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31 July 2007

Mathilde de Morny (1862 - 1944) painter, aristocrat

Mathilde de Morny, also known as La Marquise de Belboeuf, and sometime as La Chevalière, who had a lifetime nickname of Missy. She was a minor painter and sculptor under the name of Yssim.

Mathilde was a daughter of the Duc de Morny and grand-daughter, from the first marriage, of Josephine Beauharnais, consort of Napoleon. She was briefly the wife of the Marquis de Belboeuf.

The novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873 – 1954) had a six-year affair with Mathilde after the end of her first marriage. Colette was making a living as a music-hall dancer and mime, and sometimes Mathilde would play a minor male dance role in the troop. In 1907 the two performed Rêve d'Égypte at the Moulin Rouge: their onstage kiss caused a riot, and the police were called.

Mathilde had 'the solid build of a man, reserved and rather timid'. She looked like a distinguished, refined, no-longer-young man, for she always wore men's clothes, indeed she wore many of them at once which made her look plump. To hide her 'effeminate' figure she wore several woolen waistcoats and shirts, and several pairs of socks to fill up her men's shoes. She had a hysterectomy and had her breasts removed. She was addressed as 'Monsieur le Marquis'.

Monsieur le Marquis moved in the FTM transvestite circles in Paris, and lived a life of fine wines, long cigars, photographs of horsemen. When one of her brothers died, feeling that she should not be disrespectful to the dead, she attended the funeral in a veil and a black dress. The family thought that she looked like 'a man dressed as a woman' and begged her to change to her male attire.

She committed suicide during the German occupation, when she was ruined and desperate.

With the hysterectomy and mastectomy she was as physically close to being a transsexual as was available for her generation, and it seems strange to use female pronouns for the latter part of her life, but none of the sources that I have consulted uses male pronouns. This is presumably partly due to her life happening at an early stage in the social construction of transsexuality, but also due to her class position and wealth. If she had to work for a living, passing, rather than just playing with gender roles, would have been essential.

  • Fernande Gontier et Claude Francis. Mathilde de Morny: La scandaleuse marquise et son temps. Paris:Perrin 330 pp 2000.
  • Fernande Gontier. Homme ou femme? La confusion des sexes. Paris: Perrin 218 pp 2006: chp 8. 



Sarah said...

Great article about Missy, thank you!
In Colette's letters to Missy, Colette uses the feminine version of "darling" (cherie) most of the time, and only rarely the masculine version (cheri), which surprised me. I've read that Missy was often called Max. Disappointingly, I didn't find any letters where Colette addresses her as Max... but that doesn't mean she never did. It seems that Missy / Max is a mystery still to be solved!

paula key said...

DURING THIS PERIOD - It was not uncommon for lesbians to define their relationship as masculine and feminine. Vita Sackville West in her Parisienne visits dressed as a man and smoked cigars. Many of Colette's and Natalie Barney's lovers wore masculine clothes.
I am not trying to take away trans history, but I think there would have to be evidence that each person was stating "I want to become a male."
Best wishes to everyone. Just a comment.

Zagria said...

Have you read my articles on Madeleine Pelletier and Violette Morris?

You seem to be imposing 21st-century social constructions on the early 20th century. I agree with Jack Halberstam that pre WWII the distinction between lesbian and trans man had not been constructed. The common term at the time was invert. Even if de Morney, Pelletier and Morris were not transsexual precursors, they were at least transvestites. They belong in both lesbian and trans histories.

And do not forget Jane Dieulafoy, who was androphilic, and therefore has not been claimed as lesbian.