"Yes, yes," Chanel said impatiently, "Cocteau has any number of small talents. It's a good film, as such things go."
It was not that Coco was sparing in her praise for the creative work of her contemporaries; simply that she, as most of us do, preferred talking about herself. But I pressed on. I knew by now many of the people in Paris that mattered but had never met Cocteau. And I was sure that Chanel would have a story. And, of course, she did.
How true this story was, I was never quite sure. Nor was I even certain that I understood which war she was talking of The Great War of 1914-18. Or the later unpleasantness of 1939-45. With Chanel, who was now of a great age and had lived through both world wars and many other historic events as well, you needed to be cautious with what she told you and in what you believed.
Then, just last month in the Book Review of The New York Times, all these years later, I had some small but convincing documentation of what Coco had told me about Monsieur Cocteau. Here was her little story:
It was during World War I that Cocteau, by then in his mid-20s, and something of a rage in Paris, even with the war and its awful carnage of the trenches, was having a rather famous affair with a French general. The general and young Cocteau were staying, along with other senior and staff officers of the French army, in a splendid chateau some miles behind the lines, living well, of course, as French generals do (the great Joffre, hero of the Marne who weighed 300 pounds, was said, even in the darkest moments of desperate battles, never to have missed a meal).
On this particular night after the accustomed four- or five-course dinner and wines, and then the brandy, Cocteau and his general had gone upstairs to their bedroom, and, following the usual tendernesses and leaping about and such, were fast asleep when the telephone rang through to the chateau the warning that a German zeppelin was heading this way with a load of bombs. Far be it for the German General Staff to miss an opportunity to detonate well-fed French staff and general officers. Solicitous NCOs and enlisted men set up the alarm, urging that the commissioned gentlemen really ought to think about descending to the wine cellars lest they be blown up.
And so alerted, down the great stairs of the chateau they came, a score or more of France's greatest men, roused from sleep and tumbling in their haste, along with, at the very end of the flight, Cocteau's general and Cocteau himself, resplendent, according to Coco Chanel, in a frilly pink negligee!
As I say, with Coco you never knew what to believe. And so, I have always taken this account with a proverbial grain of sel. Until, in the Nov. 16 New York Times, there ran a review of a wonderful book of Cocteau's photos of the period, featuring Picasso, Henri Pierre-Roche (who would write "Jules et Jim"), Max Jacob, and other lions of the moment, all the photos taken during a four-hour period on Saturday, Aug. 12, 1916, as they posed and sported about a sunny Paris while Jean Cocteau, for his and their amusement, took snapshots.
"Cocteau was 27 at the time," writes the author, Billy Kluver. "Among the fashionable hostesses of Paris he was admired for his elegance of person, his brilliance as a talker and his virtuoso facility both with the written word and as a draftsman. 'Jean is irresistible,' people said.
"No sooner had his mother bought a Kodak camera than he spotted its potential. When he joined a volunteer ambulance unit that had been formed by a well-known member of high society, he took the Kodak with him. Dressed in a skirted uniform designed for him by the great couturier Paul Poiret, he snapped away with huge enjoyment whenever the Senegalese soldiers in his unit took showers."
I am not quite clear whether this marvelous interlude in Paris with Picasso or the others took place before or after Jean and his general enjoyed their little assignation at the chateau and very narrowly escaped the bombs of enemy zeppelins, but I now regret having ever doubted Chanel's word on Cocteau. Any gentleman of the period who had his "skirted uniforms" tailored by the great Poiret, and spent his time during the bloodiest war ever fought, photographing not the historic battles going on all about him, but nude soldiers as they showered, was surely capable of donning frilly negligees and giving pleasure to