Jean Cocteau with Ricki Soma and Leo Coleman, New York City, 1949; photograph by Philippe Halsman

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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 and the Church…. I think I’ll never have the strength to come back to the city…. Pray for me. I’m suffering atrociously.

But then Cocteau had an inspiration. The Spanish were such idiots that they could have easily confused the name of the much less important painter Picabia with Picasso. Yes, he could tell everyone Picabia had said those terrible things about him. Soon afterward, during an intermission at the theater, Cocteau’s mother came swarming up to Picasso and told him that she and her son had been so comforted to discover that the horrible interview hadn’t been given by him. Then she asked Picasso directly, “It wasn’t you, was it?” Picasso’s Russian wife Olga, who was very fond of Cocteau, took pity on him and said, “No, it wasn’t him.”

Cocteau was born in the quiet, wealthy Paris suburb of Maisons-Laffitte in 1889, a few hours before the Eiffel Tower, that bold symbol of the modern, was inaugurated. It was a town devoted to horse racing. He came from a prosperous Catholic family of stockbrokers and notaries. His father committed suicide when Jean (the youngest of three children) was only eight; he didn’t leave a note behind but there are reasons to think he might have been homosexual. Cocteau was raised by his self-dramatizing mother and a German nanny. (He could speak German and right after World War I he surprised everyone by bringing out an anthology of German poetry—a palm branch extended to the enemy.) As Arnaud observes, “Not a word, not a regret, not even an allusion would recall—throughout their entire, abundant correspondence—the memory of the suicide. Did mother and son secretly take advantage of the father’s disappearance?”

Although he went to the elite Condorcet high school, where Proust had studied as well as the Goncourt brothers and a whole regiment of celebrities, and where Jean-Paul Sartre would teach philosophy, Cocteau was an indifferent student, remarkable for his lack of application. He who would become one of the two or three most brilliant conversationalists of his day and was curious about everything, from dance to religion to painting to poetry, evidenced none of this mental agility in school.


Cocteau, however, was precocious and enterprising and he arranged to have his poems published while he was still in his teens. His second collection was called, fatally, The Frivolous Prince, a name that stuck. In it we read:

Disdainful, frivolous and slender,
Daydreaming and childish,
I was born to be a prince,
A little prince in exile.

Cocteau arranged to have his poems read out loud by Édouard de Max, one of the leading actors of the day, in a theater to just a few hundred intimate friends. De Max was such a notorious homosexual that, as Cocteau recalled years later, his mother’s friends would say to her, “Your son knows de Max, he is lost.” The extravagantly dressed de Max would motor around Paris every afternoon with Cocteau and other high school boys as passengers.

Proust tried to warn Cocteau, who was two decades younger, that mixing with society people and frequenting their salons and dazzling them with his chatter would destroy his talent. Proust was shocked by how blasé the adolescent Cocteau had already become; he was, he said, like someone who’d nibbled on marrons glacés all day on New Year’s Eve and had no appetite left for real food. As Arnaud puts it, “Then life brought Proust back to his masterpiece, and Cocteau back to his flight into society.”

During World War I Cocteau, who was judged too weak to serve in the army, went to battle anyway in a uniform designed by Paul Poiret, the leading couturier of the day, and joined an ambulance corps where he met a fake officer (the inspiration of Cocteau’s insouciant war novel, Thomas the Imposter). Cocteau must have cut quite a figure in his chic uniform and heavy makeup. (The Comtesse de Chevigné, the main model for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes, once forbade Cocteau to kiss her lapdog: “You’ll get face powder on his nose!”) He struck his comrades as courageous and merry as bombs exploded on every side.

He smoked opium most of his life, as did many of his well-heeled friends. Colette, his celebrated and hard-working neighbor in the Palais-Royal, wrote about the smart opium set in her book The Pure and the Impure (though there is no evidence she was a user—nor did she write about Cocteau in that book). Cocteau loved to visit Colette and has left an indelible portrait of her:

Between the dust-cloud of her hair and the scarf knotted around her neck, set in that triangular face with its pointed nose and its mouth like a circumflex accent, were eyes of a lioness at the zoo who becomes the audience instead of the show, watching those who watch her, with folded paws, and a sovereign disdain.

Colette also wrote memorably about Cocteau in her World War II memoir, “Paris From My Window,” in which she described his apartment in the Palais Royal:

It’s just right for a man of the theater, since in order to reach his room, the daylight has to touch the pavement below and reflect back up under the arches, like footlights. If you happen to glance up as you pass by, you may see…even the author himself, with his tuft of frizzled hair, his greyhound leanness, his shirt-sleeves rolled back from hands with veins like branching vines.

