Known worldwide by her family name alone, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was among 20th century France’s most respected novelists. Her style, characterized by the liberal use of punchy metaphors and semi-autobiographical details, vividly sketched out the complexities of her protagonists’ love affairs and failures. In between writing stints and husbands (her first would lock her in her room as a motivational technique) she took work in Paris’s dance halls, becoming infamous for a performance at the Moulin Rouge in which she shared a kiss with another woman.
For her accomplishments as an author Colette was awarded first membership in and then the presidency of the prestigious Académie Goncourt, a French literary society, and was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor. She was given a state funeral (the first for a woman) and buried at the Père-Lachaise cemetery.
Author, art collector, lecturer, and proprietor of a chic Parisian gathering spot for up and coming creative celebrities, Gertrude Stein was a living cultural hub. Originally from California, she and her partner Alice B. Toklas moved to the Left Bank to join Stein’s brother Leo as he was pursuing painting. They opened up their household, 27 Rue de Fleurus, as a gallery for artists and writers like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Stein’s own writing, a mix of poetry and prose, employed a deliberately simplified style that went on to play an influential role in American Modernism. Although Stein had a reputation for feminist and democratic politics, she was – and is – infamous for her support of the Vichy government during World War II, despite her own Jewish heritage.
Shi Pei Pu (Chinese: 时佩璞), a 20th century Chinese opera singer and dancer specializing in female roles, is better known now for his unusual espionage saga than for his art. His fluent French was put to use when he met a diplomat at a party, igniting a nearly twenty year (sometimes long-distance) romantic and sexual relationship built on his requests for confidential French documents. Both he and the other man were later caught, and he served several years of prison time before being pardoned. After his release Shi remained in Paris as an opera performer; his death warranted a mention in Time. His story was loosely adapted into the play M. Butterfly.
Shi’s espionage case achieved notoriety due to the gender dynamics involved. Although reports on how it started vary between outright lying and insinuation, one way or another Shi’s lover was convinced that he was a woman for the duration of their relationship, including through a faked pregnancy. Although Shi was reluctant to speak on the details to the press, he did explain that he “used to fascinate both men and women” and that “what [he] was and what they were didn’t matter”.
As the tech geek, biker, and all-around badass known online as tnkgrl puts it, she was “born wearing combat boots and holding a keyboard,” and she’s been “stomping, typing and hacking ever since.” Although she was born in France, she fell in love with Canada during a study abroad excursion and settled there as an engineer. With her background in computers stretching back to the first PCs, she landed gigs doing audio work with video game companies, including Relic, EA, and LucasArts. When gaming lost its luster, she elevated her pet blogging project into a full-time journalism career with Engadget.
Essayist, novelist, poet, teacher, and all-around artist James Baldwin was among the 20th century’s most memorable commentators on American race relations. Although he was originally motivated by his preacher step-father to go into the ministry, he abandoned the improvisation of speechcraft for the deliberation of writing, and studied at the New School for Social Research in New York City. After years of traumatic treatment due to his skin color and homosexuality, Baldwin accepted a fellowship to continue his writing in France, making part of a trend of expatriates who fled American racism for the safer haven of Paris; there, he completed his first and most famous (semi-autobiographical) story, Go Tell It on the Mountain. He later returned to the US to cover the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, but remained drawn to – and ultimately died in – his adopted country of France.
Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was unusual at the time of its publication for its gay-centered plot and complex portrayal of queer characters; however, he was vocal about rejecting labels on his sexuality, dismissing them as “20th century terms which, for me, have very little meaning.” For this reason he is listed as both gay and unlabeled.
In the comedic film Little Miss Sunshine, a fictional scholar describes French author and philosopher Marcel Proust as both a “total loser” and “probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare”; judging by his biographical material, both assertions are exaggerations, but not unfounded ones. His magnum opus, À la recherche du tempsperdu (translated as In search of lost time), totals thousands of pages across seven volumes and is widely considered to be a seminal work of 20th century literature. In addition to his massive novel, Proust was an enthusiast of the English polymath John Ruskin, and translated several of his books to great renown even though his grasp of the language was imperfect.
For all of Proust’s successes as a writer, a scan through his famous quotes suggests that the rest of his life was less fortunate. He suffered from lifelong ill health and died middle-aged; he was also a closeted homosexual (though Temps perdudoes include frank discussions of homosexuality and gay characters, a rarity for the time and place).
Born to an aristocratic family wealthier than the ruling Romanov line, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston, wasted no time in chasing the high life. He grew up embarking on daring crossdressing adventures, then attended school at University College, Oxford, and married the niece of the Tsar. Things took a turn for the awkward when he took part in Rasputin’s murder, and he and his family went into exile – after purloining enough jewelry and Rembrandt paintings to sustain them, naturally. Many of Yusupov’s later exploits revolved around profiting off the Rasputin story. Thanks to his libel lawsuit against MGM, American movies now feature ending disclaimers stating that the preceding film was a work of fiction.
Yusupov succeeded in evading the worst of Rasputin’s famous doom-saying prophecy and lived happily abroad with his wife and child for more than fifty years following his murder. His bisexuality earns him a place on this blog.