JEAN COCTEAU died in his own house, at Milly-la-Forêt, on October 11, 1963, at the age of seventy-four. During the seventeen years he had been proprietor of the house, he had stored in it objects that had come to him, especially from friends, and for which he had some sentimental attachment. More than his small Paris apartment and more than the villa of Santo-Sospir in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the Milly house had become home for Cocteau, a second body for the soul, as he had once called a home. There is a photograph of his writing desk in the Milly house, and it shows the array of photographs of those closest to him and of objects he cherished: Raymond Radiguet, Jean Marais and Edouard Dermit; Sartre and Orson Welles, Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, a bust of Byron, a pair of banderillas, a painting of Mme Francine Weisweiller.
A citizen of Milly-la-Forêt for seventeen years, he deserved the town’s homage which he received at his funeral, when all the civic and religious organizations were represented at the procession and the funeral mass. He was buried in the chapel, Saint-Blaise-des-Simples, which he had decorated by painting a series of herbs and medicinal plants (simples) on the inside walls. By the time of his death, Cocteau had quite literally become the characterization he had assumed when he signed some of his drawings: le sire de Milly.
Juliette the housekeeper and her husband the gardener had with great devotion cared for Cocteau when he lived in Milly. Nearly his last words were to Juliette, when he said to her he was not well and that she was seeing him for the last time. Je ne suis pas bien. C’est la dernière fois que vous me voyez. When Cocteau first occupied the Milly house, in 1947, he employed a young gardener, Edouard Dermit, who was destined to play an important role in his life. As an adolescent, Dermit had worked in the iron mines of Lorraine. When Cocteau discovered his talents as an artist, he helped make him into a serious painter who today is painting the frescoes of a small chapel in Fréjus, a work for which Cocteau had left numerous drawings and sketches. Dermit played the roles of Paul in the film Les Enfants terribles and Cégeste in Orphée. He was adopted by Cocteau and entrusted with the manuscript of the autobiographical work, Passé défini, to be published posthumously.
When his death was announced, all those who were familiar with his work, and especially those who, during the first few weeks following his death, wrote testimonial notices, remembered the exceptional closeness Cocteau had always felt for death. In trying to express this closeness, he had once used the metaphor of a coin and said that life and death were the two sides of the same coin, separated only by the thickness of the metal, although they cannot know one another. He resented all funeral pomp and ceremony. At Giraudoux’s funeral, for example, he grew depressed by the oratory and display, and said to a friend: “Let’s leave. He didn’t come.” (Allons-nous-en, il n’est pas venu.)
In his poem Plain Chant, Death is called an evil companion (mauvaise compagne), and in Orphée, she is a leading character, rubber-gloved in her role of surgeon. For Cocteau, death cohabits with us in close union. We marry her at our own birth, and adjust to her temperament. “She is our youth, our development, our loves.” (Elle est notre jeunesse, notre croissance, nos amours.) On that Friday in October 1963, Death joined with him in perfect union, and the poet took his place between the schoolboy Dargelos and the angel Heurtebise. Suddenly he became, for all those who had been following his gyrations and accomplishments and who had never been able to see clearly who he was, a permanent figure with more visible features.
His death marked the beginning of a new era, as it does for every artist, when the work exists alone, when the accidents and adventures of living can no longer affect the work. Too often it was said—and always derisively—that Cocteau’s masterpiece was his life. He suffered more than most from this type of judgment and from the legendary character created out of the facility with which he seemed to work and the alleged fickleness and even dissoluteness of his personal life. “They have made of me a character I would not like to meet,” he used to say. (On a fait de moi un personnage que je n’aimerais pas rencontrer.) During the first part of his career, he was amused by the lies and exaggerations promulgated around his name, but in the later years they distressed him and he would plead, even with his friends, to be more just toward the man he really was, toward the fundamental traits of his character. Vous ne me connaissez pas, vous ne savez pas qui je suis, rendez justice enfin à mon vrai visage. His fame victimized him. The stories about him were far more heeded than his books were read. He accepted this, despite the pain it caused him, with the knowledge that an artist conies into his own posthumously.
The literalness of his death, when it occurred, gave suddenly and unexpectedly a new dimension to his work and to the legends that had grown up around the name of Jean Cocteau. The man who had once mimed his own death in his film (Le Testament d’Orphée), and who had carried on throughout his life a persistent dialogue with the beyond, had reached the definitive rendezvous. At last he had become purely Orpheus. He had passed through the one unavoidable event after which both his detractors and admirers would have to decide whether he had been a clown or a poet. The judgments, the estimates during his lifetime had been disarmingly varied. Was he preeminently the restorer of Greek tragedy, as in La Machine infernale, or the author of bourgeois drama, as in Les Parents terribles? Was he the classicist, as in his novel Les Enfants terribles, or the surrealist, as in his poetry? Was he the type of artist given to overrepeated, overfacile emblems: statues, angels, snow, roses, roosters? Or was he the artist who has articulated the deepest drama of our time, whose entire work is a cry of anguish?
