Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

My Beautiful Angel

The Gay Love Letters of Jean Cocteau
to Jean Marais

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton

Photograph of Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau on the beach in 1838/1839

Jean Marais and Jean Cocteau in 1938/39

Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a master of literature, poetry, theatre and film. In his unsigned autobiography Le livre blanc he acknowledged that he recognized his love of youths when at a very young age he first saw a fresh farm boy bathing naked, and fainted in an ecstasy of joy and fear at the sight of his penis in the midst of its dark patch of pubic hair. Cocteau speculated that his father, who killed himself at the age of forty-nine, had suppressed homosexual inclinations and never understood the uneasiness at the root of his personality. At the Grand Condorcet school in 1903 Cocteau fell in love with Pierre Dargelos, the thirteen-year-old school vamp, who had "the beauty of an animal . . . that insolent beauty which is only heightened by filth." Shortly afterwards, Cocteau was expelled for "disciplinary reasons," but the image of Dargelos haunts Les Enfants terribles and his first film Le Sang d'un Poete (Blood of a Poet) (1930). He was sent to another school, but absconded for the port of Marseilles, where he indulged in drugs (he was a life-long opium eater) and sexual affairs with sailors and rough trade. Around 1906 he joined the circle of youths patronized by Edouard de Max, flamboyant aesthete and actor in Paris. When he accompanied Max to a costume ball in 1907 as an oriental princess, with his hair dyed red and in ringlets, a ring on every finger and toe, and a train embroidered with pearls, he was rebuked by Sarah Bernhardt: "If I were your mother, I would send you home to bed." It was through Max that Cocteau's first books of poetry were published, and he was introduced to the powerful literary and theatrical worlds. By 1917 Cocteau was friends with Proust, Gide, Stravinsky, Picasso, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, and was now famous enough to have his own young protégés. His first lover was Raymond Radiguet, fifteen when they met in 1918, with whom he had a passionate affair until Radiguet's death from typhoid in December 1923. After a year's solace in opium, Cocteau acquired a succession of young lovers from 1925 onwards, mostly eighteen-year-old blonds, who would live with him for periods of two or three years before being succeeded by another reincarnation of Radiguet. Le Livre Blanc first appeared in 1928, then was reissued in 1930 with powerful erotic drawings by Cocteau. Its descriptions of sex with working-class young men are extraordinarily erotic even in our own jaded age, and it quickly became a gay underground classic. But it is essentially a "white paper" on injustice, an early sexual-political analysis of how guilt and shame are internalized in response to the homophobia of peer groups and the agents of social oppression such as teachers: "My misfortunes are due to a society which condemns anything out of the ordinary as a crime and forces us to reform our natural inclinations." The first half of the book documents the dynamics of self-oppression, for example how the narrator pretends to share the heterosexual enthusiasms of his school friends and thus "began to falsify my nature," leading to affairs with women. The second half of the book is an affirmation of homosexuality, when he realizes he has taken a wrong turning and "vowed that I would not get lost again." But it also shows how most gay relationships during this period were "doomed to failure" because of self-loathing and social injustice. The book concludes with a bitter sarcasm upon the Christian church, when the narrator "confesses" to the Abbé "I am happy but in a way that the Church and the world disapprove of" and is rejected: "I thought how admirable was the economy of God. It gives love when one lacks it, and, in order to avoid a pleonism of the heart, refuses it to those who have it." The last pages are swamped by self-pity, but nevertheless express one of the key sentiments that prompted the Gay Liberation movement: "I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty." Cocteau's major relationship later in life was with Jean Marais, the young actor for whom he had written the role of the son in Les Parents terribles (1938). He had met Marais the previous year, when Marais was twenty-four years old. He was a very beautiful young man, and at the beginning of his career was cast in several roles primarily because of his physique; he became a successful film star (he is the very attractive Beast in Cocteau's film La Belle et la bête, 1946) and theatre director (he continues to direct Cocteau's plays). He and Cocteau lived together until 1947, when they both found other young protégés, but they remained friends throughout life. From the late 1950s Cocteau, the Enfant Terrible of the French literary establishment, was heaped with honors, became a member of L'Academy Fançaise and was elected The Prince of Poets. The following letters to Marais – here translated into English for the first time – cover their initial romance and their decision to live together.


