Colette was born in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy. She departed from village life for Paris at age 20, marrying the music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, who was known in the literary world as Willy. Her husband grew interested in the stories of her school days and asked her to write them down. The four Claudine stories: Claudine à l'école (1900), Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s'en va (1903) – appeared under his name. The four are published in English as Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie. The novels chart the coming of age and young adulthood of their titular heroine, Claudine, from an unconventional fifteen-year-old in a Burgundian village to a doyenne of the literary salons of turn-of-the-century Paris. The story they tell is semi-autobiographical, although Claudine, unlike Colette, is motherless.
The stories grew immensely popular throughout France, even spawning memorabilia like perfumes and school uniforms. When Colette didn't want to write the stories, her husband locked her inside her room until she would write. The writer's marriage with Willy ended after 13 years.
After her marriage with Willy disintegrated, Colette became a music hall dancer to support herself, she had no access to the sizable earnings of the Claudine books as the copyright belonged to Willy. Colette continued her writing career with articles about politics, fashion, cooking, and drama.
Before her second marriage, she had relationships with several women, including Mathilde de Morny, or "Missy," a cross-dressing lesbian entertainer. In 1907, their kiss on stage at the Moulin Rouge caused an uproar, but the liaison wouldn't last.
In 1912, Colette married Henry de Jouvenel, the editor of Le Matin. A daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, nicknamed Bel-Gazou, was born to them in 1913. During World War I Colette devoted herself to journalism.
In 1920 Colette published Chéri, portraying love between an older woman and a much younger man. Chéri is the lover of Léa, a wealthy courtesan; Léa is devastated when Chéri marries a girl his own age, and delighted when he returns to her, but after one final night together she sends him away again.
Colette's marriage to Jouvenel ended in divorce in 1924, due partly to his infidelities and partly to her affair with her 16-year-old stepson, Bertrand de Jouvenel. In 1925 she met Maurice Goudeket, who became her final husband; the couple stayed together until her death
The last three decades of her life were some of Colette's most notable years for her career. At age 72, she published her most critically acclaimed work, Gigi, which tells the story of sixteen-year-old Gilberte ("Gigi") Alvar. Born into a family of demimondaines, Gigi is trained as a courtesan to captivate a wealthy lover, but defies the tradition by marrying him instead. In 1949 it was made into a French film starring Danièle Delorme and Gaby Morlay, then in 1951 adapted for the stage with the then-unknown Audrey Hepburn in the title role, picked by Colette personally; the 1958 Hollywood musical movie, starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, with a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and a score by Lerner and Frederick Loewe, won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
On her death on August 3rd, 1954, she was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church on account of her divorces, but given a state funeral, the first French woman of letters to be granted the honour
In the 1991 film Becoming Colette, Colette is played by the French actress Mathilda May. In the 2018 film Colette, the title character is played by Keira Knightley. Both films focus on Colette's life in her twenties, her marriage to her first husband, and the publication of her first novels under his name.