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Reliving Colette's Riviera

In 1991 I spent a vibrant year in Paris researching a book on Colette's life, then eight somber years in my New York study writing it. While I was in France, I visited her native Burgundy, her apartment at the Palais-Royal, and two of her country houses. But I didn't have the leisure or the means to explore her haunts on the Riviera.

By last summer my first draft was done, and no commission has ever been more timely or welcome than this one: to compare the sensuous images in Colette's letters and books with the living landscapes and sensations that inspired them. The Riviera, of course, has been developed, even pillaged in the course of a century, not least by writers. So one must search for poetic affinities rather than for literal matches between Colette's Riviera and its contemporary counterpart. Some things, however, have endured: the austere beauty of the hills; the unbridled hedonism of the coast; the intensity of the light; the temper of climate and people; the potent erotic savor of the whole southern experience.

For half a lifetime, Colette had scorned what she liked to call le bas de la France, "the bottom of France." She had always, she says, "childishly" imagined the road from Paris to the Mediterranean as "a downward slope, easy and fatal." Then suddenly one summer—in 1925—she took the fall and tumbled into love with the Midi.

It was one of those affairs for which one impetuously forsakes old ties, in this case a "dream house" on the Breton coast where she had vacationed for 13 years, first with her lesbian lover, the Marquise de Morny, then with her second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, their daughter, his two sons (the elder of whom, 16-year-old Bertrand, became her lover there), and a large circle of friends.

Colette's infatuation with the Riviera was to last longer than either of her first two marriages: 14 years. It was a "family romance" in many senses. Through her father, the improvident Captain Colette, who called her Bel-Gazou—a Provençal expression that means "lovely babble"—Colette had le bas de la France in her blood. He came from the great shipbuilding port of Toulon, where his own father had been a naval officer, and the Colette family owned a very pretty piece of real estate on the cliffs outside town, at Le Mourillon.

In the youth of her first marriage, Colette often stayed with friends in Nice—the poet Renée Vivien owned the delightful Villa Cessole in the hills above the city—or in Monte Carlo, where her husband, Willy, gambled away the fortune that, in part, she'd earned for him by writing the Claudine books. Having signed his wife's novels, which invented the modern teenage girl and became the biggest best-sellers of the fin de siècle, Willy kept the royalties and cobbled the series into a play, also wildly successful. In the spring of 1903, she and Willy took Claudine on tour to the casino towns of the Côte d'Azur.

A few years later, Colette had divorced Willy and gone onstage herself. She was soon, in her own right, one of the most scandalous and popular French music-hall artistes—famous for appearing without a leotard, or much else, in pantomimes with titles such as The Flesh, The Cat, Egyptian Dream, or The Gypsy Girl. The reliable money was in the provinces, so under the aegis of her impresario, Baret, she became a virtuoso of the one-night stand, playing 32 cities in as many days. On the downhill train from Paris to Nice, and uphill from Monte Carlo to Paris, she wrote The Vagabond, using her makeup case as a desk. In Marseilles, she stayed in the same modest hotel (today called the Mercure Beauvau) that once received Chopin and George Sand. The view from its front windows has barely changed: the masts of pleasure boats and fishing launches; the glittering, tacky, and vital old port shaped like a horseshoe and hedged with sprawling cafés and bars, some of ill repute. When her show was over she would wolf down a velvety bouillabaisse like the one still proudly served at the Restaurant Michel on the Rue des Catalans. Yes, she loved the garlicky breath and the lilting accents—her father's accent—in which an irrepressible public shouted out its admiration for her charms. But a season in the "pretty, false Midi" wasn't—"and I'll say it again," she wrote—worth a chill November day with the mists rising from the bogs of her native Burgundy.

Yet it was to the Côte d'Azur that she returned when De Jouvenel discovered her five-year liaison with his son, and asked for a divorce. Bertrand had been pried from her embrace by his parents, and engaged to a young woman he was shortly to marry. The 52-year-old Colette was at the height of her powers; as usual, she found solace in her Olympian productivity. She was working simultaneously on two novels, a screenplay, and a hefty weekly quota of reportage and criticism, as well as acting the part of Léa in a revival of the drama she had adapted from Chéri, her own great novel about the romance of an aging courtesan and a young gigolo. Her sensual appetites were undiminished, including her appetite for adventure. But she had come to regard love as a fatal trap.