[December 1938]

My Jeannot,
          It is Christmas, the most wonderful Christmas of my entire life. Your heart, your body, your soul, the happiness of living and working with you are all in my stocking. One subject might be `the useful present', of which I disapprove. As superfluous. I shall look only at the hands that give it. My Jeannot, I can never tell you often enough: thank you, thank you for your creative genius, thank you for our love.
                    Your Jean

19, place de la Madeleine

My adored Jeannot,
          I have come to love you so (more than anything in the world) that I have given myself an order to love you only as a father and I want you to know that it is not because I love you less, but more.
          I was afraid – to the point of dying – of wanting too much, of not giving you your freedom and of monopolizing you as in the play [Les Parents terribles, first performed at the théâtre des Ambassadeurs in Paris in 1938]. And then I'm afraid I might suffer horribly if you were to fall in love and if you didn't want to hurt me. I told myself that if I left you free you would tell me everything and that I should be less miserable than if you had to conceal the slightest thing from me. I cannot say that this was a decision that was very difficult to take – because my adoration is mixed with respect – it is religious in character, almost sacred – and because I give you all I have it in me to give. But I fear that you imagine that there is a certain reserve between us, a certain uneasiness – and that is why I am writing to you instead of speaking, from the bottom of my heart.
          My Jeannot, I tell you again that you are everything to me. The very idea of inhibiting you, of taking advantage of your wonderful youth, would be atrocious. I was able to give you some glory and that is the only real result of that play, the only result that counts and that warms me.
          Think – you will meet someone of your own age whom you will conceal from me or whom you will stop yourself from loving for fear of driving me to despair – I should be furious with myself until the day I died. It is undoubtedly preferable to deprive myself of a small part of my happiness and to gain your confidence and become courageous enough so that you feel freer than you would with a daddy or a mummy. You must have guessed my scruples and my distress. You're a sharp little Jeannot who knows a thing or two. It is only that I had to explain my attitude to you, so that you might not for a second believe that there is the shadow of a shadow between us. I swear to you that I am fair-minded and chivalrous enough not to be at all jealous and that this obliges me to live in agreement with the god we pray to. This god has given us so much that it would be wrong to ask more of him. I believe that sacrifices find their rewards, don't reprimand me, my beautiful angel. I see by the way you look at me that you know that no one loves you more than I do – and I should be ashamed to put the slightest obstacle in your way. My Jeannot adore me as I adore you and console me. Press me to your heart. Help me to be a saint, to be worthy of you and of myself. I live only through you.


Jeannot darling,
          I beg you to read this letter as it was written, with your lovely soul and with our love, and don't find the shadow of jealousy, loneliness, the bitterness of age, etc. in it. I pledge my word. I am very, very, miserable, my Jeannot, because luck helped me to make you famous and now everyone loves you . . . Only the fashionable set is on the lookout for the tiniest mistakes and congratulates itself on them. Now, the fact that you incessantly go out with boys of your own age is splendid. If it were Mercanton, Gilbert [Mercanton and Gilbert Gil, young actors], etc., I would see it only as straightforward, as work, as joy. What your innocence prevents you from being aware of is that the little gang you go out with all the time is, in the eyes of other people, a gang of blackmailers, of idle kept boys, unworthy of you and whom your presence elevates while it debases you. I don't tell you this because I've been told it. I tell off anyone who talks to me about it. I am telling you because I wanted to analyze my distress, to know where it came from and whether its motives were low.
          No. I'm sure I'm right. Note that I am not asking you to turn your back on these new friends. I ask you to exercise the same reserve that I exercised when I used to associate with them in the past. Occasionally waiting for a signal before rushing off to see them.
          D.'s conversation isn't for you. His tastes aren't for you. His lifestyle isn't for you. You make him out to be a prince charming. But in my eyes and in the eyes of others he's only a poor kid without much of a place in the world and lazy in the face of destiny.
          Take heart. Open your eyes. Think. Think of my work, of our plays, our projects, our purity, the straight line we walk – and balance against that my frightful anxiety at knowing that you are always absent from your room and that you have fled to those haunts that are degrading to you without your being aware of it. Don't be angry with me for being so frank. I had a hard struggle before writing these lines. It would be easier for me to take advantage of your kindness and to keep quiet. Meditate on these lines and find the answer in yourself. Don't invent one for me. Live it.
                    Your Jean

PS. Jeannot the folly of lovers is immense, vegetable, animal, astral. What should I do? How can I make you understand that I no longer exist apart from you.

