If you’re anything like me (a public school educated American), you probably didn’t learn about Jean Cocteau in school. You may have intuitively envisioned him (or her) as elegant, artistic and French. You might have sometimes confused him/her with Jacques Cousteau, or some famous old school French actress (hey, Jean is a girl’s name, right?).
At any rate, if someone mentioned Jean Cocteau in a conversation, you’d nod knowingly (knowingly, because the name sounds familiar) and say nothing for fear of embarrassing yourself by responding with something like “she was a great beauty, fine artist and a pioneer in deep sea exploration.
Turns out, Cocteau is pretty famous over here (male, FYI). And he was no one-trick petite cheval. He’s famous for poetry, literature, theater, art, ballet, films, music, set design, and the list goes on. Dude did everything. He was the first to adapt Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et le Bete) to film (yeah, I thought it was Disney, too). He even designed jewelry! (I discovered this at the Musee de Cocteau in Menton). Dear Lord and American school system, where has he been all my life?
A few facts: He was born in 1880 and died in 1963 (a few hours after his close friend, Edith Piaf’s death). Not a bad run for a once sickly child before the invention of penicillin. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who killed himself when Cocteau was nine. He published his first book of poetry at 19. He was a hard partier and drug addict. He was good friends with Picasso and Matisse. Hell, it appears He was good friends with just about every famous person alive, from Coco Chanel to Marlene Dieterich to Igor Stravinsky. Something tells me that if the E network existed in his time, he’d be top news everyday and much more popular than the Kardashians. It appears, he was visionary enough to have his own Facebook page.
He was bixexual, but his longest relationships were with men –Jean Marais was an actor (starred in most of Cocteau’s productions) and Eduoard Dermit a young writer he eventually adopted. He struggled with opium addiction. He lived like he was rich, but he wasn’t. Which is a nice way of saying he was a bit of a mooch; living well off of other peoples’ coin. I guess he was just so wonderful, charming and clever, people just wanted to be around him and invited him to stay with them.
Which is how he wound up spending 13 years at Villa Santo Sospir on Cap Ferrat.
Francine Weisweiller, a rich socialite whose husband spent most of the time in Paris with his mistress, owned the villa. She invited him and his extremely handsome adopted 23-year old son, Eduoard Dermit to be her guest in the Villa for a week. They wound up staying until over a decade later, when after a huge fight with Francine, Cocteau stormed out and they never spoke again.
I’ve heard differing stories on the nature of Francine and Cocteau’s relationship. I tend to think that putting up with a guest for that long without killing them indicates a love beyond reason, but that could just be me. One thing is certain, Cocteau never really left her. He left his imprint in the form of murals, tapestries, tiles and doodlings all over the house. Santo Sospir was his sketch pad.
After Francine’s death in 2003, Villa Santo Sospir was passed down to her daughter, Carole. In order to avoid the huge inheritance tax and because the historic and cultural nature of the villa, the family had it classified as an historical monument. Unlike many historical monuments, it still evokes the essence of the people who lived there. It seems unchanged, as if they’re all still present, possibly getting very drunk and having wild, celebrity/intelligensia-studded orgies on the terrace overlooking the sea.
The villa is open for tours, but unlike nearby Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and Villa Kerylos, you have to make an appointment. Eric, the caretaker and once caregiver to the aging Francine, conducts the tours, and offers unique, intimate insight, much of which I probably either miss or misunderstand because the tour is in French.
It doesn’t matter. The setting is spectacular and It’s like Cocteau opened his brain and splashed it all over this quirky place. You can practically feel the stories that happened over those 13 years.
In many ways, Villa Santo Sospir is the embodiment of the epitaph on Cocteau’s tombstone: “Je reste avec vous” or “I stay with you.”
A tour of Villa Santo Sospir