Chaplin and Jean Cocteau

2nd October 2018

Jean Cocteau and Chaplin were on the same boat in 1936, travelling back from Japan. As Chaplin described in his autobiography:

«Cocteau could not speak a word of English, neither could I speak French, but his secretary spoke a little English, though not too well, and he acted as interpreter for us. That night we sat up into the small hours, discussing our theories of life and art. Our interpreter spoke slowly and hesitantly while Cocteau, his beautiful hands spread on his chest, spoke with the rapidity of a machine gun, his eyes flashing an appealing look at me, then at the interpreter, who spoke unemotionally: “Mr Cocteau... he say... you are a poet... of zer sunshine... and he is a poet of zer night.”

Cocteau’s drawing of Chaplin on board ship in 1936
credits Cocteau’s drawing of Chaplin on board ship in 1936

Immediately Cocteau turned from the interpreter to me with a quick, birdlike nod, and continued. Then I would take over, getting deeply involved in philosophy and art. In moments of agreement we would embrace, while our cool-eyed interpreter looked on. Thus, in this exalted way, we carried on through the night until four in the morning, promising to meet at one o'clock for lunch.

But our enthusiasm had reached a climax; we had had it! Neither of as showed up. In the afternoon our letters of apology must have crossed, for their contents were identical, both profuse with apologies but careful not to make any more dates — we had had more than a glut of each other. […] The following morning I promenaded the deck alone. Suddenly, to my horror, Cocteau appeared around the corner in the distance coming towards me! My God! I quickly looked for an escape, then he saw me and to my relief darted through the main saloon door. That finished our morning promenade. Throughout the day we kept up a game of hide-and-seek avoiding each other. However, by the time we reached Hong Kong we had recovered enough, to meet momentarily. Still there were four more days to go before reaching Tokyo.

In Tokyo Cocteau had bought a pet grasshopper which he kept in a little cage and often brought ceremoniously to my cabin. “He is very intelligent,” he said, “and sings every time I talk to him.”

When we arrived in San Francisco I insisted on him driving with us to Los Angeles, as we had a limousine waiting. Pilou came along. During the journey he began to sing. “You see,” said Cocteau, “ he likes America.” Suddenly he opened the car window, then opened the door of the little cage and shook Pilou out of it. I was shocked and asked: “Why did you do that?” “He gives him freedom,” said the interpreter. “But,” I answered, “he's a stranger in a foreign country — and can't speak the language.” Cocteau shrugged. “He's smart, he'll soon pick it up.”»

They met years later in the South of France, when the Chaplin family were holidaying there.

Cocteau had recently finished the restoration and decoration of the Chapelle St Pierre at Villefranche sur Mer, and invited Charlie to visit it.

Cocteau et sa chapelle, 1957
credits Cocteau et sa chapelle, 1957

From the letter, 10th July 1957: “With love to you and your family. I would like to show you my chapel. Villefranche is only a few minutes away from where you are.”

In a second letter discussing dates for the visit, Cocteau writes: “sans votre ou ta visite, cette chapelle où j’ai mis tant de moi-même ne serait pas terminée”. (Without your visit, the chapel in which I put so much of my own self remains unfinished.)


[Letter] 1957 juillet 10, Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat [to Charles and Oona Chaplin]/Jean Cocteau - ECCI00009169



[Letter] 1957 juillet 14, Saint-Jean Cap Ferrat [to Charles and Oona Chaplin]/Jean Cocteau - ECCI00009168


The two artists met several times when the Chaplins returned to the South of France.