Although Proust and Cocteau should have been friends (both homosexual, both fascinated by society, both famous writers, both sons of the rich bourgeoisie), Cocteau was often exasperated by the older and wiser but frailer Proust. Once toward the end of World War I Cocteau was reading a book-length poem to friends. They had assembled at ten and waited for Proust, who only arrived at midnight (because of his asthma he had to wait till the dust in the streets had settled). As Arnaud writes:

Suddenly, at midnight, Proust finally arrived, with a naturalness bordering on off-handedness. “Get out, Marcel, you’re spoiling my reading!” shouted Cocteau, with a virulence unusual for him. Then followed a cycle of letters and protests, reproaches and justifications, at the end of which Proust would accuse Cocteau “of being, beneath all the appearances of a young poet, an old dandy….” Proust then confided to a friend: “If I had Jean’s talent—something I’d like very much—I don’t think I’d attach any importance to my work, and even less to its reading.”

Proust was accompanied by the handsome bisexual American Walter Berry, whom both Edith Wharton and Henry James were infatuated with. Cocteau was very anxious because he had changed his manner from the transparence and charm of his early poems to something much more “modern” and difficult, dedicated to the heroic pilot Roland Garros and influenced by the experimental work of his new friend Guillaume Apollinaire. The society ladies were puzzled and confused; few had seen Cocteau since the beginning of the war. Now that the war was over, he had “molted” into something new, as his friends Stravinsky and Picasso would do so often in their long careers. The poem, called The Cape of Good Hope, was a flop.


It seemed that from one day to the next Cocteau had changed his graceful Symbolist style for something like Futurism, celebrating steel, propellers, and war. He was reading in his new machine-gun delivery in the stifling heat of mid-August; his audience was visibly wilting. Cocteau was furious at Proust for being so late and deflecting the audience’s attention. There followed an exchange of letters; to a friend Proust said that even though Cocteau was a young brilliant poet, he was acting like an old narcissist (“un vieux beau”)—like Robert de Montesquiou, the original model of Charlus.

Cocteau (people said his name was the plural of “cocktail”) wanted above all to be avant-garde. He was very taken by the Ballets Russes and its impresario Sergei Diaghilev and star male dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. It was Diaghilev who stopped one day on the Champs-Elysées and said to him, “Astonish me!” As Arnaud adds, “The impresario obviously meant: ‘Don’t imitate us, stop wanting to please us, become what you are.’” Cocteau liked nothing more than these arbitrary, imperious orders; soon he had conceived and plotted out a ballet, Parade, with Picasso’s sets and Erik Satie’s music. Now, in 1917, he had his own “scandal” to rival the earlier 1913 Rite of Spring Stravinsky-Nijinsky “scandal,” during which the audience became so violent, resorting to fisticuffs, that the stage manager had to raise the house lights.

Parade had a strange assortment of characters: a Chinese man, a little girl, an acrobat, stage managers, and an anonymous voice crying into loudspeakers. Making the ballet sound like a John Cage–Merce Cunningham work avant la lettre, Cocteau wrote in a 1917 essay that later appeared in his collection Rappel à l’ordre, “Their dance was an organized accident, false steps that were prolonged and alternated with the discipline of a fugue.” Picasso did the Cubist sets and the curtain. Satie refused to adapt his existing music; he composed a brand-new score. To make it more “scandalous,” Cocteau added foghorns and typewriters to the orchestra. In writing the program notes Apollinaire invented the word “surrealism,” three years before the artistic movement began.

One of the young soldiers at his poetry reading who refused to praise him—and who walked out on his recitation—was André Breton, who eventually became the “pope” of Surrealism. He and his friends despised Cocteau, partly because they were hostile to all homosexuals, and partly because they disliked his particular brand of classical references and high-class kitsch. Cocteau was very “right bank,” with his titled ladies and couturiers and opium dreams; the Surrealists drew on a mixture of communism and Freudianism and left-bank bohemianism. Breton also despised writing, once his idol, Duchamp, had given up making art. As Arnaud puts it, he “dreamed of destroying literature, and so focused his aim at a man who could never do without it.” Until the Surrealists sputtered out after World War II (Breton sat out the war in New York), they were invariably hostile to Cocteau, even though he had probably invented Surrealism.

Cocteau was a master of the autobiographical essay. His essays are at once wonderfully intimate and revealing and philosophical. Opium is a journal kept during a detoxification cure and contains the memorable entry: “Picasso said that the smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world. You could compare it only to the smell of a circus or of a seaport.” He wrote it during a hospitalization in 1928 and it is scarcely a denunciation of the drug and its “euphoria superior to health.” More practically he tells us that the first sign of getting off opium is a return of sexuality as well as yawning, sneezing, and the production of snot and tears.

