Cleo de Merode (1875-1966)
I have always found Cleo de Merode to be a very dynamic individual from her looks to her life’s story. This lady was as mysterious as she was beautiful. I hope you enjoy this installment of my Golden Age actresses. I’d also like to thank Stagebeauty.net for this blog.
Some known facts:
- Born 27th September, 1875 - Paris* (France)
- Died 17th October, 1966 - Paris (France)
- Real Name Cleopatra Diane de Merode
- Daughter of Karl von Merode (landscape artist)
- Dancer and famed Parisian beauty.
- Famously reputed to have conducted an affair with Leopold II, King of Belgium.
Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born in Paris (some reports say Bordeaux or Biarritz) on 27th September, 1875, the daughter of Austrian landscape painter Karl von Merode - who styled himself Freiherr von Merode (Baron Merode) and claimed descent from the old and noble Belgian family of de Merode. Her mother was a former Viennese actress.
Little is known of her early life except that Young Lulu, as she was affectionately called by her parents, showed an early aptitude for dancing and when she was only seven years of age she began training with the Paris Opera Ballet, making her professional debut when she was still only eleven. But whatever talent she may have possessed in her feet, throughout her life it would always be her great beauty that would be her greatest asset and by the age of thirteen she had already posed for the artists Jean-louis Forain and Edgar Degas.
At sixteen she became noticed for her trademark hairstyle, parted in the middle, pulled back over the ears and wound into a chignon at the back, often worn with metal bands. Soon it became the rage of all Paris. By this time she had grown into a intensely beautiful young woman, with a wasp-like waistline. Her image began to appear on postcards and playing cards which were widely collected. Before long she was the most photographed woman in the whole of France - perhaps even all of continental Europe. When Alfred Grevin opened his exhibit "Behind the Scenes at the Opera" at his waxworks, Musee Grevin, he included a lifesize mannequin of Cleo standing amongst such illustrious company as Gounod and Rose Caron - at the Opers, she was still only a coryphee!
In 1895, Toulouse-Lautrec painted her portrait and the following year the sculptor Alexandre Falguière caused a furore at the Paris Salon when he unveiled his cast of Cleo which depicted her naked. Cleo herself was shocked by the statue, having been unaware of the artist's intentions, and was keen to dispel any rumours that she had posed in the nude and sent the following signed note to the editor of Le Gaulois: "Will you be kind enough to say to the readers of Le Gaulois that I did not pose in the 'altogether' for M. Falguière's statue, as anyone can see by looking at the head. You will give me much pleasure." For a time she removed herself from the limelight, saying she could not appear in public and have everyone stare at her with "that horrid bare statue in their minds."
A new rumour then arose however, which quickly became the talk of Paris - the outrageous suggestion that she had no ears! Out of self-defence Cleo ended her short-lived, self-imposed exile, and was soon seen everywhere, at the theatre, strolling on the boulevards, and driving in the Bois - with her hair brushed up high from her temples to reveal a magnificent pair of ears!
At the end of that year, however, another event occured which was to plague her for the rest of her life. The Belgian King, Leopold II, was in Paris for negotiations over Belgian/French colonial interests, and, to disguise the purpose of his mission, let it be known that he was in Paris to see Cleo perform. Leopold was known to have had mistresses, and the corps-de-ballet of the Opera Ballet at the time was considered to be a den of courtesans. Consequently, the press put two and two together and began to spread salacious and ill-founded stories that the twenty-two year-old ballet performer had become the sixty-one year old Regent's latest mistress. Stories were told of fabulous gifts he had given her, and a special carriage added to his train to allow her to accompany him. The King was nicknamed "Cleopold" because of his supposed infatuation with her.
Cleo and her mother, who up to this time had lived with and jealously guarded her daughter, vehemently denied the accusations, and claimed that the most she had received from the King was a congratulatory bunch of roses. The papers claimed a gift of a fabulous pearl white pearl necklace, and that Cleo was being kept in a magnificent apartment in the most fashionable part of Paris - the truth of her abode, however, was a little apartment up five flights of stairs that she shared with her mother. None-the-less, the accusations stuck and damaged her private reputation, if not her professional career.
The rumours, apparently amused, and perhaps flattered the old King, but not so Cleo, a practising Catholic, who was so devastated by the stories that she promptly left Paris in an attempt to escape the notoriety. She went to St. Petersburg, where she vied with her countrywoman, Liane de Pougy, to captivate the hearts of the Russian dukes and princes. Subsequently returning to Paris she then elected to cash in on her notoriety by accepting an enormous salary to perform at the Folies-Bergere - something which no other ballet dancer had ever done. It showed she had nothing to hide, and it brought her a whole new audience and even wider popularity than she had enjoyed previously. Later that year, the prominent Paris journal 'The Eclair' decided to conduct a poll of it's readers to determine the most beautiful woman in Paris. To help voters decide, an array of 130 photographs were put up in one of the rooms of the newspaper offices which was then opened to the public. When the voting was over Cleo topped the poll, accounting alone for almost half the 7000 votes registered.
