Piaf and Cocteau: Les Enfants Terribles
When I write I disturb. When I make a film I disturb. When I paint I disturb. When I exhibit my paintings I disturb, and I disturb if I don’t. I have a knack for disturbing. (Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown)
On the 11th of October 1963, a French poet, novelist, designer, playwright, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau died in his country house in Milly-la-Forêt, France. The multi-talented dandy, who throughout his lifetime managed to successfully ‘disturb’ his audiences, surrendered to the disturbing news of Edith Piaf’s death. The Little Sparrow died on the same day at seven o’clock in the morning. “Ah, la Piaf est morte. Je peux mourir aussi.” (“Ah, Piaf is dead. I can die too.”), these two sentences were allegedly among Cocteau’s last words, before dying later that day of a heart attack.
Piaf’s health condition had been bad for months before the fatal day. She had been dying of liver cancer and her morphine infused body had absolutely no chance for recovery. Thus, it is hard to believe that the news of this long anticipated death were the true cause of Cocteau’s passing. Cocteau was aware of Piaf’s long-lasting agony and had been preparing for her death for quite sometime. A few months before the events of the memorable ‘black Friday’, he had recorded a homage to Piaf’s memory, saying: “She died as if consumed by the fire of her fame”. His epitaph was broadcast on the national radio promptly after Piaf’s death. Was it then just an irony of fate or, yet again, one more ‘disturbing’ performance by the touche-à-tout sublime (sublime Jack of all trades) that merged Piaf and Cocteau’s contrapuntal life stories for one last time?
Piaf and Cocteau did not have much in common. She was born in the gutters of Paris, he was born a bourgeois; she was an erratic singer, whose emotionally charged repertoire appealed to the masses, he was a distinguished modernist artist admired by the intellectual few. Yet, there was something that drew the two to each other. “We both belong to the world of poetry”, said Cocteau at their first ever meeting. The thing that was similar for the pair was most of all their desperate quest for love and identity. Cocteau “lived a perpetual identity crisis and by his own admission experienced continual anguish and turmoil, from the moment of his father’s suicide when he was just nine to the tragic early deaths of his closest male friends and lovers. He experienced a profound need to identify and fuse with others simply to exist: ‘I love others and exist only through them’, he explained.” (James S. Williams, Jean Cocteau). Similar thing was characteristic of Piaf. She built her identity on partially confabulated stories of her past (the birth in a gutter was apparently one of them), and sustained her existence through the lives of her lovers. This probably formed the common ground for Piaf and Cocteau’s friendship. The story has it that they were true soul mates, or perhaps even lovers. Whatever had really happened between the two is not very clear though.
In 1940 Cocteau wrote a play inspired by Piaf’s relationship with Paul Meurisse. The play was about the couple and was written with the intention of their joint performance. A strange gesture, indeed. Was it a stroke of Cocteau’s jealousy or simply care for his friend’s turbulent love life that led him to writing the play? Le Bel Indifférent (The Beautiful Indifferent), which turned out a great commercial success, was written apparently “with the aim of showing Paris that the passionate, man-hungry, booze-thirsty, life-devouring Piaf was shacked up with a cold fish, and also with a powerful desire to drive the pair apart” (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, 8 November, 2003). The play focused on the aspect of a woman’s solitude in a relationship – a problem very familiar to Piaf. Yet, Cocteau turned it into a public affair. Could it be really possible for a true friend to unmask his friend’s weakness for consuming love in such a direct way in front of the public? The other theory could be that Cocteau and Piaf complemented each other’s strange needs in this case. Perhaps, more than anything else, the play was a mere pretext to fulfilling Cocteau’s need for ‘disturbing’. After all he did manage to convince the unfortunate couple to play themselves on stage. And perhaps, for Piaf it was an act of masochistic exhibitionism, to which she got addicted as much as she did to alcohol and morphine.
Piaf and Cocteau did belong to a unique and mysterious world of poetry, plotting their two separate lives into a one surprising finale. Their death-related coincidence was very poetic indeed. But most of all it was ironic, as it resembled the story of Cocteau’s probably most famous literary characters – les enfants terribles.