Cléo de Mérode

Well, I’m getting away from Icelandic topics now.  I may get back to some, we’ll see, but I keep finding subjects that interest me and I want to learn more about and share with someone, so we’re moving on.  I follow a lot of historical pages or just interesting pages on facebook, and a lot of times there are brief articles about things that sound interesting, so I save them to remember for later, possibly for a post of my own.  Today’s topic was found in that way.  I don’t remember exactly where I saw something about Cléo de Mérode (maybe 5-minute History?), but she sounded interesting and has a unique look, so here we are.

800px-cleo20aCléo de Mérode, called Lulu by her parents, was born Cléopatra Diane de Mérode on September 27, 1875, probably in Paris, but maybe in Biarritz or Bordeaux.  Her father, Carl (or Karl), was an Austrian landscape painter, and “styled himself Freiherr von Merode (Baron Merode) and claimed descent from the old and noble Belgian family of de Merode” and “Her mother was a former Viennese actress” (1).

When Cléo was eight, she was sent away to study dance.  She made her professional debut at age eleven, and by age sixteen she was famous – but not necessarily for her dance.  Cléo became famous for her hairstyle.  In the late 1880s and early 1890s, women wore their hair piled on top of their heads, maybe with the front portion parted, maybe with bangs, but all up mostly away from their face.  Cléo wore her hair low in back, and parted right down the middle, hair covering her ears (this led to a rumor at one point that she didn’t even have ears).  This different hairstyle made her famous and was adopted by admirers.

Cléo had her image on postcards, playing cards, you name it.  She was featured in “Behind the Scenes at the Opera” at the Musée Grévin, even though she was only a member of the coryphee! (2)  (I had to look up what the coryphee is, as I don’t know dance.  A member of the coryphee is “a member of a ballet company who dances usually as part of a small group and who ranks below the soloists” [3].)


Cléo by Vazquez, and the sculpture, La Danseuse

Alexandre Falguière used Cléo’s likeness in his sculpture La Danseuse (The Dancer) (now at the Musée d’Orsay).  He claimed, or at least there were rumors, that the sculpture was modeled from her body, but “facing a public scandal, she claim[ed] she only lent her features to the sculpture’s face” (4).  In addition to this sculpture, Cléo had her portrait done by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Puyo, Alfredo Muller, and Giovanni Boldini.  She was photographed by Felix Nadar and other “illustrious photographers of the day” (5).

In 1896, King Léopold II of Belgium went to the ballet in Paris and saw Cléo perform.  He became completely enchanted with her, leading to gossip that she was his mistress.  The king already had two children with a rumored prostitute, so this association with the king damaged Cléo’s reputation.  Despite this, or maybe because of it in a way, Cléo was still able to become an international star.

In 1897 Cléo travelled to the United States, appearing for a month at Koster and Blat’s in New York.  Her appearance was heavily anticipated, but her performance was disappointing.  “The press was unkind in reviewing her performances, praising her beauty but saying that she could not dance or act” (6).  Despite the letdown, Cléo still made over forty times her regular monthly Parisian salary.

cleo_de_merode_three_posesCléo continued her tour, continuing to various countries around the globe.  She danced for King Chulalenghorn of Siam, doing a Siamese style dance with Parisian highlights.  She became popular in Austria and Germany, so much so that a character in the German movie Frauen der Leidenschaft was based on her.  In Vienna, Austria, she caught the attention of Gustav Klimt (this relationship is fictionalized for the 2006 movie, Klimt).  Back in Paris, Cléo took a risk and performed at the Folies Bergère, earning her a whole new following.  In 1902, she went to England for the first time, performing various national dances at the Alhambra.  In 1904 she toured Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

a1-giovanni-boldini-cleo-de-merode-1901Cléo kept dancing until her early fifties.  She retired to Biarritz, where she gave dance lessons until she was in her eighties.  Through this time, as she was growing older, she sculpted small figurines of her own, and sold them.  In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of my Life).

Also in 1955, Cléo took Simone de Beauvoir to court and won.  Cléo sued her for “wrongly describing Cleo in public as a prostitute who had taken an aristocratic-sounding stage name as self-promotion.  Cleo’s defence was that she was a professional dancer and member of the old, noble, and distinguished de Merode family” (7).  While Cléo did win, she only won one franc in damages because “the judge found that Cleo had permitted the rumors during the course of her career for their publicity value” (8).  The judge did also order that Cléo’s name would be struck from all future editions of de Beauvoir’s The Third Sex.

Cléo never married and never had any children.  There were rumors of her engagement to various famous and/or rich men throughout her life, but none were true.  She did have two romances in her life, but both ended tragically; one when her lover died from typhoid, and the other left her for another woman.

Cléo de Mérode died in 1966.  She is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with her mother.  (She lived with her mother until 1899, when her mother died.)  There is a likeness of Cléo in mourning over the joint tomb.

1, 2, 6, 8 – Cleo de Merode (1875-1966)

3 – coryphée

4 – Cléo de Mérode (1875-1966)

5 – Cléo de Mérode

7 – Cleo de Merode La Belle Epoque’s Beauty



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