by ALEX CARNEVALE
The first thing Jean Marais noticed about Jean Cocteau was that he kept a scarf knotted so tightly around his neck he could barely imagine how blood got to the man's brain. Marais was a mimbo of 24, an aspiring actor. (He was born when Cocteau himself was 24.) A procurer had selected Marais for Cocteau, who hoped to find an unknown star to feature in his adaptation of Oedipus the King.
Marais approached Cocteau for the audition at the man's opium den in the Hotel Castille. Cocteau was unimpressively, disgustingly clad in a bathrobe dotted with cigarette holes and various other fluids. His hands were ghastly pale because he kept his shirtsleeves buttoned so tightly. Marais was not one for detail; furthermore he would take any suitable work. He later wrote, "I felt intimidated, lost, declassed in this milieu given to strange forms of glory."
The only true word was strange.
Cocteau absconded with Marais to his country villa in Martigas: he had many various routines that sated his artistic, sexual and chemical needs, and Marais would be crucial in each sphere. Starring as Galahad in Cocteau's production of The Knights of the Round Table, Marais was just as useful in preparing his lover's opium pipes and allowing the older man to swallow his semen. When Cocteau was too far gone to be wakened by a firm shake, it was Marais' job to blow opium into his lungs to bring him back to life.
The second World War interrupted this idyll. The pair were vacationing in Saint-Tropez at the time. Marais was forced to enlist, and Cocteau abandoned his apartment at Place de la Madeleine.
It was the unexpected end to a great love story, for Cocteau had written, "It isn't uncommon for a man to become the captive of some zone in his city and to remain imprisoned there for life. Some spells binds him to the forms and fluids that emanate from it. In my case, the temple of the Madeleine forces me to radiate about its columns. From hotel to hotel, flat to flat, I have been stumbling about for years within that geometrical shape which prolongs, like some baleful halo, the bulky, green-gabled church." He was now 50.
Cocteau used his influence to get Marais a relatively safe post as a chaffeur. Having flunked out of that position, he was assigned to a bell tower where his job was to identify incoming German aircraft, which due to his myopia he could not see. He spent most of the time tanning and talking to Cocteau on the phone. Coco Chanel sent Marais various shirts and accessories.
When a squadron of German planes did finally arrive, not even a blind man could mistake it. Now everyone left Paris, and the darkening pall of soot and ash over the city made it impossible to see more than a car's length in front of you. The French wanted out, the Nazis marched down the Champs-Élysées. The city archives had been bundled on a barge for preservation; the structure sank.
Marais and Cocteau returned to Paris during the occupation, taking an apartment in the Palais Royal. At first Cocteau made a great show of dining out on black market steak, but as homosexuals, the two were better off hidden. For others these were lean years, but for Cocteau and Marais, the next buffet was continously at hand. If the war ruined one meal, the next was always in the offing.
It was occupied Paris, but more importantly, it was still Paris. Simone de Beauvoir recounts her first meeting with the playwright:
Cocteau looked just like the pictures of him, and his torrential flow of conversation made me dizzy. Like Picasso he dominated the conversation, but in his case words were his chosen medium, and he used them with acrobatic dexterity. Fascinated, I followed the movement of his lips and hands. Once or twice I thought he was going to trip up; then - hurrah! - he recovered, the knot was neatly tied, and he would be off again, tracing a new series of complex and exotic arabesques in mid-air.
He expressed his admiration of No Exit in several most gracefully turned compliments, and then began to recall his own early days in the theatre, and especially the production of Orpheus. It was at once apparent that he was absolutely absorbed in himself, but this narcissistic streak neither contricted his vision nor in any way cut him off from contant with other people: the interest he had shown in Sartre and the way he talked about Genet both offered ample proof of this.
When the bar closed we walked down the Rue Bonaparte till we reached the quais. We were standing on a bridge, watching the Seine rippling beneath us like black watered silk, when the alert sounded. Pencil-thin searchlight beams swept the sky, and flares exploded. By now we had become used to these noisy, apocalyptic displays, but tonight's seemed an especially fine one, and what good luck to find ourselves stranded near this deserted river, alone with Cocteau!
When the aircraft fire died away, all was silent except for our footsteps - and the sound of his voice. He was saying that the Poet should hold aloof from his age, and remain indifferent to the follies of war and politics. "They just get in our way," he went on, "the Germans, the Americans, the whole lot of them - just get in our way."
Although Marais was as gorgeous as ever, Cocteau had found the playwright Jean Genet. He romanced the younger writer using completely opposite tactics, showing only a slow appreciation of his artistry and tip-toeing into his life. Genet's sincerity matched Cocteau's extravagance, and though the affair was brief, the important thing is that two genuises were able to take the full measure of one another. Genet later wrote,
A thick layer of human humus, always fetid, exhales puffs of heat which sometimes make us blush with shame. A sentence, a verse, the pure and almost innocent stroke of a drawing pen emits smoke between the interstices of words, at their intersection point: ill-smelling and heavy air which reveals some intense, underground life. Thus, the work of Jean Cocteau had the apparance of a light, aerial civilization suspended in the heart of ours. The poet's very person adds to it, thin, gnarled and silvery like olive trees.
Despite their respective affairs, Marais and Cocteau retained their relationship. Along with a friend, the three purchased a house in Milly together where Cocteau planned to retire. Eventually their sexual arrangement dissipated into mere friendship, and the corporation which purchased the property was dissolved. Cocteau still needed every ally he could muster.
Pablo Picasso never requested or enjoyed Cocteau's visits, gaining a healthy approbation of the man over time. Cocteau would therefore attach himself to various groups visiting the artist so that his arrival would not seem so unwelcome. Jean employed the biographer James Lord for this very purpose once, and when Lord returned to Picasso's estate for a second visit by himself, Picasso asked him, "Why did you bring that whore to my house?"
It was in this unsettled state, lacking some friends who had perished in the war or simply died of old age, that Cocteau wrote Diary of an Unknown. Cocteau biographer Frederick Brown looked down on the fanciful work: "Vacuums are not empty, time and space are but points of view, and Cocteau's duplicity is a metaphysical phenomenon for which he cannot be held responsible." In Brown's defense, it is almost impossible to write a serious treatment of Jean Cocteau's life without laughing.
"I wonder," Cocteau says in that volume, "if I could be otherwise than the way I am, and if my difficulty in being, if the faults which impede my career are not my very career, the regret of not having some other?"
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"Un Peu D'Innocence" - Miracles (mp3)
"Quand Je Tombe" - Miracles (mp3)