July 5, 1889 – Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau:
“Life is a horizontal fall.“
He was a poet, writer, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker.
While still in his teens, Cocteau began to date older, well-connected men including the famous actor Eduard De Max. De Max introduced Cocteau to the all the influential figures of the Paris art scene. He also used his considerable influence to organize a poetry reading of the work of young Cocteau, that was hailed as a remarkable success in literary circles. Cocteau soon had his first poem published and began contributing more poems and drawings to literary magazines. Cocteau published his first volume of poems when he was just 19-years-old. He became a celebrated artist and popular boy-about-town in Paris, with the success of several ballets and plays that he wrote while still in his 20s.
In the early 1920s, Cocteau’s lover, writer Raymond Radiguet, died of typhoid fever. A despondent Cocteau escaped the pain of his loss with a little help from opium.
In 1927, Cocteau began living with poet Jean Desbordes. Desbordes’ J’Adore (1928), is a 200-page love letter to Cocteau, which includes this line:
“I come everywhere, in the gardens and on my body; it is a carnal prayer.“
This was pretty dirty stuff for the 1920s and caused a sensation. Desbordes and Cocteau spent summers in the French countryside along with Gertrude Stein and Coco Chanel. Chanel was pissed when the two men spent most the day locked in their room smoking opium. Desbordes went on to become a Resistance leader during Worl War II. Tragically, the nasty Nazis captured him, plucked his eyes out and then murdered him.
In 1930, Cocteau tried filmmaking as the medium best suited for his very individual artistic expression. Cocteau’s stylized homoerotic films are taken from his own drawings: bold, simple strokes, accentuated eyes, minimalist outlines and profiles, along with the erotic, surrealistic portraits that dominate the sets of his films. In his later films, Cocteau included bits of his poetry written in his distinctive handwriting, samples of his drawings and paintings, voice-over narration, and he even casts himself in some of the roles.
Cocteau’s work is marked by themes of narcissism punctuated by whimsical special effects, exotic landscapes, the Orpheus myth, mirrors, passage ways to secret worlds, fairy tales, flowers, and beautiful people in iconic settings.
In 1937, Cocteau met Jean Marais, the most famous of his many lovers. He helped mold this talented, handsome, athletic young man into one of France’s most beloved movie stars. Cocteau and Marais made such classic films as La Belle Et La Bête (1946) and Orphée (1950) together and they changed filmmaking forever.
Cocteau and Marais decided to stay in Paris during the Nazi occupation in spite of the great danger; everyone knew that they were a gay couple. Cocteau had some powerful admirers who protected the two of them, even when Marais punched a collaborationist critic for writing a negative review of one of Cocteau’s plays. Both men were ridiculed and threatened in the Nazi controlled press, but somehow, they were never arrested or sent off to a concentration camp. Marais claimed that when he tried to join the Resistance that he was rejected for being gay. The rejection had more to do with his reputation for speaking candidly, an attribute that might have had deadly consequences for other members of the Resistance movement.
Cocteau always believed that artists should speak out against unjust political domination although he was burdened by the barely hidden secrets of his opium use and his gayness which made him particularly vulnerable to attack by France’s Right-Wing government. During the Nazi Occupation of Paris, his plays were banned and Cocteau became a victim of intimidation, physical violence and homophobic insults at the hands of those nasty Nazis and their sympathizers. Still, Cocteau continued to write, make films, travel, and attract famous friends, patrons, and protégés throughout the rest of his life.
Cocteau was friends with the most interesting figures of the Parisian Avant-Garde, including writer Guillaume Apollinaire and artists Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. He was so taken with ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky of the celebrated Ballets Russes that he asked the company’s founder, Sergei Diaghilev, to collaborate on a project for them. Cocteau designed posters for the Ballets Russe, and in 1917 he helped to produce the theatrical spectacle Parade, writing the libretto, convincing Erik Satie to compose the musical score, and engaging Picasso designing the set and costumes. The results were revolutionary.
Cocteau left this world in 1963, taken by a heart attack just an hour after learning of his muse Édith Piaf‘s death. A classic overachiever, during his long-life Cocteau wrote more than 30 volumes of poetry, seven novels, 24 plays, 11 ballets, six operas, six full length films, and he produced thousands of drawings and photographs. He made major contributions to the worlds of publishing, graphic design, clothing design, and interior design. He managed and was the lover of professional boxer, Alfonso Teofilo “Panama” Brown (they shared a birthday today), the sport’s first Hispanic world champion. Cocteau had affairs with lots of men, plus a few women. Where did he find the energy and time?
After Cocteau’s passing, Marais, his partner of a quarter century, remarked:
“I bitterly regret not having spent all of my life serving Cocteau instead of worrying about my career…“