When the blushing bride set out for Paris in 1893, she left her innocence and illusions behind.
Colette discovered that Willy had a mistress. Shattered, she took to bed — suffering from venereal disease, she later claimed — but soon rose to the challenge of her new life, exploiting her androgynous looks by appearing at parties in a sailor's suit, entertaining Willy's paramours in the apartment and eventually sharing one of them with him, a liaison salaciously rendered in the third Claudine novel.
It was during the couple's time on Rue Jacob that Willy suggested she write down some of her childhood memories, which he consigned to a bottom desk drawer. Only later, when the couple had moved to a new place on the Right Bank, did he reconsider the notebooks and ask for elaboration.
"Couldn't you warm this up a bit?" Colette has him saying in "My Apprenticeship," her 1936 memoir.
"Claudine at School" took Paris by storm when it was published under Willy's name in 1900. He held the copyright, which he later sold for a pittance, earning Colette's undying animosity. Still, Willy was the improbable midwife to the first "Claudine," which remains a beguiling read, either as stylish soft porn or as a harbinger of deeper works to come.
After Rue Jacob, Colette lived at a dozen addresses during her six decades in Paris. I could not see all of them, but I did track down one of the two apartments on the stuffy, very Right Bank Rue de Courcelles, where Willy and Colette spent the last years of their marriage. Nothing about the ramrod-straight avenue, part of Baron Haussmann's late 19th century redesign of Paris, bears witness to her time there, but Colette fans will recognize the nearby Parc Monceau as the setting of a poignant scene in "Claudine in Paris" in which the heroine encounters her old friend Luce, who has become the kept woman of an aging "uncle."
By the time Colette and Willy divorced, she had a new lover, a French marquise known as Missy, part of a small, select group of rich Paris lesbians, whom she met performing in an amateur theatrical. That performance, in turn, inspired her to go into show business, acting silent movie-style in risqué skits such as "Rêve d'Égypte," which opened at the Moulin Rouge in 1907.
I found bus tourists crowded in front of the famous old Montmartre theater, and another plaque mentioning the riot incited by "Rêve d'Égypte." The sketch was about an archeologist, played by an actress in obvious drag, who falls in love with a mummy, played by Colette in a spangled brassiere. When they kissed on the lips, the house exploded.
After that — through two world wars and two more husbands — Colette never left the limelight. She lectured, promoted products and acted in plays based on her novels. Admired by younger writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau, she eventually earned official recognition, serving as president of the prestigious Académie Goncourt and as a grand officer in the French Légion d'Honneur. Paris now has a Place Colette next to the Comédie-Francaise, and a gold nameplate identifies her favorite banquette at the restaurant Le Grand Véfour.
When she finally died of myriad disorders connected with indulgence and old age, she was laid to rest in the company of other luminaries at Père-Lachaise cemetery. It was raining the afternoon I went to pay my respects at the flat marble slab that marks her grave — her last plaque, if you will.
But I don't think she's there. I think she's still at the Palais-Royal, contemplating mischief.