It could be argued that Jean Maurice Eugène Clement Cocteau was born and bred to be an outsider. Reared by a family of stockbrokers, diplomats, and admirals, he was a product of the grande bourgeoisie française, neither entirely of the middle class nor entirely of the aristocracy. His parents, Georges and Eugénie Lecomte Cocteau, a couple who were no strangers to the arts, introduced Jean, his brother Paul, and his sister Marthe to music, theater, architecture, indeed, all the fine arts. Georges died when Jean was nine years old, and his mother, with whom he had a long and close relationship, had difficulty keeping the boy at the Petit Lycée Condorcet, where he was a poor student. Instead, Cocteau preferred to follow his own interests at home and to attend the theater regularly.
His birthplace, Maisons-Laffitte, allowed Cocteau easy access to Paris, where he involved himself in the various avant-garde movements that followed hard on one another in the early part of the twentieth century, finding comradeship in unconventional undertakings with fellow outsiders. His friends included such writers as Edmond Rostand, Catulle Mendès, Leon Daudet, Marcel Proust, and the Comtesse Anna de Noailles. By 1909, he had published his first book of poems, La Lampe d’Aladin.
Soon afterward, he met the director of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, a man who influenced Cocteau immensely, inspiring him to write a number of ballet scenarios. Diaghilev’s remonstrance to “Astonish me!” is claimed to have set Cocteau on his...
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