Swellboy on… Jean Cocteau

What a man Cocteau was: poet, film-maker, ambulance driver – and boxing promoter

Image: Brijesh Patel

The more I find out about him, the more I am captivated by Jean Cocteau. I have always liked his aesthetic and I just keep on stumbling over accomplishments that I never knew he had. It is testimony to my ignorance, for example, that I was utterly unaware that Cocteau had designed a range of jewellery with the Parisian jeweller Fred and now I find myself in the grip of a passion for one of these baubles to add to the ironmongery around my neck.

Apart from the fact that he has a museum dedicated to him in Menton, one of my favourite towns of the Riviera, what I suppose I like about Cocteau is that he was unafraid to be a polymath. I like to think of him as an artist and jeweller (as well as the work he did for Fred, Cocteau did much to popularise Cartier’s interlocking triptych of rings), but he was of course a prominent poet, playwright, poet, socialite and film-maker (I was toying with buying a poster of his film La belle et la bête the other day).


One of my favourite Cocteau vignettes concerns his time as an ambulance driver with Count Etienne de Beaumont in the Great War. They were en route to tend the wounded in Flanders but bedevilled by breakdowns, sleet, fog and their somewhat hazy sense of direction when night fell; they were nowhere near their destination of the once elegant but now war-ravaged resorts around Nieuport in Belgium. Eventually they found an inn, and went to their rooms to prepare for dinner. Shortly afterwards a group of high-ranking British officers, among them the commander in chief Douglas Haig, walked into the same inn and, sitting down to dinner, were just in time to see de Beaumont descending the stairs clad in black silk pyjamas, followed by Cocteau, who had opted for pink pyjamas – their entrance accompanied by the castanet-like clicking of the bangles they wore around their ankles.

But I must have been so carried away by Cocteau’s way with rings, bangles and medallions that I was utterly unaware that this man, who used to hang out with the likes of Proust and Gide and went on to work with Bardot, was, among other things, a boxing impresario. The noble science of pugilism may seem a strange area for a poet, artist and anklet-wearing pink pyjama-ed ambulance man to distinguish himself in, but according to Sports Illustrated in 1964 he proved instrumental in shaping the fortunes of “Panama” Al Brown. Now that I am in possession of this information, however, it puts the coiffure of that other great showman of the ring, Don King, into perspective. Following close comparative study of photographs of the maker of Le testament d'Orphée and the promoter of The Rumble in the Jungle and The Thriller in Manila, I am strongly of the opinion that Mr King has modelled his look on Jean Cocteau. I wonder if he wears pink pyjamas?


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