Celebrities - Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau in Marbella

by Chris Chaplow and Fiona Flores Watson

Jean Cocteau spent summer 1961 in Marbella. © Agence Meurisse Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Jean Cocteau spent summer 1961 in Marbella.

In 1961 French artist, writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) stayed in Marbella for four months, just two years before he died. A new permanent exhibition in the Cortijo Miraflores commemorates the Andalucian sojourn of this highly influential creative powerhouse, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Cocteau was part of a modernist intellectual set in Marbella which adopted the town as their preferred residence from the late 1950s, some of whom, like Pepe Carleton, had come over from Tangiers. During his career, Cocteau worked with Picasso and was cited as an influence by Garcia Lorca and Dali. He also visited Seville, and drew flamenco artists, as well as bullfighters such as El Cordobes and Curro Romero.

The artist was described thus by Lawrence Bohme, who met him in Torremolinos in 1960: "Impeccably elegant in his dark blue suit, his shirt and tie perfect and natural, and his impish, bird-like face framed by a crown of frizzy grey hair."

The prolific avant-garde novelist, poet, playwright, designer, painter, and filmmaker, who was openly bisexual, spent the months of April, May, August and September of 1961 in the then-still-small fishing town. Social activity was focused on a fashionable hotel owned by a bohemian German aristocrat - the Marbella Club. Cocteau was not just a visitor, but a working artist - he created some important works in Marbella, including the book of poetry criticism Le Cordon Umbilical ("The Umbilical Cord"), and six painted panels.

A new permanent exhibition in Marbella was recently inaugurated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Cocteau's death. Called Sala Cocteau, it is located within the Centro Cultural Cortijo Miraflores, a converted 18th-century former olive oil mill in the Miraflores area of Marbella. The salon features original letters, photos and other memorabilia of his time in the town, donated by Cocteau's friend Pepe Carleton, who passed away in 2012.

The inauguration of the Sala coincided with a series of lectures and debates by German Borrachero, director of the Cortijo Miraflores; artist Oscar Carrasco; writer Alfredo Tejan; Carlos Pranger - poet, translator, editor, and godson and (posthumous) publisher of Gerald Brenan; as well as the presentation of a book entitled "Jean Cocteau. El cordon umblical" by Carlos Pranger of Editorial Confluencias, which specializes in biographies and travel books.

Inspired by these talks and the enthusiasm of the participants, some of whom remember the friends of Cocteau mentioned here personally, we chart his connection with Marbella and identify some of the places on the town's Ruta Jean Cocteau.

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1953 July Cocteau's first visit to Spain with the Weisweillers (his patron Francine, and her brother, his publisher), and his lover, French actor Edouard Dermit.They visit Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Malaga, Torremolinos and Gibraltar. Cocteau attends a number of bullfights and meets matadors Manolete and Luis Miguel Dominguin, and discovers flamenco. He passes through Marbella.

1954 28 April - 9 May - Cocteau travels to Madrid and Sevilla to watch Dominguin with Luis Escobar at La Maestranza bullring. He visits jetset favourite Torremolinos for 10 days.

1957 Cocteau attends bullfights in Nimes and Arles (France) with Picasso.

1960 3 July Cocteau attends bullfight featuring Dominguin in Cordoba and, according to Lawrence Bohme's account, also visits Torremolinos, where he stays at the Hotel Miramar.

1961 Cocteau visits Las Palmas and Sevilla with Francine Weisweiller, where he stays with Duquesa de Alba. He spends April, May, August and September in Marbella.




Cocteau was going to stay at Casa Ana in Cortijo Blanco, owned by Ana von Bismarck, but it was already rented out, so he had to find alternative accommodation. He had been invited to set up a Pueblo de Artistas in Cortijo Blanco for the likes of Mingote, Alberto Closas and Conchita Montes, but the idea never got off the ground.

He knew Coco Chanel's former collaborator, fashion designer, poet and dancer, Ana de Pombo, so stayed at her Finca Merced instead. Cocteau is known to have painted four or six screens for Ana's decoration shop-cum-studio-cum tea room, La Maroma, which became known as the "Paneles de Pombo". They were painted using a rabbit's tail and beach sand. He also made ceramics and drew a number of vivid sketches. Cocteau wrote to his lover Jean Marais about Marbella on 15 April 1961: "Al last we have discovered a species of earthly paradise surrounded by olive trees, figs and flowers, between the mountain and the sea where I bathe."


On 25 July 1961, on his way to Marbella, Cocteau was stopped at Barajas airport in Madrid and refused admittance into Spain. Sent back to Paris, he wrote letters to newspapers every day. The official reason given by the Spanish authorities was faulty paperwork and the circulo members commented that in the end Manual Fraga went on TV to apologize for this "administrative error". (Fraga, however, was not Minister of Information and Tourism until the following year.)

