Plenty of people want to write about burlesque, but performers’ stories are thin on the ground. Burlesque performers are either absent or goddess-like advice-givers – describing their own ups, downs, setbacks, and tricks is at odds with the brief enchantment of presenting a burlesque persona on stage. I’ve read Immodesty Blaize’s novel Tease, which was an acceptable British-style bonkbuster lashed with luxury brands. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, after reading Collette first.
The recent Dr. Sketchy Wellington, with its corseted models and tumbling curls, reminded several of us of Colette, and we swapped our favorite Colette titles as we drew. A fine overview of Collette at Apartment Therapy, of all places – whatever Colette wrote about, from goofy bulldogs to tatty bohemian apartments, became infused with glamour. And a side-splitting synopsis of one of her first novels, Claudine in Paris, is here: “Still your beating hearts, mes petites schoolgirl fantasists!” It was after she wrote the Claudine books that she left her husband and, as part of making a living, took to the music-hall stage. Some of the wicked highlights of Collette’s burlesque acts – performed with her butch lesbian lover – are here at History is Made at Night. But she kept her eyes open between acts, and her music-hall burlesque tales are the result. Colette’s books are worth reading for the potential burlesque names alone. Fanchette, Fosette, Manette, Lola, Kiki-the-Demure – and that’s just the pets!
Anyhow, I promised you burlesque stories. Mitsou, or Music-Hall Sidelights is a collection of short pieces Colette wrote on life in the music hall before and during World War I. The brunette starlet Mitsou has her own novella in the collection, but the shorter following pieces profile the vague blonde chorus girl, the starving male backup, the life of touring vaudeville acts, even the piano accompanist. Collette doesn’t miss a loose spangle or a tubercular cough from her colleagues on the boards. Mitsou was turned into a forgettable movie in 1956 – Colette’s novella Gigi would become a less mangled, more famous movie in 1959.
Lots of today’s burlesque generation will identify more with the wry dancer Renee in Colette’s novella The Vagabond, published serially in 1910. Renee, formerly the complaisant wife of a bohemian philanderer, put her foot down and left, and now makes most of her living on the music-hall stage. Intelligent, world-weary, aware that her beauty is starting to fade, Renee loves dancing but is ambivalent about her current milieu, regarding her compeers with an eye as sardonic as it is affectionate. Surely, when a rich admirer turns out to have a heart as well, she is ready to be swept away from that milieu…or is she? One final dancing tour through the French provinces, and she will decide.
Last, and unmissable, is The Pure and The Impure. Colette profiles the most striking of the erotic adventurers she has known, with tenderness and depth; a heartless womanizer, a dignified butch aristocrat, a bisexual courtesan now turning over dirty tarot cards, the ladies of Llangollen, the lovely and mad poet Renee Vivien. You may ask what this enigmatic queer classic has to do with burlesque. Its milieu of smoky cafes, opium dens, and aristocratic parlors was the demi-monde background to the caf-conc’ dancers in The Vagabond; they were all equally disreputable. And what erotic performer would not benefit from this piercing view into seduction and the human heart?