Aug 12, 2013

Colette's Cheri: A Male Prostitute Finds Love

The French novelist Colette (1873-1954) was a sexual libertine. Early in her career, while performing in a pantomime, she caused a scandal by kissing another woman on stage.  She was married to men three times, but was open about her numerous lesbian affairs.

Her most famous novel, Gigi (1944), is about a girl being trained to become a prostitute who falls in love with her intended client.  It was made into a Broadway play and movie musical by deleting the prostitution angle and adding lots of heterosexism, such as the line "Thank heaven for little girls -- without them, what would little boys do?"

But the novella Cheri (1920) and its sequel The Last of Cheri (1926) are LGBT classics.  Cheri is a beautiful, indolent male prostitute with many gender-atypical traits, such as a fondness for pearl necklaces.  He and his coworkers are used to high-class clients and the finer things of life, and they often fall into bed with each other, but never fall in love.

Except he does fall in love -- with Lea, an older female prostitute.  He gets married to Edmee and has a long term gay affair with the wealthy Vicomte Desmond, but in the end returns to Lea, or tries to.

Meanwhile a lesbian prostitute named Pal, who runs an opium den, is also in love with Lea.

The fluidity of desire and practice was quite shocking in the 1920s, and perhaps it still is today.

Cheri has been filmed several times, omitting the same-sex relationships, and often the characters of Desmond and Pal.

In 1950, with Jean DeSailly.
In 1962, with Jean-Claude Brialy (top photo)
In 1973, with Scott Antony
In 2009, with Rupert Friend (left)

It has also been a play (1959) with Horst Buchholz and a ballet (1980) with choreography by Peter Darrell.