He also tells us that everything one does in life if one is not smoking opium is headed toward death, has to do with dying or death, whereas opium addiction is something else, a way of getting off the “train” that’s death-bound. Cocteau drew constantly while writing the book; he said, “Writing, for me, is to draw, to tie the lines together in such a way as to turn them into writing or to untie them so that the writing becomes drawing.”

In 1919 he met a brilliant young novelist, the fifteen-year-old Raymond Radiguet. Just as the nineteenth-century encounter between Paul Verlaine and the teenage Arthur Rimbaud changed the life and the poetry of the older, married Verlaine, in the same way Cocteau fell half in love with the myopic boy, who (like Rimbaud) was the dominant partner, both artistically and psychologically. Despite Radiguet’s inconvenient heterosexuality, he was willing to sleep (just sleep) with the infatuated Cocteau, and it is no accident that Cocteau’s most inspired collection of poetry, Plain Song, is about lying, pensive and awake, next to the sleeping beloved; Radiguet once bragged in his diary that he never “refused” himself to anyone. He couldn’t help it, could he, if his body didn’t happen to respond to a man?

The intellectual union between a prodigy and an experienced Parisian fourteen years his senior was very productive, and Arnaud calls it one of the richest collaborations in history. Both writers decided to submit to the influence of novels of the distant past that observed with restraint the workings of the passions—La Princesse de Clèves, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Adolphe. Radiguet produced the impeccable The Devil in the Flesh and Cocteau eventually wrote his tragedy about brother–sister love, Les Enfants terribles (sometimes translated as The Holy Terrors). This short novel is chaste in its form and its language but transgressive in its sympathetic picture of brother–sister incest and the profligate, whimsical life of rich teenage orphans—a formula for tragic disaster. It made a splendid movie with a score by Bach and starring one of Cocteau’s boyfriends, Édouard Dermit, who’d been a coal miner before becoming a film actor. As Arnaud mentions, Cocteau attributed everything good to his young acolyte:

The pair’s influence on each other was reversed in Cocteau’s mind. He was convinced that his early advice—“Be ordinary, write like everyone else,” had in fact been uttered by Radiguet, probably because he had made better use of it than Cocteau.

Despite his literary success, Radiguet drank a bottle of whiskey and of gin every day; he contracted typhoid fever and died at age twenty leaving behind nine hundred pages of fiction, including the unfinished Count d’Orgel’s Ball, which Cocteau trimmed by 9 percent and spruced up with his natural gift for epigrams. Coco Chanel and the great patron of the ballet Misia Sert arranged for the funeral of Radiguet—all in white, the color consecrated to dead newborns and children. White coffin, white suit, white horses. For years afterward Cocteau was inconsolable; jeering enemies called him le veuf sur le toit, “the widow on the roof,” after the hotspot where Cocteau’s crowd dined and drank, Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof).

Cocteau’s memoir, The Difficulty of Being, has memorable pages on his eccentricities as well as his style:

I attach no importance to what people call style and by which they like to think they can recognize an author. I want people to recognize my ideas or, better, my way of doing things. I want to make myself understood in the briefest way possible. I’ve noticed that when a story doesn’t connect with the mind it’s because it can be read too rapidly, the slope is too slippery. That’s why in this book I contort my style….

He wrote this book in the late 1940s, after directing his successful movie, Beauty and the Beast, under wartime and postwar deprivations and while suffering from a painful skin disease. The title of the memoir is an echo of the eighteenth-century philosopher Bernard de Fontenelle’s remark to his doctor when he was dying at nearly age one hundred, “I’m feeling a certain difficulty of being.” He draws verbal portraits of famous friends and also, like Montaigne, dissects himself, even his looks:

I’ve always had my hair growing every which way, my teeth and the hairs of my beard as well. It must be that my nerves and my whole soul grow that way too. That’s why I’m so hard to figure out for people who go all in one way and can scarcely conceive of a colic. That’s what upsets those people who can’t cure me of my mythological leprosy. They don’t know by which end to grab me.

A glance at a chronology of Cocteau’s life, as compiled by Arnaud, reveals how hard he worked and how constantly and in how many media. For instance, he spent the month of February 1938 in Montargis with his lover, the movie star Jean Marais; there he wrote in eight days the play Les Parents terribles (it was produced in 1995 on Broadway as Indiscretions, starring Jude Law, Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins, and Cynthia Nixon). The following September he wrote a long poem dedicated to Jean Marais. On November 14, Les Parents terribles was premiered; it was forbidden at its original theater—it deals with mother–son incest—but it was a triumph when it opened at a second theater. The play was published in 1939. All this was the work of just one year.

