More than 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to interview the author of a just-published, generously illustrated book about the amazing life and art of the one-and-only, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). If you even briefly dip into the glory of 20th Century French culture — its art, theater, literature, ballet and movies — his name is always there, in the center, or slightly off, but never far away.
Cover of Jean Cocteau and His World, by Arthur King Peters
Who knew that, 20 years later, I would be invited on a short press trip to the French Riviera, where Cocteau once lived. After all, Hannibal Lecter was right when he said in the thriller Silence of the Lambs, “Good things happen to those who know how to wait.”
This trip was short, intense and super packed. I’ll spare you details of our wine and absinthe tasting and elaborate gastronomic pleasures provided by our generous French hosts. Instead, let me tell you about the last day there, when our small group of American journalists traveled to the town Menton to a just-opened Jean Cocteau Museum. The peculiar but somewhat charming one-story building made me think of a white single-tiered wedding cake cut with the help of a decidedly crooked knife.
View of the Musee Cocteau at night
The museum collection, which is mostly based on generous donations by Severin Wunderman, tells the important story of Jean Cocteau’s many contributions to the French culture. He was friends and collaborator with virtually every important figure of his day. Very often, he was the catalyst and inspiration for their artistic projects. He was a famous charmer. Jean Marais, gorgeous star of the French cinema, was his lover.
View of the interior of the Musee Cocteau
Truth be told, I always thought of Cocteau as, yes, important, but nevertheless, second-echelon artist. And I still do. But let me tell you about the experience I had with him and his art soon after we left the museum and arrived at the nearby Villa Santo Sospir. Wow. Take a look at our website for a few photos that I took there.
View from the terrace and of the dining room at the Villa Santo Sospir
This rather modest Villa belonged to his friend, Francine Weisweiller, who invited the artist to decorate the house in the 1950s. One thing led to another, and Cocteau spent the better part of the next decade there, painting, writing and shooting films until his death in 1963. He drew there, over the walls and ceilings of virtually every room, including the kitchens and even the narrow tunnel leading down to the cellar.
View of the stairs to the wine cellar at Villa Santo Sospir
In his museum, I only looked at his art, but, here, in this Villa, I felt like I was inside of his head, hearing his thoughts, seeing the brush in his hand doing its elaborate, irresistible dancing. Being there, allowed me to understand the power of charm and persuasion that Cocteau had over such 20th Century luminaries as Andre Gide and Sartre, Satie and Stravinsky, Picasso, Diaghilev and Nijinsky.
View of the living room at Villa Santo Sospir
I could have stayed there the whole day, but the bus was waiting to drive us through Monte Carlo and Monaco on the way to Nice, the last city on our three-day tour of the French Riviera.
Banner image: Aerial view of the Musee Cocteau in Menton, France. Courtesy Arbloc. Other images by Edward Goldman
Arthur King Peters