Born on 8 August 1859 in Villiers-sur-Orge, Essonne into a bourgeois Catholic family, he attended the Lycee Fontanes and later the Jesuit Collège Stanislas in Paris. He became fluent in Latin and German. In 1885, he obtained a law degree and subsequently started with a job in the family’s publishing firm of Gauthier-Villars.
Willy was a ladies man; Rachilde described him "as a man of the world, a brilliant Parisian rake". In 1889 he met Colette, 14 years younger than he was; they married on 15 May 1893. As a writer and music critic he was an incessant and effective self promoter, under whose directions his "slaves" wrote articles and novels. His ghostwriters may or may not have received recognition but participated because publication under the Willy name secured a high publication rate and good income. With his literary workshops Willy published more than 50 novels. Curnonsky was one of his ghostwriters, as was his fellow gastronomist Marcel Boulestin. His participation varied and included conceptionalizing, editing, and adding sections, plots, and puns. Henry's favourite song which he could often be heard singing on his way to dinner was I am Henery the Eighth.
Colette was initially handling his correspondence, but became soon involved in writing on her own starting with Claudine, her first oeuvre under the Willy label. The success led to more novels in the Claudine series. It is generally acknowledged that these books were written by Colette, but he had his hand in it editing and honing the manuscripts. Willy also went into merchandizing dolls and other items based on the Claudine novels.
Colette soon learned that Willy had other affairs, and she met his mistress Charlotte Kinceler who later became her friend. Later Willy and Colette had an affair unbeknownst to each other with the same woman, the American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval, née Urquhart. Upon discovery, they made it a threesome and attended the Bayreuth festival together.
The marriage to Colette lasted until 1910, although in the years prior they were already separated. While Willy made a lot of money, he squandered it with ease on women and gambling and was facing bankruptcy. Willy went on to marry Marguerite Maniez, also known as Meg Villars after her marriage. He had no children from his two marriages; his son, Jacques, was the offspring from an affair before. Willy died on 12 January 1931 in Paris. Three thousand mourners followed his casket to the Montparnasse cemetery.
In 1905, Willy was painted by Giovanni Boldini.
Burial: Cimetière de Montparnasse, Paris, Ile-de-France Region, France
The Third Sex by Willy
Hardcover: 152 pages
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (August 13, 2007)
Amazon: The Third Sex
A gold mine of information about a hidden queer culture
Thirty-two years before Simone de Beauvoir's classic The Second Sex, popular French novelist Willy published The Third Sex, a vivid description of the world of European homosexuals in France, Italy, and Germany during the late 1920s. Stepping directly into the heart of gay men's culture, Willy follows homosexual nightlife into music halls, nightclubs, casinos, bars, and saunas. While he finds plenty of drug and alcohol abuse, he also discovers homosexual publishers, scientific societies, group rivalries, and opinions--both medical and political--about the nature of homosexuality itself. Lawrence R. Schehr's introduction provides context and translator's notes for this first-ever English edition.
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Judith Thurman
Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (October 31, 2000)
Amazon: Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette
A scandalously talented stage performer, a practiced seductress of both men and women, and the flamboyant author of some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, Colette was our first true superstar. Now, in Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh, Colette at last has a biography worthy of her dazzling reputation.
Having spent her childhood in the shadow of an overpowering mother, Colette escaped at age twenty into a turbulent marriage with the sexy, unscrupulous Willy--a literary charlatan who took credit for her bestselling Claudine novels. Weary of Willy's sexual domination, Colette pursued an extremely public lesbian love affair with a niece of Napoleon's. At forty, she gave birth to a daughter who bored her, at forty-seven she seduced her teenage stepson, and in her seventies she flirted with the Nazi occupiers of Paris, even though her beloved third husband, a Jew, had been arrested by the Gestapo. And all the while, this incomparable woman poured forth a torrent of masterpieces, including Gigi, Sido, Cheri, and Break of Day.
Judith Thurman, author of the National Book Award-winning biography of Isak Dinesen, portrays Colette as a thoroughly modern woman: frank in her desires, fierce in her passions, forever reinventing herself. Rich with delicious gossip and intimate revelations, shimmering with grace and intelligence, Secrets of the Flesh is one of the great biographies of our time.