Jean Cocteau

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Artist, filmmaker, and writer though he was, Jean Cocteau protested that he was at all times a poet. A cutting-edge artist and a celebrity, he was associated with other prominent figures of his time.…
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Artist Biography by

Artist, filmmaker, and writer though he was, Jean Cocteau protested that he was at all times a poet. A cutting-edge artist and a celebrity, he was associated with other prominent figures of his time. His writing attracted the interest of musicians; several used him as a lyricist or librettist, most notably Stravinsky, Poulenc, Daniel Biro, Guy Sacre, and Louis Durey.

Born to parents of wealth, Cocteau was confronted at age ten by his father's suicide. He was sent to a private school in 1900, but was expelled four years later, thereupon fleeing to Marseilles to live under a false name in a district of prostitutes. When returned by police, he was placed in the home of an uncle. A short-lived affair with 30-year-old actress Madeleine Carlier preceded Cocteau's association with actor Edoard de Max. The youth, then but 18, was encouraged by Max to write and, to that end, the actor engaged a theater for the first readings of Cocteau's poetry. A meeting with ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 brought a request for a work in that genre: the result was Le Dieu Bleu. During this period, Cocteau also met Stravinsky; in 1914, he visited the composer in Switzerland. Serving as an ambulance driver in WWI, Cocteau fell in with a group of marines and was arrested before being released to civilian life.

A meeting with Pablo Picasso in 1917 led to Rome and a collaboration with Diaghilev. For Parade, Erik Satie contributed the music, Leonide Massine the choreography, Picasso the sets, and Cocteau the text. The May 1917 Paris production proved a fiasco, but a more favorable response greeted a revival a few years later.

After the end of the war, Cocteau founded a publishing house and formed an intimate relationship with 15-year-old writer Raymond Radiguet. The youth's death in 1923 drove Cocteau to the use of opium. Following his recovery, Cocteau embarked upon an extended period of creativity, during which such works as Orphée, Les Enfants Terribles, and La Machine Infernal were completed. A lapse into opium addiction once more was overcome largely through the ministrations of actor Jean Marais, who starred in several of Cocteau's films. In 1955, Cocteau was elected to the French Academy.