In 1940 he not only wrote a play, Sacred Monsters, but also a one-act curtain-raiser, The Handsome Indifferent Man, which was a revised version of The Human Voice. This time the woman, who is pleading with her lover not to leave her, is talking directly to him, not on the phone as in the original. And now the role was assumed by Edith Piaf. He went for another opium detox. And he published a new book of poems and Sacred Monsters. The next year he wrote The Typewriter, a play, and a verse drama based on Tristan and Isolde as well as publishing two collections of poetry. When he couldn’t write he drew. As Arnaud puts it:

Though Cocteau needed to immerse himself [in the works of others], it was his own universe that he served. He produced Verlaine-like poems, a film that could be described as Surrealist, a Sartrean play, yet he can always be recognized in the least of his phrases or poems: flitting from branch to branch, chirping here and dancing there, but always in the same tree.

Cocteau had always wanted to write a novel about homosexuals, but he decided to wait until his mother’s death. She died in 1943 and he’d already been “scooped” by yet another of his discoveries, the thief and jailbird Jean Genet, who was already publishing Our Lady of the Flowers, a masterful account of Divine, one of the first drag queens in literature. Cocteau could console himself with Le Livre blanc, a rather tame gay book he had already published anonymously in the 1920s; but to the degree that the story was mild, the illustrations (added two years later in a second edition) were sulphurous—and acknowledged by Cocteau as his own work. “People have said that The White Notebook was my work. I suppose that’s the reason why you have asked me to illustrate it and for which I have accepted,” Cocteau coyly wrote in an open letter to the publisher.

Cocteau was a great impresario, the soul of generosity, capable of sponsoring younger, usually male talents. He was a man of excess—a nonstop talker, a passionate if short-lived Catholic convert, a drug addict, a devoted friend who was often lonely. His record as an anti-Nazi is ambiguous. During the war, one reason for his cooperating occasionally with the Germans was that the French fascist collaborators (of the Céline sort) were so hostile to him and Jean Marais, throwing ink on the actor during a performance of Britannicus and beating up the two of them one night on the Champs-Élysées. In order to win them some protection in high places, he wrote a positive article about Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, who was having an exhibit at the Orangerie. To be fair, Cocteau had known Breker since the sculptor studied in Paris in the 1920s, and he chose to be buried twenty years after the war under a statue by Breker. He remained postwar friends with Breker and his wife. But many left-wing French friends condemned Cocteau for praising the favorite of Hitler, who’d imprisoned and slaughtered so many of their friends.

Cocteau was notoriously criticized by André Gide, the Surrealists, and Catholics like François Mauriac (especially, as Arnaud makes clear, after Cocteau abandoned his spectacular conversion to the church in order to return to boys and opium). But he and Marais were idolized by the public, especially after Marais starred in a glossy wartime film The Eternal Return for which Cocteau wrote the script (it was a semi-mythical update of Tristan and Isolde). It is shot in sumptuous black and white but the acting is stiff and Cocteau’s scenario is portentous. Hordes of teenage girls lingered in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal hoping to get a glimpse of the movie star or even of their pet dog Moulouk. In fact, Cocteau and Marais were the first well-known gay couple in the world, though Cocteau was reluctant to pronounce the dreaded word “homosexual.”

Cocteau knew Sarah Bernhardt, the leading actress of the 1890s, as well as Andy Warhol in the 1960s. (Andy was a fervent admirer of this early genius of self-promotion.) His life was long and fruitful. He is perhaps most highly regarded today for his movie Beauty and the Beast, his screenplay for and narration of Les Enfants terribles, his book-length poem Plain Song, and his Portraits-Souvenirs. Like Colette, he never wrote a bad line or great book—his excellence was honored when he was made, improbably, a member of the august French Academy, just as she was the first woman received into the Belgian Academy. The beloved, hard-living legend Edith Piaf died just before Cocteau—just long enough for him to fire off his homage in carefully selected words before he expired.

Gide thought Cocteau was silly, and certainly his very virtuosity made him suspect. Gertrude Stein ridiculed his homoerotic drawings. The playwright Jean Giraudoux deplored his slick plays of the sort the French call “boulevard.” He was an intolerably brilliant conversationalist and in other ways exactly what the English, for instance, hate about the French—nimble, a constant source of paradoxes and ironies, a Jacques of all métiers.