Before there was Rachel Dolezal, there was Pierre Louÿs a French novelist and poet most renowned for lesbian and classical themes in some of his writings. Depicted as a literary hero, Pierre's talents went beyond the pen and manoeuvred the muddy waters of deception. He was made first a Chevalier and then an Officer of the Légion d'honneur for his contributions to French literature, two honours that some feel would never have been awarded to him had he not lied about being an interpreter to an ancient Greek lesbian poet who never existed.
So who was Pierre Louÿs and how did he achieve such success while being an imposter? It can be said that he knew his audience’s covert thirst for sexual exploration. Pierre Louÿs was born
So who was Pierre Louÿs and how did he achieve such success while being an imposter? It can be said that he knew his audience’s covert thirst for sexual exploration. Pierre Louÿs was bornPierre Félix Louis on December 10, 1870, in Ghent, Belgium to Pierre-Philippe Louis, a French lawyer, and his wife, Claire Céline Maldan, who had temporarily fled to Belgium from political turmoil in France. Pierre-Félix became an excellent student at the École Alsacienne after relocating to France. There he developed a good friendship with a future Nobel Prize winner and champion of homosexual rights, André Gide who was in a class ahead of him. The two boys grew to be close friends and together founded Potache-revue in 1889. In 1890 Pierre expressed his passion for classical Greek culture by changing the spelling of his name to Louÿs in order to give it a Greek flavour.
During the 1890s, he became a friend of the noted Irish gay dramatist Oscar Wilde and was the dedicatee of Wilde’s Salomé in its original (French) edition. Here thereby went on to enjoy the company of many gay men. Louÿs started writing his first erotic texts at the age of 18, at which time he developed an interest in the Parnassian and Symbolist schools of writing. During 1894 he published an erotic collection of 143 prose poems, Songs of Bilitis (Les Chansons de Bilitis) which had strong lesbian themes. It was divided into three sections, each representative of a phase of Bilitis’s life: Bucolics in Pamphylia, Elegies at Mytilene, and Epigrams in the Isle of Cyprus; dedicated to her were also a short Life of Bilitis and three epitaphs in The Tomb of Bilitis. It was this time that Pierre, who spoke several languages, fabricated the story that the poems were the work of an ancient Greek courtesan and contemporary of Sappho, Bilitis; who’s work he had merely translated. He managed to boost up Bilitis’ credibility by claiming to know the exact location of the cave in which his “archaeologist friend” discovered the writings. With this lie, Pierre had Europe’s literary scene eating out of the palm of his hand.
The pretence did not last long, and “translator” Louÿs was soon revealed as Bilitis herself. This did little to discredit The Songs of Bilitis, however, as it was praised for its sensuality and refined style. However, according to scholar André Guyaux of the Sorbonne, Pierre Louÿs was never reprimanded because Bilitis was never really written for women. “For anyone with a serious academic eye,” said Guyaux, “it was clear these were written through Louÿs’ perception of the lesbian gaze for him and his friends”. And so Pierre Louÿs even while on his deathbed, continued to write erotic verses. Women, including prostitutes, played a large role in Louÿs’s life. He married Louise de Heredia in 1899, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1913. Among his mistresses was the dancer Claudine Roland, who died in 1920. In 1923 he married Claudine’s half-sister, Aline Steenackers, the mother of his two children. A third child was born shortly after Louÿs’s death on June 8, 1925.
A BILITIS ILLUSTRATION BY GEORGE BARBIER
Many erotic artists have illustrated Louÿs’s writings. The best-known illustrations for The Songs of Bilitis were done by Willy Pogany in art deco style for a publication circulated privately by Macy-Masius, New York, during 1926.