IT WAS in February i960, a few days before I was to leave Paris where I had been working for two months. During the fifties, on two occasions, I had had reason to write to Jean Cocteau, first, for permission to translate some of his poems for an anthology, and secondly, for permission to undertake a more ambitious project—the editing and translating of a group of selected writings which I was to call The Journals of Jean Cocteau. Patiently, and in the most friendly spirit, Cocteau guided me in his letters, counseled, and encouraged me. The ease with which he welcomed me among his large number of correspondents, most of whom are concerned with the study of some aspect of his work, delighted me, and I responded in a similar tone of friendliness tempered with the strong admiration I have always felt for the man’s accomplishments.
When I requested help in the choice of illustrations, Cocteau sent me folder after folder of drawings and photographs, many of which I was able to use. He sent me three drawings as gifts: an early drawing based on L’Après-midi d’un faune, a drawing of himself at Oxford on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree, and a drawing of two imaginary profiles, his and mine, separated by an ocean. Once in Paris, a mutual friend of ours brought me a very large drawing Cocteau had inscribed to me: a dog-unicorn with the face of Jean Marais, and a tent in the background and an heraldic inscription in the foreground.
These signs and these messages coming at intervals during three or four years, made it possible for me, in that February of i960, when a New York publisher suggested I do further editing and translating of Cocteau, to write to him, with the hope that he might be in Paris at that time. I sent the letter to his Paris apartment, 36, rue de Montpensier. Three days later, early in the morning, a woman telephoned me de la part de Jean Cocteau. He was in Paris just for that day, and would I have lunch with him. I was to come to the apartment at one.
I was prompt in arriving. The door was opened by a smiling, elderly woman who greeted me with the words: “Vous êtes Wallace Fowlie. Je vous connais.” I must have expressed surprise at her knowing me, and she continued with the cordiality of an old friend. “I was the one who mailed all the letters to you, and the photographs and the books. You see, I know you well, and M. Cocteau is delighted to see you today. He arrived last night from Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and this morning many many people have come by to see him. The last are with him now and you will have to wait a few minutes. I will put you in the small parlor.” She had been guiding me during this speech of explanation toward le petit salon.
It was indeed small, a kind of secret alcove, whose walls were lined with dark red velvet. The window was concealed with the same velvet. Two photographs were on the wall: Rimbaud and Mallarmé. A small blackboard bore the familiar profile that Cocteau has drawn so many times. The room had a strange formal air, but the poets’ photographs and the chalk profile (of Heurtebise?) put me at ease. Two or three times, during the next ten minutes, Madeleine (I learned later that was the housekeeper’s name) opened the door to tell me it would be a few more minutes—and always added: il y a eu un monde fou ce matin. She was proud of this fact, proud that the man she served had attracted so many friends and visitors.
Then, at last, Cocteau opened the door and came in very quickly waving a paper in his hand. I had not realized the shortness of his stature and was unprepared for the visible signs of age on his face. Almost before greeting me, he explained the paper, a few lines he had just written which I was to use as a pass that afternoon to attend the first showing of his film Le Testament d’Orphée. Eighty-five friends had been invited for this private showing, and I would be the eightysixth! I accepted gratefully, but refrained from telling him I would be unable to go that afternoon. Then, with that first message dispatched, his face broke into a smile, and jovially he pressed my arms and shoulders: “Is it really you, in the flesh, after all that correspondence back and forth over the Atlantic?” It was a moment of youthful playfulness, a welcome which would have put anyone at ease.
“I am taking you to lunch,” he said, “just around the corner at Le Vefour. . . .”
I had never heard of this restaurant, and therefore did not know it is one of the oldest and most celebrated in Paris.
Then Cocteau added, as a special inducement, “At my table, my name is on my chair, and Colette’s place, similarly marked, is beside mine. We used to eat there together, two faithful inhabitants of the Palais-Royal.”
As we left the apartment, I heard Cocteau say to Madeleine that he would be back by two-thirty for the next engagement, and Madeleine pointed to a black-board attached to the door, where evidently the day’s schedule was written out, and said firmly, “Yes! no later than two-thirty!”
We walked then, at a fairly swift pace, to the restaurant in the Palais-Royal. Cocteau clung to my arm and talked all the way. Our entrance into the Véfour was impressive. Cocteau was surrounded and greeted warmly by the owner, the head waiter, the barman, two or three waiters, the lady cashier. It was a family welcoming him home. I stood aside, but with each new person he introduced me as mon traducteur américain. No one paid the slightest attention to that. He was the center and, as we slowly walked to the table, to his table, we were flanked by several attendants. He checked with the owner on whether he was planning to attend the showing that afternoon of Le Testament d’Orphée.
At the table, we stood for a moment, as Cocteau pointed out his name on the brass plaque on the back of his chair. And on the back of my chair, beside it, the name of Colette. “We ate here together on so many occasions,” he said.