When the motorcycle policemen appeared on the highways around Millv, on October 16, 1963, the friends attending the funeral remembered the scenes from the film Orphée when the motards in their sinister appearances and disappearances created one further Cocteau myth. Themes, choreography, graphic profiles are imprints of this artist’s sensibility. By his manipulation of such a myth as Orphée, he taught two generations that poetry is that power which temporarily wrests life away from death.
Never did Cocteau savor for any length of time a success or an intimation of glory. For fifty years he never stopped working, moving from one accomplishment to another. He never took time out in order to hate or attack. He moved through time swiftly, indefatigably, until his death, and since that event time has been working for him. The most often repeated testimonial to Cocteau from younger writers and artists is the passion for work he communicated to them. His method of work allowed this uninterrupted productivity, because he seized immediately on what was at hand in order to convert it into a form of art. The work was done first and then afterward he might search for its explanation. On trouve d’abord, on cherche après—was a basic article of faith for Cocteau. The pure instinct of the artist guided him during the initial stages of creative work.
A few hours before his death he had learned, from his housekeeper Juliette, of the death of Edith Piaf, an artist whose career he had helped to promote. An hour before his death, Cocteau was preparing to receive the visit of a reporter in order to dictate some statement about Piaf. This final gesture of generosity was characteristic of his life. A large part of his work involved the understanding and transforming of many artists and many forms of art. Such human experiences and such aesthetic experiences were calculated to alleviate the monotony of living, but each one always served in Cocteau’s work itself, whether it was the airplane of Roland Garros, the making of a film, addiction to opium, playing in a jazz orchestra, the writing of poems or criticism, the staging of a play and even the acting of one of the parts, the writing of a play, choreographing of a ballet. Not only did Cocteau’s body remain agile throughout the years so crowded with activity, his spirit also sustained its youthfulness, and this spirit was at the source of his eagerness to experiment, to test every possible expression of art. René Clair, when he learned of the passing of Cocteau, stated that his friend had died at the end of a long adolescence: mort à l’issue d’une longue jeunesse.
The roles he played in life, the public episodes that became chapters in a life story, the long line of artistic suecesses swiftly attained and quickly abandoned in turn, the friendships with so many famous figures in so many of the arts, make it impossible to choose one part from among so many that will designate Cocteau’s permanent contribution. Variousness is the clue to his genius. At sixteen his poetry was read publicly by a celebrated actor of the day. A few years after that Diaghileff addressed Cocteau with the two words which since then have been endlessly repeated as the admonition spoken at the beginning of a career, which was to be faithfully followed: étonne-moi. Cocteau did astonish not only Diaghileff but all of Paris, in 1917, with Parade, and he escaped from the crowd at the theatre bent on attacking him and doing him bodily harm only because he was protected by Guillaume Apollinaire, who was wearing his uniform, and around his head a heavy bandage. On that memorable night the word surrealism was heard for the first time.
When Cocteau played the drums in a jazz band, he helped launch the fashion of jazz. His first film, Le Sang d’un poète, initiated a use of le merveilleux in cinema art which is still being copied. On meeting the Negro boxer from Panama, Al Brown, he became the fighter’s manager and forced him back into the ring, where he recaptured the championship. With Antigone and Orphée, in which he played Angel Heurtebise in the Pitoeff production, he rejuvenated the theatre of antiquity. He added a new dimension to the art of journalism by undertaking a trip around the world for Paris-Soir and communicating his observations to the newspaper. He was among the very first to call attention to the art of Picasso and the art of Louis Armstrong.
He seemed destined to amuse the public, the wrong kind of public, with the long series of “numbers,” of adroit performances which constantly brought back his name. Photographed everywhere, at bull fights, at jazz concerts, at social events of Tout-Paris, his face and his name became associated with worldliness, with the quasi-scandalous activities of the newest arts, with reporters and whatever erratic subject they might raise in their interviews. When the highest and most solemn honors came to him, an honorary degree at Oxford, an invitation to lecture at Harvard, membership in the Belgian Academy and the French Academy, it became more apparent that the long career had not been motivated by an ambition to amuse, that underneath the spectacular aspects of his public life, Cocteau was an indefatigable worker, a man believing that a supernatural force always directed the natural forces, an artist whose life work testified to a coherent unity and principle, whose seeming facility was his method of work, his unwillingness to interrupt his work when either success or failure came. In his particular universe no barriers separate one art from another. A momentary failure in one of the arts can be converted into a success in another form of art. The generosity of Cocteau’s nature and the intelligence of his mind prevented his lingering over insult or attack or animosity. To love and to feel himself loved were indivisible needs of his temperament, and they lay at the basis of the artist’s impulse to create and to justify his life in the eyes of friends and of all those he did not know but looked upon as friends.