That didn't mean, however, that she wasn't willing to walk into it again with her beautiful, sea-colored cat's eyes wide open. Earlier that winter, her friend Marguerite Moreno, who was playing Chéri's mother, introduced her to Maurice Goudeket-- 35, an intense, courtly, raven-haired dealer in pearls and an obliging "extra man" at society dinner parties, who had adored Colette's work since adolescence. The meeting was inconclusive, so Colette and Moreno cooked up a second "chance" encounter—at Easter, on the Riviera. Maurice, Moreno, and some mutual friends were staying at the Eden Palace, on Cap d'Ail, a delicious Belle Époque hotel, expensive and discreet, with balconies and a manicured parterre overlooking the sea. It is still as charming to look at, and no doubt as romantic to inhabit, as it was then, though when I rang the bell the concierge informed me that it had become a private apartment complex. But perhaps because Colette's name also rang a bell, he opened the wrought-iron grille and invited me in to inhale the perfumes of a secret garden.

Colette arranged to join Moreno and her party—and to make the ploy seem spontaneous. "I was quick," she admitted. By July, the great writer and her "exquisite boy" were inseparable and would remain so. Their vacation on Cap d'Ail had not yet changed her opinion of the south, but Maurice had taken a two-week lease on a pink villa in the Var, with the Mediterranean at the foot of the garden. Game for every new pleasure that her "Satan" had to offer, Colette accompanied him.

By day, the heat was torrid, bleaching the sea and sky and melting the resin of the pine trees. The two lovers gaily braved sunstroke to go touring in Maurice's open car, stopping to bathe on deserted beaches with sand "as white as flour and finer than pollen." The nights were so mild they dragged their mattresses onto the terrace, and awoke to the setting moon and the "dark orange dawn." She had discovered her native element, Colette gushed to Moreno, which was this landscape, and "love, too."

In the neighboring village of Ste.-Maxime, recently colonized by the Parisian theater and fashion worlds, Colette had friends—actors, models, directors. The lovers could have dined in chic, familiar company every evening, but preferring nightlife of a rougher, more local color, they often drove to St.-Tropez, just across the gulf.

St.-Tropez's old port is now jammed with charter yachts out of the Cayman Islands and beefy tourists in knockoff Versace T-shirts. But the peeling stucco houses—pink, yellow, and terra-cotta, with worn green and turquoise shutters—haven't changed. Nor has the stately, low-slung Place des Lices, at the heart of the village, where there is a thriving open market on Saturdays.

While the narrow side streets are solidly stocked with branches of nearly every major luxury store found in Paris, Milan, and New York, Colette's sandal-maker, Rondini, is still in business at 16 Rue Georges-Clemenceau, and he still makes Colette's "Spartacus" sandals. After she broke a leg in 1931, she took to wearing them, even in winter, and they became her trademark.

In the summer of 1925, however, St.-Trop was still a somnolent place with no traffic and a rustic piano bar frequented by fishermen and a few adventurous artists. Here they drank rosé and ate grilled fish caught that morning. Colette consumed "enormous" quantities of garlic and raw onions, and exulted to her aristocratic friend, Anna de Noailles, about the charms of the "beautiful sailor-boys" who danced together under a bare lightbulb. A week into her honeymoon with the man and the place, Colette surprised another old friend, Francis Carco, with the announcement of her conversion: "What country! No kidding, Francis, I don't want any other." Her father would have been pleased to hear it.

This idyll in the Var so utterly seduced Colette that before she left she decided to sell her house in Brittany and buy a property near St.-Tropez. Her friends turned up a peasant farmhouse with four small rooms, off the Route des Salins. It had no plumbing or electricity, but the well was deep and full, and there was a wisteria-draped terrace that faced north. The house stood on slightly more than 21/2 acres of land, planted with vines and fig trees. Beyond the garden was a pinède—a stand of old pines—and a path that led through the vineyards, past a rotting gate "which a child could break through," to a deserted beach. "Without having to negotiate a single step," wrote Colette, she was in the sea.

Colette christened the house La Treille Muscate—the muscat vine. She immediately began to settle down in her imagination: the big, luminous room for her lazy hours and the small, dark one for writing; a kitchen garden scented with tarragon and sage; an abundance of tomato and pepper plants, of wild mushrooms and untamed roses. There were no mosquitoes, so she would sleep on the terrace with the mistral ruffling her hair, and wake to see the first rays of a copper sun tincturing the milky water.

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