Jean Cocteau was not just an exceptional artist but a superb publicist. His work has been read, seen and examined to exhaustion. As a mercurial individual, his artistic range covered poetry, painting, filmmaking, drama and design. The scope and brilliance of his production is such that there will be decades before he will be relegated to the pantheon of illustrious but predictable artists France is known to worship. In the now of our daily lives, he still incarnates energy and fantasy, provocation and enlightenment.
Behind the work there is the man and in Cocteau’s case, the other man, Jean Marais. He represented the love that transformed his life (“I was drowning and you did not hesitate to jump into the water”, he wrote). Half his age, Jean Marais spellbound at 24 the ageing Cocteau who at 48 was struggling with an addiction to opium, that artificial paradise where he thought he could recover his creative pulse. The tenuous beginning of the affair was not exempt from a certain cynicism on the part of Jean Marais, the cub playing with the consecrated idol. As in fairy tales, resistance and prejudice gave way to passionate love and a story of enchantment and rebirth ensued. Cocteau began a new phase of his career and young Jean exultant in his physicality came to triumph as the matinee idol of postwar France. The young one chipped away at the conflictive and morbid soul of the old one and won.
Was their encounter destined to be? When Marais saw some of the Jean Cocteau’s drawings he was struck by the resemblance to his own profile. When they finally met, Cocteau could not resist him. The bond was oddly strengthened by echoes of their own pasts. The poet’s father committed suicide when he was 10 and while he soon sought the affection of men, he became an emotional unit with his mother. Marais’ mother, Rosalie, left her husband and came to Paris with Jeannot, 4 at the time, and a younger brother. To the consternation of her sons she would disappear for long periods but these departures were a family secret: Rosalie was kleptomaniac and her time away was spent in prison. As the proverb goes, absence made the heart of Jean grow fonder.
When passion fades, it is a challenge to craft a new relationship from the cinders of strong physical magnetism. Yet, these two individuals while exploring desire for others, succeeded in preserving the height of their unique friendship. Cocteau went on to adopt another beautiful young man, Édouard Dermit, whom he fashioned to be a painter and an actor. He became his universal legatee at his death of a massive heart attack in 1963, curiously a few hours after the passing away of Édith Piaf.
Jean Marais fell in love with the brilliant dancer George Reich, who in turn abandoned him after nine years together. Fragile and lost, he sought to get closer to Cocteau who had only a few years to live and who eschewed the idea. He had relapsed into his opium habits. Marais’ sadness lifted when a young man entered his life, Serge Ayala, whom following the steps of his mentor, he adopted as a son. He enjoyed life with his protégé until his death in 1998, oddly of heart failure as his former lover. In 2012, Serge committed suicide.