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Correspondence

August 20, 2000

To the Editor:

I do not know where Edmund White in his review of Jean-Yves Tadie's life of Proust (Book Review, Aug. 6) conceived his notion that Francis Steegmuller, my late husband, in his biography of Jean Cocteau, "pretends that the great love of Cocteau's life was the Princess Natalie Paley." Certainly not from my husband's book, where that transitory, drug-ridden infatuation occupies, in a work of over 500 pages, less than five; and "could be," in Steegmuller's words, "dismissed as gossip not worth the recounting" were it not for some relevance to Cocteau's art in the 1930s. As Steegmuller relates, Natalie Paley acknowledged, in the 1960s, that "For [Cocteau] the affair with me was purely physical. He wanted a son, but he was only as potent with me as one can be who is completely homosexual and full of opium. It was all shameful and disgraceful. There was no love." Throughout, Cocteau maintained his homosexual relations with Jean Desbordes and others. His claim to have impregnated Natalie Paley was ridiculed.

Steegmuller comments that Cocteau's involvement with Paley "can be thought of as a kind of opium dream; its mythomania was outside the realm of art; in it he displayed indifference to his artistic qualities and flouted his innermost nature; his moral gaucherie was pronounced."

In Steegmuller's biography, White will find the Princess "indexed" in the multiple entry under "Cocteau"--Natalie Paley having declined, at that time, to be identified by name. I read Edmund White on Tadie with interest--hoping, however, that the weird distortion corrected above is not an indication of his accuracy.

Shirley Hazzard

New York City

Edmund White replies:

I stand corrected about the details of Steegmuller's account of the relationship between Princess Paley and Cocteau, but I still stick by my point that earlier biographies of key literary figures (including Proust, Gide and Cocteau) underreported their homosexuality. For instance, on page 480 Steegmuller tells us in a footnote to a discussion of the film "Orphee": "In connection with the film, it has been pointed out that the vogue for the younger poet Cegeste (played by Edouard Dermit) and the decline of 'Orphee' (Jean Marais) is analogous to the roles of the two men in Cocteau's intimate life: since the 'adoption' of Dermit, Marais had been gradually withdrawing. (A third young man, Paul Morihien, who had also been one of the household and who had acted as Cocteau's secretary, withdrew at this same time)."

I doubt whether a biography of a heterosexual writer or artist (Hemingway or Picasso, say) would have consigned so much important information about the subject's emotional life to a hasty footnote. When I interviewed Morihien for my Genet biography, I learned the interesting things mentioned in this paragraph in my book: "Morihien was a water-polo player during the war in Paris, and in 1940 or 1941 he had become Jean Marais's lover. Cocteau, who was in his mid-fifties, 'took the couple,' that is, he incorporated Morihien, who normally would have been considered his rival, into his household. Morihien lived in Jean Marais's room in the Palais-Royal apartment. Since Marais was often out of Paris, touring in a play or shooting a film, Morihien kept Cocteau company and, as Cocteau's diary shows, frequently went to social events with him. At first he knew nothing about paintings or books but, since he was avid to be educated, little by little he began to pick up an extensive knowledge about art from his daily contact with Cocteau." Among other things, Cocteau helped Morihien start a bookstore under the arcades of the Palais-Royal where Morihien published the first book by Cocteau's protege, Jean Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers."

Of course I realize that Morihien might not have been so open in an interview in the 1960s as he was in the 1980s, nor would Steegmuller have escaped criticism if he'd "dwelled unnecessarily" on his subject's "neurosis." I'm merely remarking on the salutary change in the cultural climate.

*

To the Editor:

John Rechy's otherwise engaging and incisive review of Darden Asbury Pyron's biography of Liberace (Book Review, Aug. 6) seriously misstates the status of gay rights in the United States. In a pithy paragraph, Rechy says, "Police followed cruising gay men home, waited then broke in and arrested them having sex. Such consensual acts between adults, in private, were punishable with five or more years in prison. . . . (Vice arrests in private are legal even today; a 1986 Supreme Court decision let stand the conviction of two consenting Georgia adults arrested at home; imprisonment is still possible)."

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