I knew of their long friendship, of the number of years when they were neighbors in the Palais-Royal section of Paris, and I remembered how Colette, stricken with bad arthritis during the last years of her life (she died in 1954), spent her days on a divan-bed, which she called her “raft” (mon radeau) and enjoyed the unannounced frequent visits Cocteau paid her. She used to say to him as he came in: “Assieds-toi sur mes pieds, Jean.” As writers, they had almost nothing in common. Colette’s clean prose was nourished on things, on their perfume and their form. Cocteau’s poetry reflected myths and symbols. But in common they had many of the intangible values of life: an inexhaustible curiosity, a kindness of spirit, a profundity of sentiment. Their friendship was so well known it surprised no one when, at the death of Colette, Jean replaced her in the Belgian Academy.
When we were in our places, side by side, and as the maître d’hôtel handed us the large menus, Cocteau pointed out to me a center table and briefed me quickly: “You see, it’s an old restaurant. Fragonard died at that table.” And then, passing on to a practical problem, asked me if I would choose meat or fish for lunch. “Etes-vous homme à viande ou à poisson?” I chose a sole and he rognons. The wine waiter approached then, an elderly man who called Cocteau maître and whom Cocteau addressed by the familiar tu. I had noticed he used tu in speaking to everyone at the Vefour, from the proprietor to the bus-boy.
There was considerable discussion about the wine, because of my sole and Cocteau’s rognons, but finally a half bottle of very light red wine was decided on, especially after I assured the two men I would drink very little wine. The elderly sommelier went off. Abruptly, Cocteau exclaimed that we could not begin with the main dish, and, calling back the maître d’hôtel, he ordered “six huîtres pour Jean Cocteau et six huîtres pour Wallace Fowlie.” I had already noticed his tendency to speak of himself in the third person.
The two plates of oysters reached us almost immediately, and then the wine problem again became critical. I was aware that Cocteau rather enjoyed inflating the dilemma, and he was aware that I was aware. The wine steward was called back, and with the appropriate gesture and tone of voice, Cocteau explained that we could not drink red wine with oysters. I simply imagined that a half-bottle of white wine would eventually be ordered. But that was too predictable. Cocteau had been looking around at the other tables of which only three or four were occupied, at some distance from ours. “Don’t you see,” he said, “on those other tables large bottles of white wine that have been opened? Go over to one of them and ask for a small glass of white wine for Jean Cocteau and a small glass for his guest Wallace Fowlie.”
The wine steward was as dumbfounded as I was. At the moment he could not assemble an answer, and Cocteau repeated his request and assured the old man that the guests would be happy to supply him with two glasses of their wine!
“Maître,” began the wine waiter, “I know the state of your health, and I know it is unwise for you to have two kinds of wine at a meal. I have chosen for you a red wine so light that it can be drunk appropriately with oysters.”
A tactful solution. Cocteau was visibly relieved, but the steward and myself were even more relieved.
“You are thinking I am poor,” he said to me.
“That is impossible,” I replied. “What about your book royalties and films and plays?”
“Yes, all of that is so carefully recorded that I have to pay taxes of sixty-three percent on my income. I am able to live thanks to the generosity of my good friend and benefactress, Mme Weisweiller. Most of the year I live in her villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Santo-Sospir.”
I had known of Cocteau’s various addresses: the Paris apartment, the house at Milly-la-Forêt near Paris, and Mme Weisweiller’s residence in the Alpes Maritimes. I asked him about the housekeeper I had just met. Madeleine had served him for several years. She was many things for Cocteau: housekeeper, secretary, guardian. She knew how to discourage the tiresome visitors and keep the schedule of important appointments when Cocteau was in Paris. This sturdy Burgundian was servant and friend at the same time, in her devotion and steadfastness. The Paris apartment was so small that she had to organize it carefully: Cocteau took his breakfast in the kitchen and it was there he visited with his friends, who had the habit of passing by in the morning. The tiny red parlor, where I had waited, was kept for more formal visitors. Madeleine used to call it le salon des académiciens. “But the next time,” he said, “you will sit down in the kitchen.” He had no way of knowing, and neither did I, that this was the only visit I would ever have with him.
“What are you working on now?” he asked me.
“I am translating two plays of Claudel.”
“Don’t bother with Claudel,” was his swift answer. “Work on Jean Cocteau.”
I smiled, but he did not, and finished his thought by saying: “Cocteau will last longer that Claudel.”
I asked him what his relationship with Claudel had been.
“Very intermittent but always cordial. I called on him when I was making the rounds of the Académiciens, and I asked him if he would vote for me. He took my two hands in his, and said, ‘Yes, Jean, with all my heart. But tell me one thing—why, in heaven’s name, do you want to be a member of the Académie Française?’ I tried to tell Claudel that such a move was so unexpected, that it was in keeping with my entire life.”
