by James S. Williams
Reaktion Books. 192 pages, $16.95
WHILE COCTEAU IS perhaps best known to Americans for two of the movies he wrote and directed—La belle et la bête (1946) and Orpheus (1949), which figure on most short lists of great French films— he started as a poet and always saw himself as such. It was through his friend Lucien Daudet, the gay son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, that Cocteau entered the world of belle époque Parisian salons immortalized by Marcel Proust, who was one of his early idols. There he sought out everyone who could help him, among them the greatly admired gay actor Edouard de Max, who in 1908 arranged a public reading where the eighteen-year-old Cocteau’s latest verse was read to a distinguished public by some of the era’s greatest actors. That evening made him a star in the world of French letters, a position he would struggle to maintain for the remaining 55 years of his life.