In 1897, in company with her mother and the manager of the Folies-Bergere as her agent, she made her first visit to the USA to play for a month at Koster and Blat's in New York. Although her arrival was anticipated with with great eagerness, and her photographs were already selling rapidly in the stores long before she set foot on American soil, the visit was not, ultimately, a success. The press was unkind in reveiwing her performances, praising her beauty but saying that she could not dance or act. On her departure, the Boston Globe summed it up by commenting that "Cleo was what theatrical people call 'a frost' in New York". Never-the-less, she returned to Paris $9,000 richer - more than forty times her regular salary for a month in Paris.
Cleo's mother died in 1899, whereupon Cleo revealed herself to be a strong-willed and determined career woman with an efficient business mind. She was keenly aware of how she could use turn the interest of reporters to her advantage and laid herself unusually open to their questions. She allowed reporters to sit in on her meetings with theatre directors thus allowing them an insight into their business practices and her own professional acumen. When not involved with the serious business of her career she passed her time playing the piano (she was said to be an excellent pianist although she never played in public) and riding her bicycle along the esplanades in Paris.
In the years that followed she became an international star, performing across Europe and in the United States, and often appeared before royalty. When King Chulalenghorn of Siam visited Paris Cleo designed a special performance for him - apparelling herself in a costume of metal filigree with a spire-like headdress of the type worn by Siamese dancers, and dancing in the Siamese style but with Parisian improvements.
Cleo's first visit to England came in June 1902, when she brought a repertoire of national dances for a two week engagement at the Alhambra in London. These were: A Danse Directoire, a Danse Bohemienne, a Danse Grecque, a Danse Espagnol, and a Danse Cambodgienne.
In 1904 she conducted a tour of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and scored a massive success in Stockholm where crowds in the street outside the theatre threatened to prevent her returning to her hotel. On her return to Paris she turned over to the editor of the Figaro some 3000 love letters which she had received from Scandinavian admirers. Many of them were subsequently printed in that journal.
Later in life, as she began to reduce her performance schedule, Cleo's artistic background and temperament stood her in good stead, allowing her to turn her hand to sculpture to supplement her income - crafting little figurines of dancers, shepherds and shepherdesses in the classical style which she then sold, sometimes for quite considerable profit.
She continued to dance, sporadically, until her early fifties when she retired from the professional stage to a villa in the French Atlantic seaside town of Biarritz. There she gave dancing lessons to aspiring hopefuls until she was well into her eighties!
Even in retirement the controversies that had followed her throughout her life would not let her be and in 1950, when the feminist writer Simone de Beauvois (the wife of Jean-Paul Sartre) published her book about infamous courtesans, entitled "Le Deuxieme Sexe" (The Third Sex), among those named was Cleo de Merode. Beauvois described her as the mistress of the former King Leopold of Belgium and intimated that she had been little more than a prostitute. The book also repeated the old claim that Cleo came from peasant stock and suggested she had illegitimately adopted the noble name of de Merode for purposes of self-promotion. Cleo sued, claiming five million francs in damages. She won the case, but the judge found that Cleo had permitted the rumours during the course of her career for their publicity value. Consequently, he awarded her only the paltry sum of one franc in damages, plus an injunction to remove the offending passages from any future editions of the book.
Cleo died in Paris on 17th October, 1966, and was interred at Père Lachaise. In life, she never married, and left no offspring. If the newspapers were to believed, she was, at various times, engaged to, among others: a Russian count; an American millionaire; the Duke of Manchester (allegedly before his grandmother intervened to end the affair); a wealthy French landowner, M. Reldoyen; a young Polish aristocrat, Sigismund Malensky; and even King Leopold himself, after his Queen, Marie Henriette, had died. These rumours, however confidently they were reported in the press, were generally nothing more than idle speculation based on the flimsiest of evidence. By her own account, Cleo only ever had two men in her life. Both of theses affairs were discreet and long-term, and both ended unhappily for Cleo - the first when her aristocratic lover died of typhoid fever, the second, with a Spanish diplomat, when he left her for another woman.
To this day the rumours of her supposed affair with Leopold are still widely taken at face value and she remains famous as the woman who slept with the elderly Belgian king. The truth is, almost certainly, that she did not. In fact, in his memoirs, the French agent, Xavier Paoli, recorded that when he finally met the ballerina after the rumours were already rife, the King apologised to her: "Allow me to express my regrets," he told her, "if the good fortune people attribute to me has offended you at all. Alas, we no longer live in an age when a king's favor was not looked upon as compromising! Besides, I am only a little king."