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Cocteau, Jean (1889-1963)  
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An outspoken homosexual, Jean Cocteau was a prolific poet, novelist, critic, essayist, artist, and film maker.

Born into a middle-class Parisian family on July 5, 1889, Cocteau was only ten years old when his father died. Although an indifferent scholar, the boy took from the prestigious Lycée Condercet a haunting memory of a classmate, Pierre Dargelos, a "type of all that is not taught or learned or judged, of all that is not analyzed or punished . . . the first symbol of wild forces."

After Dargelos died, Cocteau ran away to Marseille, where he lived among sailors and prostitutes. The image of Dargelos "as the shameless, untutored faun" appears in The White Paper (1928), Cocteau's celebration of homosexuality, as well as in his journal Opium (1930), the novel Children of the Game (1929), and the film The Blood of the Poet (1931).

Paris cafes, boulevards, theaters, salons, galleries, and lovers provided Cocteau a lifetime of education and entertainment, what the high-school dropout described as his "Sorbonne." The actor Edouard de Max, who played opposite Sarah Bernhardt, guided him through the Parisian scene (with the approval of Cocteau's mother) and helped the decadent youth publish his first three books of poems (Alladin's Lamp, 1909; The Frivolous Prince, 1910; and Sophocles' Dance, 1912).

The ballet brought him into contact with Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, who in 1912 demanded of the youth: "Astonish me."

Taking this advice to heart, Cocteau began an unending quest for the new. He wrote Potomoc (1913), a collection of drawings, poems, and meditations; attached himself to France's famous flyer Roland Garros, for whom he wrote a long poem, The Cape of Good Hope (1914); volunteered as an ambulance driver in 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War; and worked with Amedeo Modigliani, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, and a host of other literary, artistic, and musical innovators.

Asked in the 1950s how he managed to be part of four avant-gardes, Cocteau answered, "I adhered not to the school but to the movement." His modernist works never failed to astonish.

He wrote the scenario for the ballet Parade (1917), with sets by Picasso and music by Satie; a book on music, The Rooster and the Harlequin (1918); the pantomime Do-Nothing Bar (1920), performed by two famous clowns; and the play, The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower (1922), which combined dance, acrobatics, mime, drama, and music.

As a young man, Cocteau had sought collaborations with older men such as Eduoard de Max or Igor Stravinsky but soon he found what he called his "enfants," a series of younger lovers and collaborators.

The poet John Le Roy was perhaps the first. Cocteau arranged for the youth to read publicly in 1916; in 1918, he wrote André Gide with news of his death: "Le Roy had become my pupil . . . I put into him what was wasted in me by a disorderly life. He was young, handsome, good, brave, full of genius, unaffected, everything Death likes."

In 1919, Cocteau met fifteen-year-old Raymond Radiguet; in a letter to the boy's father, he compared the youth to Rimbaud. Radiguet demanded that Cocteau be more serious; Cocteau demanded that the boy be wilder. While living together, the two wrote four of the most celebrated novels of French post-World War I literature: Cocteau's The Great Split (1923) and The Imposter (1923) and Radiguet's Devil in the Flesh (1923) and Count d'Orgel (1924). Radiguet died of typhoid in 1923.

Some of Cocteau's ephebes were more predatory than talented. Maurice Sachs stripped Cocteau's apartment and left a bitter posthumous account of his master in Witches' Sabbath (1946), before he was killed by the Nazis. Jean Bourgoint (according to Glenway Wescott, "one of God's fools") became a monk who remembered Cocteau's "delicacy and temperance."

Cocteau was living with Jean Desbordes in 1927 and wrote the preface to the latter's remarkable J'Adore (1928), which is essentially a two-hundred-page love letter to Cocteau. Desbordes declared, "I come everywhere, in gardens and on my own body; it is a carnal prayer. . . . I take love from everything." The young man became a Resistance leader and met a horrible death, his eyes reportedly plucked out by the Nazis.

Cocteau inspired Sachs and Desbordes to write their most daring work; meanwhile, he himself wrote a homosexual reverie, The White Paper, which Sachs published.

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Top: A portrait of Jean Cocteau by Amedeo Modigliani.
Above: A photographic portrait of Jean Cocteau by George Platt Lynes.

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