Our house
July 1939

Thank you my Jeannot for having admitted it to me. If I had found it out through the boasts or the indiscretions of that gang of "ladykillers", I think I should have died of it. As things are it doesn't matter and you are even more admirable in my eyes.
          My Sunday was spent in dreams, in work, in loving. Pardon me for having complained. My love for you is such, my desire for you is such that I forget the circumstances. You know, as when you kissed Édouard on his paralysed mouth. That should help you to understand.
          Jean I loved you so badly, I was so stupid, so ridiculous. I deserve all that won't happen to me because heaven protects heavenly loves.
          My Jeannot I believe you. I know, I feel that you adore me as I adore you and that no one in the world is happier than we are. But look: I love life. This Sunday was life. You inspired me and I inspired you. We lived fast and kilometres above the little Nancy boys and the Paris–New York gossip. I should like our love to be excessive continually. Like the works. Always sharp, scandalous, brutally forceful. You understood perfectly well that I explain myself so badly that you could not have answered. We understand one another without speech, by the waves that emanate from us. My Jean, make allowances for one madly in love who has decided never to be cured of his madness, never to be prudent.

19 place de la Madeleine

My beloved Jeannot,
          I'm so bad at speaking to you that I want to explain my stupidities to you better. Not for anything in the world would I wish to resemble the "others" or wish you to think I was "jealous". My Jeannot, I didn't know that one could adore another being as I adore you. I'm angry at fate, not at you. Imagine this dream: to adore one another without a single shadow, unreservedly, without a single false note. That, alas, is impossible. As for me, I thought that I could free myself and, since boys and women still want me violently, that we could each go our own way. But, in my soul and in my body, there is no longer a way I can go. The idea of touching anyone but you, of speaking tenderly to him, revolts me. I recoil from it. Don't think that implies that I'm blaming you. You're free and, since bad luck prevents us from living that dream, I should be mad to trammel you, your youth, your élan.
          My rebellions, my pain come only from a miserable animal reflex. The idea of you in the arms of another or holding another in your arms is torture to me. Only, I want to get used to it and I want to know that in your infinite kindness you will be grateful to me.
          I ask you above all not to feel embarrassed or constrained about anything and, since I find mysteries even more killing than lies, I ask you to judge the extent of my pain and to make it tolerable. One gesture, one word, one look from you is enough. I am not "jealous" of the one you love, I envy him and what hurts is that I am not, that I no longer am, worthy of that immense joy. I experienced that pain yesterday. I was as downcast as you about the troubles concerning Denham [a young man in the sky blue pyjamas whom Marais found in his theatre box one evening and of whom he writes in Histoires de ma vie]. I would have hated anyone who had thought me capable of being pleased about them.
          In short, since I am deprived of love and nearly deprived of air to breathe, I should like to become some sort of a saint. Because the alternative would be vice and I object to that. My beautiful angel, I tell you again that I adore you. I want nothing but your happiness.
                    Your Jean

19, place de la Madeleine

My Jeannot,
          I love you. All your reactions demonstrate nobility of soul and heart. I thank you for all the happiness you give me and the happiness of which you deprive me.
          You are my angel. Without you I should lose my head in the midst of all these troubles with both theatre and film.
          I should have given everything I had to have you in love with me but since it was not to be, save the secret place in your heart and in the senses of your heart for me.
                    Love me


My Jeannot,
          Thank you from the bottom of my heart for having saved me. I was drowning and you threw yourself into the water without hesitation, without a backward look. What is admirable about it is that all this cost you dear and you wouldn't have done it if the impulse hadn't been sincere. So you have given me a proof of strength, a proof that all the lessons of our work have borne fruit. In love you can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds and there is no such thing as a small love. You tended to believe in André's [André Goudin, Jean Cocteau's secretary] system: "One collects a face", etc. That's wrong. Love is Tristan and Isolde. Tristan is unfaithful to Isolde and it kills him. In just one minute you understood that our love couldn't be weighed against a sort of regret, a sort of baseless sorrow. I shall never forget those two days and that terrible 14th of July when I tempted fate and when I didn't know where to live anymore. We shall find our island of love again and our factory for the production of beautiful works of art. I adore you.
          Write me two lines. Your short letters are my fetishes.

May I ask one little nonsense of you? For me waiting is like an illness. If you get in late, just telephone – a short phone call so that I hear your voice.

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

SOURCE: Jean Cocteau, Lettres à Jean Marais © Albin Michel 1987, used by permission of the publishers Les éditions Albin Michel, Paris; English translation for My Dear Boy by Alexandra Trone.

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