Jean Cocteau Biography

The French poet, writer, artist, and film maker Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau was born to a wealthy family on July 5, 1889 in a small town near Paris, France. Cocteau's father apparently died when he was about 10 years old and some accounts say his father committed suicide.

In 1900, he entered a private school and was expelled in 1904. After his expulsion from school, Cocteau ran away to Marseilles where he lived in the "red light district" under a false name. Police discovered him in Marseilles and returned him to his uncle's care.

At the age of 17 or 18, Cocteau fell in love with an actress named Madeleine Carlier. She was 30 years old at the time. She later ended the relationship.

In 1908, Cocteau associated himself with Edouard de Max. De Max was a reigning tragedian of Paris stage at this time. De Max encouraged Cocteau to write and on April 4 of that year rented the Theatre Femina for the premiere of the young writer's poetry.

In 1909, Cocteau met the Russian impresario Sergey Daighilev who ran the Ballets Russes. Daighilev encouraged Cocteau to venture into the genre of ballet. The Russian challenged Cocteau to "Ettonne-moi" (Surprise me). The remark pushed Cocteau to write the libretto for an exotic ballet called "Le Dieu Bleu". During this time, Cocteau also met composer Igor Stravinsky who was working on his composition "The Rite of Spring". In the spring of 1914, Cocteau visited Stravinsky in Switzerland. It was during this visit that Cocteau finished his first book, Le Potomak.

The First World War broke out in the summer of 1914 and though Cocteau never served in the military, he did help run an ambulance service. He acquainted himself with a group of marines. Cocteau was arrested and returned to civilian life in 1915.

In 1917, he met Pablo Picasso. Cocteau and Picasso went to Rome where they met up with Diaghilev. At this point, Cocteau helped prepare the ballet "Parade". Picasso designed the sets, Erik Satie wrote the music, and the ballet was choreographed by Leonide Massine. The Paris opening in May of that year was a disaster. A few years later the ballet was successful.

After the war Cocteau continued his association with several well known artists. He founded a publishing house called "Editions de la Sirene". The company published Cocteau's writings and many musical scores of Stravinsky, Satie and a group of composers known as "Les Six".

In 1918, Cocteau formed an intimate friendship with a 15 year old novelist, Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet strongly influenced Cocteau's art and life. The young writer would die from typhoid fever in 1923. His death was a severe blow to Cocteau and drove him to use opium. During Cocteau's recovery from his opium addiction, the artist created some of his most important works including the stage play Orphee, the novel, Les Enfants terribles , and many long poems.

In 1930 Cocteau's first film, Blood of a Poet was released. The film was a commentary on his own private mythology. Cocteau designed the work concerning the adventures of a young poet condemned to walk the halls of the "Hotel of Dramatic Follies" for his crime of having brought a statue to life. In the early 1930's, Cocteau wrote what some believe is his greatest play, La Machine Infernal. The play was a treatment of the Oedipus theme. Cocteau also wrote La voix humaine(1930, The Human Voice), Les chevaliers de la table rounde (1937, The Knights of the Round Table) , Les parents terribles (1938, Intimate Relations), and La machine a ecrire (1941, The Typewriter).

During the next 15 years the artist's work lapsed. One reason for this is his recurring addiction to opium. His return to work in the early 1940's was primarily due to the influence of his close friend, actor Jean Marais.

In 1945, Cocteau directed his adaptation of La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast). The film marked a triumphant return of Cocteau to the screen. Marais stared in the film as the Beast, Beauty's suitor, and the Prince.

In the late 1940's, Cocteau adapted two of his plays to film; The Eagle with Two Heads and The Storm Within.

In 1950, Cocteau directed the film Orpheus which again starred Marais. This time the theme revolves around a poet beset by artistic and romantic rivals. When his wife dies, Orpheus descends to Hell to rescue her. In Hell, Orpheus' fate is determined before a tribunal. Also in 1950, Cocteau used his artists' eye to decorate the Villa Santo Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and begin a series of graphic works.

In 1954, on the death of his friend Collette, the novelist, Cocteau took her place in the Belgian Academy. In 1955, he was elected to the French Academy.

In 1959, Cocteau made his last film as a director, The Testament of Orpheus. The elaborate home movie stars Cocteau and also features cameos from many celebrities including Pablo Picasso, Yul Brynner and Jean-Pierre Leaud.

