Cleo de Merode. Snippets of French history.
Cleo de Merode (1875 – 1966) was a famous French-Austrian actress, model and glamour icon and was hailed as one of the most beautiful women of her time.
She was born in Paris in 1875, possibly the daughter of Austrian landscape artist Carl Freiherr von Merode (1853–1909). No letters to or from her survive and she kept no diaries, so nobody really knows her origins, and it is equally possible she was related to the Merode noble family. Certainly there is evidence that she may have been the (illigitimate?) daughter of Baroness de Merode, also Austrian and living in Paris at the time of Cleo’s birth.
At the age of eight, Cléo was sent to study dance and made her professional debut at age eleven.
Cléo de Mérode became known for her glamour and beauty as much as for her dancing skills. Her image soon began appearing on postcards and playing cards. Her hairstyle became the talk of Parisian women and was quickly adopted as a popular style for all.
The famous sculptor Alexandre Falguière sculpted The Dancer in her image, now 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 and Cecil Beaton.
In 1896, King Léopold II of Belgium attended the ballet in Vienna where he saw saw Mérode dance. The 61-year-old King became enamoured with the 22-year-old ballet star, and she may have become his mistress. Nevertheless, Cléo de Mérode became an international star, and performed all over Europe and in the United States. At the peak of her popularity, she chose to dance at the Folies Bergère, Paris – socially speaking, a great risk. The public loved it and her performance gained her a whole new following.
She was very popular in her homeland of Austria, also in Germany where 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, an artist fascinated by female sexuality. Their story was the basis of the film Klimt (2006), in which the character “Lea de Castro” is based on Cléo de Mérode.
Mérode continued to dance until her early fifties, when she retired to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the south-west of France. In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de Ma Vie (The Dance of My Life).
Cléo de Mérode died in 1966 (aged 91) and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. A statue of her, mourning her mother, who is interred in the same plot, decorates the gravestone.
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