Academics still debate the real reason for the episode at Barajas; one wonders if any official papers have been released 50 years on. Bearing in mind Franco's intolerance of homosexuality, if we can accept as reliable Lawrence Bohme's account of the 1960 rumor - that Cocteau was arrested in Torremolinos on the beach doing "something" behind a boat with a fisherman - it would have been a feasible motive.

Cocteau wrote this letter to Pepe Carleton (and Ana de Pombo) on 29 July 1961. The original can be seen in Sala Cocteau:

"My very dear friends:
The ‘denuncia' against me came from Marbella. (The foreign ministry tells me) They will do a prudent investigation. I suppose that "Valencia" and a certain "mantilla blanca" are not very far from this incredible thing. It was said to Francine (Weisweller) to take care now that you would not go up. Our flamenquito in Casa Ana has devenido in terrible orgies (sic) and you can imagine that we were going to be in the pipetas of people or of a Don nobody that wants revenge. Destroy this letter and we will cry to a world full of jokes and denuncias , although not free from a monical existence.
I send a hug to all with a profound sadness.

The letter is quite difficult to understand, with all its references, and parts of it seem to make little sense. Despite this, its value is inestimable, and we should be grateful that Pepe Carleton did not destroy it as requested by Cocteau.

The letter mentions two people:
"Valencia" - academics don't know who he was referring to.
"Mantilla Blanca" - the Duquesa de Alba is often referred to thus, although in this case it is unlikely to be her, as she was a friend. It is possible that is an allusion to popular fixer and social campaigner, Monseñor Rodrigo Bocanegra, who visited her shop frequently.

In another letter Cocteau wrote to Jean Marais just before catching a flight back to Spain, he stated: "Victim of the jealous civil servant he came across in San Sebastian with an old file which prohibited from entering Spain, all those who had signed a petition for the political exiles" (Cocteau and others signed a petition in March 1961 to allow exiled Spaniards to return to Spain).


Second Visit to Marbella in 1961

Following notification from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Cocteau that he was now allowed to enter Spain, Cocteau arrived in Marbella on 5 August 1961, and was met by writer, painter, playwright and film director Edgar Neville, actress Conchita Montes and Ana de Pombo, and other young poets. He stayed at Neville's house, Casa Malibu, in El Rodeo, where he painted an art graffito.


This visit saw various parties, including a fiesta at La Cañas, the Duquesa de Alba's villa; at the legendary tea room owned by Pepe Carleton, El Camello de Oro; at the house of actor and theatre director Luis Escobar; and at Antonio El Bailador's house, El Martinete, known for open doors, closed bedrooms, dark corners and marijuana, where everyone ended up dancing on the tables. Here Cocteau drew a picture on the bottom of the swimming pool, which Antonio thoughtfully converted into a mosaic; it survives to this day.


Planned retirement in Marbella


Jean Cocteau wrote a letter to Ana de Pombo asking her to look for a house in Marbella where he could retire. Ana bought a house in Nagüeles in Marbella for Cocteau, but he died in 1963 and never lived in it.

Ana de Pombo died in an old people's residential home in Madrid in 1980. The Cocteau panels were passed to the family of banker Ignacio Coca. They are said to be in a museum in Madrid. Jean Marais and others were interested in acquiring the 'Cocteau house' for a museum and tried unsuccessfully to raise money.

Cultural background

In 1957 French avant-garde artists, intellectuals and gays used to take "le petit tour" in southern Spain. The route was Malaga, Torremolinos, Marbella, Gibraltar, and across the Straits to Tangiers. The Moroccan city of Tangiers was an International Zone (exempt from local law) - the ultimate glamorous and hedonistic destination; opium smoking was tolerated in the city, as was other then-morally questionable behaviour. The writers Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles lived there, as well as Beat writers Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. Pepe Carleton grew up there.

The residents of Marbella were not aware of Jean Cocteau and the other illustrious visitors. In these pre-celebrity magazine and paparazzi times, the cultural icons were able to move around the town freely and throw their parties without being disturbed. The locals knew they were famous or 'gente de character', but not much more.

At this time in Marbella there were "Fiestas Gays", with Luis Escobar, Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro, Antonio El Bailador, and a group of French that Ana de Pombo brought to Marbella.

Finca Malibu had a reputation for the best fiestas; they were rumoured to feature naked flamenco dancers - some troupes would allegedly dance unclothed when paid extra. One wonders if this is real or imagined after seeing the Luis Bruñel film Ese Oscuro Objeto del Deseo (This Obscure Object of Desire) which contains such a flamenco dance scene in Sevilla with Japanese tourists.

It is unlikely we will ever know the truth, as the custom in those days was "when the flamenco started the cameras were put away."

One member of the group, Marbella businesswoman Sra Remedios del Rio, says that "Marbella was not a hedonistic place, it was a refuge on the end of the road to Tangier. The orgies were in Tangier. It was propaganda about things that did not happen, but things that people wanted to happen."