The artist died of a heart attack at age 74 at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France on October 11, 1963 after hearing the news of the death of another friend, the singer Edith Piaf.

--Kim Humphreville, 1998.


Jean Cocteau was born in the vicinity of Paris, France, in Maisons-Lafitte on July 5, 1889. He did however, grow up in Paris, with his rich bourgeois family. Due to the social and economic placement of his family, Cocteau was able to reap the rewards of the privileges of the high class. This included being exposed to theater and arts at not only a young age, but being able to be constantly surrounded by it. At the age of sixteen, he was already a published poet. When his first volume of poems were read in public by an actor, Edouard De Max, Cocteau sensed danger of such sorts of public attention, and focused on other styles and genres. This became a habit for Cocteau throughout his life, after completing a work, he would try his hand at other genres or styles. Even as a young man, authors such as Marcel Proust were promoting and befriending Cocteau. Later, he would meet and befriend Pablo Picasso, who had a large influence on Cocteau, despite Picasso making some arrogant remarks in interviews regarding Cocteau.

When the First World War began, Cocteau was not officially enlisted, although he illegally drove an ambulance on the Belgium front, where many of his experiences were to be used in his novel Thomas l'imposteur. While the war was occurring, Cocteau continued his love of all things artistic, and associated himself with artists such as Modigliani, poet Apollinaire, poet Max Jacob, Reverdy, Andre Salmon, Blaise Cendrars, and Pablo Picasso. At the same time, he had become a mentor for a young Raymond Radiguet, who would become a famous author before he died at twenty-one. After Radiguet's death, and perhaps because of it, Cocteau developed an addiction to opium. Cocteau then spent 60 days in a sanatorium to cure the addiction, at which point philosopher Jacques Maritain came to visit him. Maritain was Catholic, and after Cocteau's release from the sanatorium he visited the house of Maritain and his wife, where a priest was present. Friendship with Maritain, and the priest, Charles Henrion, led Cocteau to a short-lived period of religious practice. However short-lived, the friendship with the two helped him cope with the loss of friend Radiguet, and to focus some of his ideas.

After this point, Cocteau would produce some of his most famous works, including his plays Orphee and Les Enfants Terribles, which later in his life would be adapted into films. It was after his first bout with Opium addiction that as he focused on his works again, turned some of his interests into film making. Cocteau's first film was Le Sang d'un Poete, or The Blood of a Poet in 1930. During the rest of the 1930s, he did not venture into film, yet at this time produced many of his popular plays, essays, and poems. One of such poems was Les Parents terribles which debuted at Le Theatre des Ambassadeurs in 1938. The play was controversial, and drew negative attention from the Conseil Municipal, who tried to stop the play. It was eventually moved to another theater, Les Bouffes-Parisiens. The play had reached 400 runs before World War II broke out, and it was not to be the last time Cocteau would receive criticism, and not even the last time for this play.

After his opium rehabilitation, Cocteau was again working quite hard, and had one interesting adventure in 1936 when Cocteau went around the world to send back articles to newspaper Paris Soir. He called the articles Tour du monde en 80 jours or Around the World in 80 Days in honor of the Jules Verne story. On this journey, he became friends with Charlie Chaplin in America. In 1937, writing for a different paper, Ce Soir and making an unlikely friend in the boxing world, Al Brown. Brown formerly held the bantam weight title, but was depressed and drinking when Cocteau saw him in a night club in Montmartre. Brown later won his title back, and credited the help and friendship of Jean Cocteau as an important factor. Cocteau later convinced Brown to join a circus as a shadowboxing dancer.

Jean Cocteau died at age 74 on October 11, 1963, and was buried at a chapel named Saint-Blaise-des-Simples, where he had painted some decorations. Before his death, Cocteau had been making sketches to paint a different chapel in Frejus, but did not live to begin to paint them in the chapel. However, he had seen artistic opportunity in a gardener he had employed for his final living space, a house in a small town named Milly-la-Foret. He had actually gone on to adopt the gardener, who previously worked in iron mines, and coached him as an artist, and the gardener, Edouard Dermit, later went on to paint the chapel.

--Mark Oeding, 2006.
Jean Cocteau