by Liz Highleyman
June 30, 2003
Who was Jean Cocteau?
Jean Cocteau was a prolific novelist, playwright, illustrator, and film director who helped define the French avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. Although best known today for films starring longtime lover Jean Marais, Cocteau maintained that all of his work was poetry.
Cocteau was born in 1889 into a well-to-do family in Maisons-Laffitte, a town near Paris. His father committed suicide when Cocteau was a boy, and throughout his life he remained close to his mother. An indifferent student, Cocteau attended the Lycee Condorcet, where he met one of his earliest romantic interests, a classmate named Pierre Dargelos, who would later inspire characters in several of Cocteau's works.
In his late teens Cocteau became involved with the circle of artists and intellectuals who frequented Paris' Montparnasse neighborhood. Stage actor Edouard de Max, a denizen of the gay Parisian social scene, took an interest in the young man's work and helped him publish his first book of poetry at age 19. Cocteau would later say that the cafes and salons of Paris were his Sorbonne.
Over the years Cocteau's circle of friends and collaborators grew to include many of the leading artists of his day, including painters Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, poet Max Jacob, composer Igor Stravinsky, ballet director Sergei Diaghilev, and writers Marcel Proust and Colette (who was at one time his neighbor). Wealthy women - including fashion designer Coco Chanel - supported his work, and he wrote a play for chanteuse Edith Piaf.
Just as he himself had benefited from the patronage of older mentors, Cocteau nurtured the careers of younger artists, some of whom were his lovers. When he was 30, he met Raymond Radiguet, a 16-year-old writer whom he likened to Arthur Rimbaud, and the two began a four-year relationship. When Radiguet died of typhoid fever in 1923, Cocteau was despondent and began using opium - an addiction with which he would struggle for the rest of his life.
Renowned for his use of multiple media, Cocteau produced some of his best work in the 1920s and 1930s, including the stage play Orphe&ace; (Orpheus), the novel Les enfants terribles (The Holy Terrors), and the classic
surrealist film Le sang d'un poe´te (Blood of a Poet). His work often featured characters from Greek mythology and fairy tales, and his films included dreamlike images of statues coming to life and people passing through mirrors. He produced many explicit homoerotic drawings - including a sketch of two sailors having sex for Jean Genet's infamous novel Querelle de Brest - and also created pottery, tapestries, and jewelry.
Although generally quite open about his sexuality, in 1928 Cocteau anonymously published Le livre blanc (The White Book), a semi-autobiographical novel condemning society's homophobia. The book's narrator has many homosexual liaisons, and his attempts to go straight are foiled as he falls in love first with a girlfriend's pimp and later with his fiancee's brother. "I realized I had taken a wrong turn. I vowed that I would not get lost again, that in the future I would go straight along my own path instead of going astray on someone else's," the narrator concludes - a philosophy reflected in Cocteau's own artistic and romantic life.
In 1937 Cocteau took the handsome neophyte actor Jean Marais under his wing and made him a star. The men lived together for many years and remained close until Cocteau's death. Marais encouraged Cocteau to make a film of _La belle et la be[+cir]te_ (Beauty and the Beast), in which Marais played both the beast and the heroine's human suitor. In 1949 Cocteau directed a film version of Orph&é (starring Marais as a poet loosely modeled after Cocteau), and a decade later he made Le testament d'Orpheá (The Testament of Orpheus), which featured the 70-year-old Cocteau playing himself.
Always an iconoclast, Cocteau eschewed authority of all sorts - the state, the Catholic Church, political parties, academia, and the art world itself. "The instinct of nearly all societies is to lock up anybody who is truly free," he once said. "First, society begins by trying to beat you up. If this fails, they try to poison you. If this fails too, they finish by loading honors on your head." Indeed, Cocteau received many such honors, including membership in the French Academy, the Academy of Belgium, and the French Legion of Honor.
Upon hearing of the death of the great Piaf, for whom he had been recording a radio tribute, Cocteau died of a heart attack on October 11, 1963. Marais was devastated by Cocteau's death, writing later that a part of himself had died that day, too. Asked by an interviewer what he would say to Cocteau if he were to come back to life, Marais answered, "I wouldn't say anything. I would kiss him."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
For further reading:
Cocteau, Jean. 1989. The White Book (Le livre blanc) (City Lights Books).
Past Tense: The Cocteau Diaries (Harcourt).
Steegmuller, Francis. 1970. Cocteau: A Biography (Little Brown).