo in December of 1941. Thanks to the efforts of Colette and the French wife of the German ambassador, he was released a few months later, but the couple lived in Paris in fear of his being re-arrested throughout the war.  In 1944 Colette published her most famous book, “Gigi”, about a 16-year-old Parisian girl who is being trained as a courtesan but decides to get married instead.
 Colette died on Aug. 3, 1954, at the age of 81.  She was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church, but was given a State Funeral—the first French woman to be so honored. She was enrolled in the Legion d’honneur and buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery.  


Monday, October 8, 2018

Was Columbus Really Greek?

I see that Trump stirred up a lot of controversy on the internet today with his praise for Columbus as a hero.  So I thought I'd add to the fuss by reprinting my post from four years ago that suggests that Columbus was in fact a Greek, from the island of Chios.

 "Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella"

I realize I may sound like Gus, the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who chauvinistically insists that everything originally came from Greece and Greek culture, but a number of historians do believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but came from the Greek island of Chios, specifically the mastic-growing village of Pirgi.   (Only on Chios will you find the mastic tree, which produces a resin that has made the people rich since the 14th century. ) 
 
"Santa Maria--Flag Ship of Columbus"
 
When I visited Pirgi on the island of Chios, I learned that many families  there still have the last name "Columbus".   All the buildings in Pirgi, even churches and banks, are decorated with a unique kind of geometric patterns made by scraping away the top lawyer of white plaster to reveal the darker color beneath.

 This decoration is called  ksista (“scraped” in Greek) or, in Italian, scrafitti. It is believed to have originated in Genoa and spread to Chios when the island was under Genovese rule—from 1346-1566-- but it’s still done today in Pirgi.

"The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador October 12th 1492"

Here are some of the reasons that historians like Ruth G. Durlacher-Wolper, who wrote "Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine Prince from Chios, Greece", believe that the discoverer of the Americas was a Greek from Chios.

"Triumphal Procession at Barcelona in Honor of Columbus"
 
--He was said to come from Genoa, but the island of Chios was under Genovese rule from 1346 to1566, so it was part of the Republic of Genoa during Columbus's time.
--Columbus kept his journals in Latin and Greek--not Italian, which he didn't even speak well.
--He signed his named "Christopher" with the Greek letter X .
--He made notes in Greek in the margins of his favorite book--Imago Mundi, by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly.
--He referred to himself as "Columbus of the Red Earth" and also wrote about mastic gum. Chios is noted for its red soil in the south of the island, which is the only place where mastic grows. 
--The name "Columbus" is carved over many doors in the villages of Pirgi  and a priest with that name traces his family on the island back more than 600 years.
Whatever the truth may be about Columbus's origins, I wanted to illustrate this Columbus Day blog post with some of the many scenes on a bed coverlet that I have hanging on a wall  near my computer.  It was sewn in redwork (also called "turkeywork") by a woman with the initials "E M" in 1892 to celebrate the tetracentennial of Columbus's landing. Whenever I look at it, I wonder at the many hours it must have taken her to complete this tribute.