Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cléo de Merode

Cleopatra Diane de Merode was a famous Parisian dancer of Belgian noble descent. In the rumor mill, she was romantically linked with King Leopold II of the Belgians, but the gossip was unsubstantiated. She was born in 1875. At the age of 8, she entered the Opera School of Ballet in Paris, made her professional debut at 11, and soon became a rising star. She was also a reigning beauty, pioneering a new hairstyle that rapidly became the height of fashion (Belgian King Albert I later playfully joked about it). She attracted many admirers, and gained the reputation of a courtesan.

During the 1890's, rumors flared up that the aging Leopold II, who had many mistresses, had fallen in love with the charming young ballerina. Satirical drawings mocked the pair, and the King was dubbed "Cléopold." The Belgian monarch was fairly indifferent to scandal, but poor Cléo was mortified. She vehemently denied the allegations, even launching a court case to clear her name. Those familiar with the King's private life (such as Xavier Paoli, an agent of the French police who protected Leopold during his visits to France) likewise dismissed the gossip. In his memoirs, Paoli told an amusing story of Leopold meeting Cléo, (after the rumors had already circulated widely), for the first time. "Allow me to express my regrets," the King 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."

Unfortunately, the reputation of the royal mistress pursued Cléo for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, her career continued brilliantly, as she won acclaim for her performances across Europe and the United States. At the height of her popularity, she took the risk of dancing at the Folies Bergères, a taboo for elite dancers. She attracted a whole new audience. Meanwhile, her beauty inspired painters Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Klimt, Charles Puyo and Alfredo Muller, and the sculptor Alexandre Falguière. She was considered one of the most glamorous women of her time, even appearing on postcards and playing cards. In 1955, she published her memoirs, Le Ballet de ma Vie, again attempting to defend her reputation. She passed away in 1966.

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