The High Wire of Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau: A Life

by Claude Arnaud, translated from the French by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell
Yale University Press, 1,014 pp., $40.00
Jean Cocteau with Ricki Soma and Leo Coleman, New York City, 1949; photograph by Philippe Halsman
Magnum Photos
Jean Cocteau with Ricki Soma and Leo Coleman, New York City, 1949; photograph by Philippe Halsman

Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a controversial figure, during his life and now. He is the subject of Claude Arnaud’s magisterial and definitive biography, now translated from the French. Cocteau once told of someone placing a chameleon on a piece of plaid to keep it warm; except for the fact that the chameleon soon died of exhaustion, one could say he was that chameleon, a friend and defender of the bantamweight champion Panama Al Brown and just as intimate with Barbette, a transvestite high-wire artist from Texas. Cocteau was a poet and a sensationally successful playwright and cinema director (perhaps best known today for his masterpiece Beauty and the Beast). He admired his own long, white, nervous hands and had them frequently photographed. He was so productive that people said he was as many-handed as the Hindu god Vishnu—another idea for a picture of his hands and several additional ones.

Cocteau loved famous friends and would even swallow their insults masochistically. Picasso was certainly his most famous friend; it was Cocteau who had convinced him to design sets for the ballet Parade during World War I, a step that had cemented his international reputation. Cocteau admitted that meeting Picasso was the major encounter of his life. But years later when Picasso was safely off in Barcelona he gave an indiscreet interview in Spanish, assuming it would never get back to Paris:

Cocteau is a thinking machine. His drawings are pleasant; his literature is journalistic. If they made newspapers for intellectuals, Cocteau would serve up a new dish every day, an elegant about-face. If he could sell his talent, we could spend our whole lives going to the pharmacy to buy some Cocteau pills, and we still wouldn’t manage to exhaust his talent.

Cocteau was so distressed when this interview was translated into French in L’Intransigeant that he thought all the young artists he was trying to impress would suddenly doubt that he’d ever been Picasso’s intimate. Surprisingly, he thought these words were a real blow to his prestige. That his writings were “journalistic”! That his work was like “a new dish” or a “pill”!

Cocteau dashed off a letter to his mother, in which he invoked the family Catholicism, though he was nonpracticing (only much later, in 1924, would he make his spectacular conversion back to Catholicism as an adept of the theologian Jacques Maritain, though two years later Maritain published a letter announcing their rupture.) Cocteau wrote to his mother:

My dear, yesterday I received the hardest blow of my life…. Picasso expressed himself about me as only my worst enemies would…. I didn’t throw myself off the balcony only because of you…

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