Then I thanked Cocteau for the “pass” he had written out and given me to see the private first showing of Le Testament d’Orphée. I had read about the film. Already the literary weeklies were running articles and documentations on it. The topic was, of course, close to Cocteau’s heart and he spoke of it at some length. He began by saying that I would see Mme Weisweiller in the film, in a scene shot in the garden of her villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. He had no subsidy for this film and had decided to use his friends for the various parts: actors, actresses, artists who gave him their time and talent. This meant he had to wait until something brought them to the south, to the region near Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and the two centers where most of the film was made: Les Baux-de-Provence and Villefranche. It was the culminating film of his career, the synthesis of his legends and themes.
Cocteau spoke, not rapidly, but steadily, and without transition from topic to topic. I no longer remember how he shifted from Le Testament d’Orphée to Mauriac. But Mauriac’s name came up, and he spoke at some length of the man, and of his behavior at the première of Bacchus. I had seen a performance of Bacchus a few years previously, and I had collected all the articles and reviews of the Mauriac-Cocteau quarrel, the open letters and the discussions of the letters. The problems involved were not really on religion and morals. They represented a clash of temperaments. Cocteau felt this and I listened attentively to his analysis of Mauriac. In one of his typical, aphoristic flashes, which I don’t believe he ever wrote down, he recapitulated the problem by saying quite simply: “You see, François Mauriac is the type of man who fundamentally does not like people. You and I do ”
The dispute had been so public and so strenuous that Cocteau had believed a definitive break had been reached between him and Mauriac. Thus, at a subsequent large gathering, Cocteau was surprised when Mauriac sat down beside him and affably asked, “Alors, mon petit Jean, comment vas-tu?” “But I thought you had insulted me by your behavior at Bacchus and in print afterwards,” was Cocteau’s reply. “No, no, that was our literary side, the histrionics of the profession.” “It was serious for me, however,” said Cocteau, “and I had no intention of deceiving my public.”
I was familiar with several of these stories that Cocteau related in the third person, but he often expressed a more personal attitude toward them than he had on the printed page. He spoke especially and fervently of Igor Stravinsky. In the middle part of their careers the two friends had been estranged, and their recent reconciliation had meant a great deal to Cocteau. He emphasized his conviction that Stravinsky is one of the very greatest artists of our day. Many years had gone by since Cocteau had written so movingly of Le Sacre du printemps and hailed it as a great turning point in contemporary music.
It was I who initiated the discussion about Jacques Maritain. Ever since the time of the two famous letters in 1926, letters that today have an important place in literary history, both Maritain and Cocteau remained faithful to their friendship. Cocteau’s return to his faith in 1926, which he owed in part to Maritain, was expressed years later in the chapels he decorated. I had imagined, and I was right in this, that Cocteau’s feelings for Maritain were as affectionate and loyal as ever. And so I told him of Maritain’s fears that he might not be able to spend the last years of his life in France. I suggested that he take up this problem with André Malraux.
“Why just Malraux?” was his reaction. “I will telephone to De Gaulle, who admires Maritain and knows his work.”
When I asked him if he knew De Gaulle personally, he replied in the affirmative, and said that only recently he had telephoned to him to say that De Gaulle was the first real anti-gaullist!
It was suddenly two-thirty, and I stood up as I reminded Cocteau that he had promised Madeleine to be back at the apartment at this time.
“But I want you to have another memory of Jean Cocteau in Paris. Tomorrow Mme Weisweiller and I go to Saint-Moritz. I have to go there periodically to build up my red corpuscles. For this trip I am having a woolen jacket made. Come with me to the store while I have a fitting. That will give us further time together.”
Outside of the apartment, Mme Weisweiller’s chauffeur put us into the automobile and we soon drove up to Dior’s. At the end of the store was a counter for men: ties, handkerchiefs, etc. And there we went. When Cocteau’s name was announced, three tailors appeared from nowhere. The beigecolored jacket was tried on, and it seemed to me that in the space of a few moments, Cocteau indicated changes in almost every detail. As I watched him convince the tailors that he was right to ask for this and that change, I remembered his long career in the theatre where he was accustomed to assume responsibility for costumes as well as settings and mise-en-scène.
Satisfied at last that the instructions would be carried out, he turned to a salesgirl and said he wanted to pay her for a black tie he had purchased a month previously. She looked up the account. “Oui, en effet, M. Cocteau, vous me devez 5000 francs.”
Cocteau opened his billfold, and, asking the young lady to extract from it the correct amount, explained in a good firm voice so that we all could easily hear: “I am confused over the new francs, and I don’t want to give you too much or too little. The other day I was at Mougins at lunch with my great friend Picasso. His son came in and asked him for some money. When he took the bill his father gave him, he exclaimed, ‘Mais papa, tu me donnes des millions.’ “
As we walked back through the main part of the store, it was apparent that Cocteau’s presence had been signaled to everyone. We walked through the gauntlet. Our farewell on the sidewalk was brief. He took out from his pocket a small gift which he gave to me and said that we would meet again at the end of the afternoon at Le Testament d’Orphée. “Orphée” was the last word I heard him say.