JEAN COCTEAU, French writer (d. 1963); At ten minutes to four in the morning, just outside Paris, Jean Cocteau was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Eighteen years later, according to Harold Acton, this innovator of the arts took the pulse of each of the nine Muses and prescribed the exact regimen she had to follow. Fifty-four years later, Cocteau died in 1963 at the age of 74, after 58 years of kaleidoscopic activity in the arts.
The astounding variety of his works, as poet, novelist, playwright, and filmmaker; and the contradictions and paradoxes of his private life, the charm and the nastiness, the generosity and the egotism, the poise and the anguish of an opium-addicted homosexual who was equally welcome in the aristocratic drawing rooms of Paris and the raffish waterfront bars of Toulon, and who climaxed an avant-garde life by entering the ultra-conservative precincts of the Academie Française—all this makes him impossible to summarize in a short space. [Fortunately Cocteau has been well-served in a brilliant biography by Francis Steegmuller, which should be read not only for a wonderful retelling of Cocteau’s extraordinary life, but for its introduction to the arts and culture of the modern age, Cocteau’s age.)
Still, some anecdote should be told here that at least, in part, gives some sense of the spirit of the man. Here is one that does not appear in the Steegmuller biography: In the days before the puritanical Yvonne De Gaulle moved the legendary Paris pissoirs, one of the many customs that sprang up regarding polite pissoir manners was known as the “privilège du cape.” This custom allowed a Frenchman who could not find a convenient pissoir to approach a gendarme and ask him to extend his cape so that he could take a leak behind it. One of Cocteau’s favorite amusements was to choose a handsome young cop and pretend he was drunk. With luck he could get his trouser buttons undone by the helpful gendarme—and possibly more. Uncooperative victims wound up with wet shoes.