Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau; 5 July 1889 – 11 October 1963) was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, boxing manager, playwright, artist and filmmaker. Along with other avant-garde artists of his generation (Jean Anouilh and René Char for example) Cocteau grappled with the algebra of verbal codes old and new, mise en scène language and technologies of modernism to create a paradox: a classical avant-garde. His circle of associates, friends and lovers included Kenneth Anger, Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Jean Marais, Henri Bernstein, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Erik Satie, María Félix, Édith Piaf (whom he cast in one of his one-act plays entitled Le Bel Indifferent in 1940), and Raymond Radiguet.
His work was played out in the theatrical world of the Grands Theatres, the Boulevards and beyond during the Parisian epoque he both lived through and helped define and create. His versatile, unconventional approach and enormous output brought him international acclaim.
Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, once a small village near Paris to Georges Cocteau and his wife Eugénie Lecomte, a prominent Parisian family. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. He left home at age fifteen. Despite his achievements in virtually all literary and artistic fields, Cocteau insisted that he was primarily a poet and that all his work was poetry. He published his first volume of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp, at nineteen. Soon Cocteau became known in the Bohemian artistic circles as ‘The Frivolous Prince’—the title of a volume he published at twenty-two. Edith Wharton described him as a man “to whom every great line of poetry was a sunrise, every sunset the foundation of the Heavenly City…”
In his early twenties, Cocteau became associated with the writers Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Maurice Barrès. In 1912 he collaborated with Léon Bakst to produce Le Dieu bleu for the Ballets Russes – the principal dancers being Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. During World War I Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated. The Russian ballet-master Sergei Diaghilev challenged Cocteau to write a scenario for the ballet – “Astonish me,” he urged. This resulted in Parade which was produced by Diaghilev, designed by Picasso, and composed by Erik Satie in 1917. An important exponent of avant-garde art, he had great influence on the work of others, including the group of composer friends in Montparnasse known as Les six. “If it had not been for Apollinaire in uniform,” wrote Cocteau, “with his skull shaved, the scar on his temple and the bandage around his head, women would have gouged our eyes out with hairpins.” Cocteau denied being a Surrealist or being in any way attached to the movement.
Friendship with Raymond Radiguet
In 1918 he met the French poet Raymond Radiguet. They collaborated extensively, socialized, and undertook many journeys and vacations together. Cocteau also got Radiguet exempted from military service. In admiration of Radiguet’s great literary talent, Cocteau promoted his friend’s works in his artistic circle and also arranged for the publication by Grasset of Le Diable au corps (a largely autobiographical story of an adulterous relationship between a married woman and a younger man), exerting his influence to have the novel awarded the “Nouveau Monde” literary prize. Some contemporaries and later commentators thought there might have been a romantic component to their friendship. Cocteau himself was aware of this perception, and worked earnestly to dispel the notion that their relationship was sexual in nature.
There is disagreement over Cocteau’s reaction to Radiguet’s sudden death in 1923, with some claiming that it left him stunned, despondent and prey to opium addiction. Opponents of that interpretation point out that he did not attend the funeral (he generally did not attend funerals) and immediately left Paris with Diaghilev for a performance of Les noces (The Wedding) by the Ballets Russes at Monte Carlo. Cocteau himself much later characterised his reaction as one of “stupor and disgust.” His opium addiction at the time, Cocteau said, was only coincidental, due to a chance meeting with Louis Laloy, the administrator of the Monte Carlo Opera. Cocteau’s opium use and his efforts to stop profoundly changed his literary style. His most notable book, Les Enfants terribles, was written in a week during a strenuous opium weaning. In Opium, Diary of an Addict, he recounts the experience of his recovery from opium addiction in 1929. His account, which includes vivid pen-and-ink illustrations, alternates between his moment-to-moment experiences of drug withdrawal and his current thoughts about people and events in his world.
In the 1930s, Cocteau had an affair with Princess Natalie Paley, the beautiful daughter of a Romanov grand duke and herself a sometimes actress, model, and former wife of couturier Lucien Lelong. She became pregnant. To Cocteau’s distress and Paley’s life-long regret, the fetus wasaborted. Cocteau’s longest-lasting relationships were with the French actors Jean Marais and Edouard Dermithe, whom Cocteau formally adopted. Cocteau cast Marais in The Eternal Return (1943), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Ruy Blas (1947), and Orpheus (1949).
During the Nazi occupation of France, Cocteau’s friend Arno Breker convinced him that Adolf Hitler was a pacifist and patron of the arts with France’s best interests in mind. In his diary, Cocteau accused France of disrespect towards Hitler and speculated on the Führer’s sexuality. Cocteau effusively praised Breker’s sculptures in an article entitled ‘Salut à Breker’ published in 1942. This piece caused him to be arraigned on charges of collaboration after the war, though he was cleared of any wrongdoing and had in fact used his contacts to attempt to save friends such as Max Jacob.
In 1940, Le Bel Indifférent, Cocteau’s play written for and starring Édith Piaf, was enormously successful. He also worked with Pablo Picasso on several projects and was friends with most of the European art community. Cocteau’s films, most of which he both wrote and directed, were particularly important in introducing the avant-garde into French cinema and influenced to a certain degree the upcoming French New Wave genre.
Cocteau is best known for his novel Les Enfants terribles (1929), and the films Blood of a Poet (1930), Les Parents terribles (1948), Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1949).
Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Forêt, Essonne, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74. It is said that upon hearing of the death of his friend, the French singer Édith Piaf the same day, he choked so badly that his heart failed. He is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint Blaise Des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt. The epitaph on his gravestone set in the floor of the chapel reads: “I stay with you” (“Je reste avec vous”).