Cléo de Mérode
Cléo de Mérode
Cléo de Mérode by Nadar, 1895
Cléopâtre-Diane de Mérode
27 September 1875
|Died||17 October 1966 (aged 91)|
|Resting place||Père Lachaise Cemetery|
Cléo de Mérode was born in Paris, France on 27 September 1875. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Austrian Baroness Vincentia de Mérode (1850–1899), who was of Austrian and Belgian descent, and the Austrian judge, lawyer, and pioneer of tourism, Theodor Christomannos (1854–1911), who was of Greek, German, and French descent. Her parents were estranged, but her mother continued to receive financial support from de Mérode's father. Her uncle was the landscape artist Karl Freiherr von Mérode (born Carl Johann Joseph Vitus de Mérode, 1853–1909). She was raised Catholic.
At the age of eight, Cléo was sent to study dance and made her professional debut at age eleven.
de Mérode became renowned for her glamour even more than for her dancing skills, and her image began appearing on such things as postcards and playing cards. A particular new hairstyle she chose to wear became the talk of Parisian women and was quickly adopted as a popular style for all. Her fame was such that Alexandre Falguière sculpted The Dancer in her image, which today can be seen in the Musée d'Orsay. In 1895, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did her portrait, as would Charles Puyo, Alfredo Muller, and Giovanni Boldini. Her picture was taken by some of the most illustrious photographers of the day, including Félix Nadar.
In 1896, King Leopold II attended the ballet and saw Mérode dance. The 61-year-old Belgian King became enamoured with the 21-year-old ballet star, and gossip started that she was his latest mistress. Because the King had had two children with a woman reputed to be a prostitute, Cléo de Mérode's reputation suffered, and she had to live with it for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, de Mérode became an international star, performing across Europe and in the United States. At the peak of her popularity, she chose to dance at the Folies Bergère, taking the risk to do something other elites of the ballet had never done before. Her performance gained her a whole new following.
Very popular in Austria as well as in Germany, her character appeared in the German film Women of Passion (1926), played by Fern Andra. In Vienna, her beauty caught the attention of painter Gustav Klimt, whose primary focus was on female sexuality. Their story was the basis of the film Klimt, in which the character "Lea de Castro" is based on Cléo de Mérode.
de Mérode continued to dance until her early fifties, when she retired to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département of France. She then taught ballet before retiring in 1965 at 90 years old.
In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life).
de Mérode never married or had children, and she claimed in her autobiography that she had only been involved with two men in her life. She was engaged to a French aristocrat for nearly ten years before he died of Typhoid fever in 1904, and she was the companion of the Spanish sculptor and diplomat Luis de Périnat (1872–1923) from 1906 to 1919.
Cléo de Mérode died on 17 October 1966 and was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in Division 90. A statue of her by Luis de Périnat, mourning her mother, who is interred in the same plot, decorates the gravestone.
Photograph by Charles Ogerau, 1895
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