She trained at the Paris Opera Ballet at seven years old, made her professional debut at age eleven, became a fashion icon at sixteen, and was muse to some of the most notable artists and photographers of all time—but who was this woman?
Someone destined for greatness from the beginning.
Her parents, the Austrian landscape painter Karl von-Merode–who claimed to be of noble ancestry–and a former Viennese actress, must have know their daughter would rise to fame and notoriety by giving her the name of one of the most powerful women in history.
Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born in France, either in Paris, Bordeaux, or Bairritz in 1875. At an early age, she showed an aptitude for dance and her mother, who must have been the original “stage mom,” had her audition for the Paris Opera Ballet at seven. She trained and performed with the company at age eleven. Her talent was only outshined by her beauty, and artists clamored to have her sit for them. By the age of thirteen, French greats Edgar Degas and Jean-louis had painted her.
Already the toast of the Paris dance scene by the time she’d fully matured, Cleo also became a fashion icon known for her trademark hairstyle–parted down the middle and fastened into a low chignon at the base of her neck– and her impossibly tiny waistline. Before long, Cleo was the most photographed woman in France, perhaps even all of Europe. Her image appeared on postcards and playing cards, and were much sought after as collectables. She was also depicted in statuary at the waxworks Musee Grevin, owned by famous caricaturist Alfred Grevin, in his “Behind the Scenes at the Opera” exhibit. She was the late 19th century’s European “it girl” before she was twenty years of age.
In 1895 Cleo had the honor of sitting for the renown artist, Toulous-Lautrec. A year later, the sculptor Alexandre Falguire unveiled a sculpture that would start and onslaught of scandalous and sensational press for young Cleo. He’d cast the sculpture of her in the nude. Shocked, Cleo set out to make sure the public knew she had not posed for the sculpture sans clothing, by sending a note stating as much to the editor of Le Gaulois, the French daily newspaper. Unable to bear people seeing her with the “horrid bare statue in their minds,” she retreated out of the public eye for a time.
However, the people of Paris were hungry for news of the beautiful Cleo, so they made up their own. It was soon bantered around Paris that the reason she wore her hair in the low chignon was to hide the fact that she had no ears. To dispel that rumor, Cleo came out into the light of day again, this time wearing her hair back off her face, or up on top of her head to show the world she indeed, had ears.
But, the most salacious rumor about Cleo came out later that year. King Leopold II of Belgiam, aged 61, who had several mistresses, came to Paris for political reasons, but mentioned he’d come to see Cleo perform at the Opera Ballet. Rumors abounded that he was completely head-over-heels about the twenty-two year old dancing sensation. Stories were told of gifts of jewelry, and an apartment in the most fashionable part of Paris, solely for the purpose of romantic trysts.
In reality, Cleo lived with her mother in a modest apartment, but Paris would not be satisfied without their scandals. Cleo and her mother, both practicing Catholics, could not bear the rumors of her relationship with the King (which stayed with her forever) and left Paris for St. Petersburg, Russia where she again danced her way into the hearts of the populace, including the Russian nobility, dukes and princes.
Bolstered with confidence from her fame in Russia, Cleo returned to Paris and accepted an invitation to be the first ballet dancer to perform at the Folies-Bergere- for a more than generous salary. Her restored confidence brought her even more popularity, and she was again the toast of Paris. In 1897 Cleo decided to spread her dancing wings and traveled to the United States with her “mom-ager” in tow, and played for a month in New York City. Although the press was not kind, stating that she could not dance or act, her short stay in the United States was worth the trouble as she made over $9,000, which in today’s money would be over $58,000.
Unable to prevent public scrutiny, Cleo decided to embrace it. Her mother died in 1899, when Cleo was twenty-four years old. Now alone, Cleo had to manage her own career, and instead of hiding from the press, she invited them into her world. Reporters sat in on her meetings with theater managers and directors, and watched her rehearse for her roles. Her insight into fame, her talent, and her beauty resulted in her becoming an international star in adulthood. She performed across Europe and the United States, and adopted the dancing styles of the places where she toured. In 1904, she toured the Scandanavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When she returned to Paris, she turned over 3000 love letters to the editor of Le Figaro for publication.
Later in life, Cleo reduced her performance schedule and when not dancing spent her time pursuing her other artistic talents. An accomplished pianist, she spent time in solitude playing music, but never for the public, and she also took up sculpting. She crafted figurines of dancers, shepherds and shepherdess, which she sold for additional income.
In her early 50’s, Cleo retired from performing and moved to a villa in the seaside town of Biarritz where she pursued a career as a dance instructor. She worked into her eighties and died in Paris in 1966.
Although she never married, Cleo was rumored to be engaged at various times to a Russian count, an American millionaire, a wealthy land owner, a Polish aristocrat, and of course, King Leopold. The rumors of her affair with Leopold are still alive today, but most accounts provide little proof. Cleo herself claimed to have only been involved with two men in her life, one who died of typhoid fever, and another who left her for another woman.
While the rumors of her affairs linger, so does the legacy of Cleopatra Diane de Merode. She inspired many artists with her beauty, including her fellow countryman Gustav Klimt, whose primary artistic focus was the female form and female sexuality. Whether or not she had a relationship with the artist is unclear, but in 2006, a film titled Klimt starring John Malkovich, highlights Klimt’s relationship with a young beauty named Lea de Castro, whose character is inspired by the one and only Cleo de Merode.
Sources: Stagebeauty.com, Wikipedia.com, Frenchsampler.com
Are you a historical fiction fan? Do you love a good adventure and a strong female lead? Check out my Annie Oakley Mystery Series here!