The Real-Life, Lady Christian Grey (She's 83)

From the Vanity Fair story on Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Photo: Courtesy Vanity FairEighty-three-year-old widow Catherine Robbe-Grillet is France’s most famous dominatrix. Though she’s achieved renown over the years as a writer, photographer and actor, she’s perhaps best known in her country (and in certain circles) as being a modern Marquis de Sade—living in her 17th-century chateau and making many a BDSM dream come true. Vanity Fair’s Toni Bentley spent some time with her recently, and writes extensively about the legend’s intriguing life and loves in the February issue. Herewith, a crib sheet:

She was married to a famous sadist: In 1951, she became the mistress of the Alain Robbe-Grillet—writer, theoretician, filmmaker, sadist, member of the Académie Française, and “pope” of the avant-garde literary movement known as the nouveau roman. Soon after they married, he presented his wife with unique contract, which read, in part, that he would have “special rights” to demand from Catherine “sessions of a particular nature,” to be compensated with cash, “during which the young woman will be subjected to ill treatment, humiliation and torture beyond the extent of customary practice, the limits of which have come to be mutually understood during the course of the first year of their marriage.” Their marriage eventually became an open one, with Catherine having both male and female lovers.

After 20 years of submission, she switched roles. “I suddenly realized that I felt like doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to decide for myself,” she says. “I became dominant.” In the 40 years since, she has developed a major following of devotees, who come to her for help living out their submissive fantasies. A book she wrote under the male pseudonym Jeanne de Berg, “Cérémonies de Femmes,” details many of the escapades in graphic detail. It’s brought her a unique fame in France.

She now lives with her submissive companion: She first met Beverly Charpentier, 32 years her junior, more than 20 years ago in Mexico when both women had husbands. After many years of friendship, Beverly pledged her oath of allegiance. “Catherine is my secret garden,” she tells Bentley. “I have given myself to her, body and soul. She does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, with either or both, according to her pleasure—and her pleasure is also my pleasure.”

Beverly’s interest in BDSM was inspired by Disney: When Beverly, who also acts as a sort of assistant-dominatrix to Catherine, first saw “Sleeping Beauty” at about five or six. She had little interest in the princess. “I was fascinated when the queen [the wicked fairy] chained up the prince when he came to find Sleeping Beauty. I saw myself as that woman. I found the idea of chaining a man up so exciting.”

Catherine wears children’s clothing: The powerful Catherine stands four feet eleven inches, weighs 88 pounds and has worn a child’s size 10 her entire adult life. “Alain always said, ‘She’s my wife and my children,’ ” she tells Vanity Fair, and she was regularly mistaken for his daughter well into her 30s.

She was almost a movie star:
“Vladimir Nabokov met Catherine when the Stanley Kubrick film of his best-selling book was being cast and abruptly announced, ‘I want her to be Lolita!’” Bentley writes. “He was sorry to learn that she didn’t speak English and so couldn’t play the role.”

She published a banned novel: In 1956, 25-year-old Catherine used the same nom de plume Jean de Berg to publish a scandalous novel, “L’Image (The Image),” about the sadomasochistic encounters between a dominant career woman, her beautiful slave girl, and a handsome male acquaintance. It was banned upon publication, causing police to arrive at the publisher’s office, remove all copies of the book and burn them. Though it was still published, underground, after that.

She does not accept money for her services: Catherine is actually not a “professional” dominatrix and has never accepted money: “If someone pays, then they are in charge. I need to remain free. It is important that everyone involved knows that I do it solely for my pleasure.”

Being a dominatrix can be dangerous business: As noted in “Cérémonies de Femmes,” sometimes scenes can go terribly wrong—such as the time when a submissive accidentally moved at the wrong moment, winding up very bloody and in the ER. “Since then she only rarely uses knives,” the article notes.

Today she reigns over a “petit clan” of six women: “We are a tribe, all equal,” explains Beverly. “But Catherine is not equal to anyone. Everyone bows to Catherine. She is law.” Scenes have ranged from five of the women chasing one down in a park and then tying her up to branding a male devotee.

Catherine has a diverse crew of followers: “Being a dominatrix is wonderful at my age,” she says, with Beverly adding, “So many men have this need. The number of phone calls and letters we get! They come from every social status, from the wealthiest, most influential politicians in France, to a woodcutter, to a policeman.”