Maitresse


Francine Weisweiller, who died in France last December 18 was one of the last of a breed of rich women who came to maturity before the women’s movement who forged their identities through total patronage of the arts and especially the artist. Madame Weisweiller established herself in the historical context of the career of Jean Cocteau. The following is her story, as told in an obituary from the Telegraph of London.

Jean Cocteau, Edouard Dermit, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Francine Weisweiller (right) with friends, circa 1950.
Francine Weisweiller, who has died aged 87, was the devoted if long-suffering patron of the avant-garde painter, poet, writer and film-maker, Jean Cocteau.

In the words of John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, Madame Weisweiller, was an "exquisitely dressed, excessively spoiled little beauty", who appointed herself as Cocteau's muse. Cocteau proved to be "the man who came to dinner": he accepted an invitation to stay at her villa on Cap Ferrat, and remained a more or less permanent fixture for the next 12 years.

Cocteau did not arrive alone. He brought with him his dreamily silent boyfriend (or "adopted son"), Edouard Dermit, who had been his gardener and was put into some of his films; later, they were joined by Dermit's sister, Emilienne. The group, John Richardson has recalled, "would spend their summers together bound together as much by mutual admiration - a sort of collective narcissism - as by opium".

This not wholly unpredictable arrangement came about as Cocteau ran out of funds when making the film of Les Enfants Terribles in 1949. The director, Jean-Pierre Melville, had the ingenious idea of seeking the richest woman they could find, a person of no artistic merit, yet anxious to be noticed in artistic circles. They found Francine Weisweiller, in whose Paris home, No 4 Place des Etats-Unis, part of the film was being made. She came up trumps, was soon being addressed by Cocteau as "My dear friend", and proceeded to invite Cocteau and his ménage to stay with her in May 1950, at Santo-Sospir, her summer villa near the lighthouse at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

Cocteau settled in, relishing the views of the Mediterranean from the terraces and gardens thick with hibiscus. Luxury was offered to him, and like a cat, he curled up and purred. He loved the afternoon excursions in the Weisweiller yacht, Orphée II, the chauffeur-driven Bentley always to hand, and the visits to Greece, Spain and St Moritz - where the hairdresser, Alexandre, would ply his way about the Palace Hotel, demonstrating new hairstyles to his ladies.

The relationship was not a sexual one, and in many respects it was cosy and happy. When at the villa, the party seldom dined out, accepting invitations only from Aly Khan, the Begum Aga Khan and the Agnellis. They entertained Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, Garbo, and other such figures.

Nor was Cocteau unwilling to sing for his supper. While staying with Francine, he wrote his play, Bacchus, which he dedicated to her. He covered part of the wall above a fireplace with his distinctive line drawings; and once he had started, he was unable to stop until, two years later, every wall of the villa was covered with fish-like profiles, phallic symbols, eyes and arabesques. Madame Weisweiller looked on enraptured as her salon was transformed into a Cocteau aquarium. He, meanwhile, found himself, he said, living with people he loved and becoming "a kind of Tibetan sage".

Francine Weisweiller was born Francine Worms in Brazil on June 9 1916, the daughter of Armand Worms, a prosperous French Jew who had emigrated to Sao Paolo and opened a jeweller's shop. A fair-sized family fortune derived from Armand's mother, a member of the Deutsch de la Meurthe family, from Alsace, which had developed the automobile and aviation industry, and introduced the first petrol pumps into France.

In 1919, when Francine was three, the family returned to France. She was a beautiful child, with golden locks, who escaped from home by marrying at 17, and then divorcing a few months later. Her parents were horrified and disowned her for a time; so she earned her living in Paris as a beautician with Elizabeth Arden. At the outbreak of the Second World War she nursed wounded soldiers at l'Hotel-Dieu.

Her parents swiftly retreated to Sao Paolo, but by this time Francine had met Alec Weisweiller, a banker and racehorse owner whose fortune derived from Shell Oil. They fell in love, departed for the free zone of the Côte d'Azur after the invasion of France and were married in June 1941, Francine becoming part heiress to his fortune. A daughter, Carole, was (by her own account) conceived on the beach near the Cap d'Antibes, and born in 1942.

Although Jewish, the Weisweillers remained in the South of France, sometimes under the name "Lelestrier", and Francine stole lemons from gardens for her infant. For much of the war the family was itinerant in France.

In the late 1940s they moved into No 4 Place des Etats-Unis (a Deutsch de la Meurthe house), where their neighbours were Marie-Laure de Noailles, and the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld. Resembling the film-star Veronica Lake, Francine lived an elegant life, with couture clothes made for her by Lucien Lelong and Balenciaga, and scarves by Roger Vivier. She was an important early patron of Yves Saint Laurent, who ever afterwards dressed her for free in gratitude. In the decoration and adornment of her homes, she was much influenced by Madeleine Castaing.

At a bullfight in Vallauris: Cocteau with Jacqueline Picasso, Picasso, and Francine Weisweiller, circa 1950.
Everything was well ordered and well arranged until Jean Cocteau appeared in her life. She was ready for him, since she was beginning to find the rich society of haute juiverie restricting, and longing to be a figure in Tout Paris. Her meeting with Cocteau proved the way forward, there being a neat balance between his need for substantial funding and her desire for advancement into a bright new world. Francine was essentially a lonely woman, not devoid of sentiment, and she was happy to put her fortune at the disposal of her very own genius-in-residence. They were soon inseparable.

The Weisweiller ménage was arranged in a civilised manner. Alec, the husband, lived mainly in Paris, where his mistress was the actress, Simone Simon (star of The Cat People and La Ronde). He seldom appeared in the South of France. When the family was in Paris, Alec presided at the dinners, and was on good terms with Cocteau, who lived elsewhere. But he was jealous of Cocteau's role in the life of his daughter Carole, who saw Cocteau as a surrogate father.

Francine introduced Cocteau to her brother, who ran Editions du Rocher and who from then on published Cocteau's work. When Cocteau suffered a near fatal heart attack in Paris in 1954, he was immediately moved into Francine's house on the Place des Etats-Unis, where the best cardiologists were summoned to attend him.

Francine was also to the fore in the campaign to secure Cocteau election to the French Academy. All the necessary figures were lavishly entertained. In 1955 Cocteau was duly elected, and Mauriac welcomed him with a sharp profile in the Figaro Litteraire. "He did not stumble into our Assembly dazed. He has had his eye fixed on the door for quite some time, waiting for it to open a crack so that he could slip in."

For the introduction ceremony, he ordered his costume from Lanvin, and he required a special sword. Madame Weisweiller commissioned this from Cartier, with Picasso designs on the hilt, a handle resembling a Greek profile, and representations of the Palais-Royal and Cocteau's own signature. Twelve thousand people queued for 700 seats to hear his provocative speech of acceptance; Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, literary figures and journalists were in the Cupola, all of them invited by Cocteau. In June 1956 Francine was again at his side when he collected an honorary doctorate of literature from Oxford University.

Francine even played a cameo role in Cocteau's pretentious film, Le Testament d'Orphée, dressed in a second empire Balenciaga dress, and accompanied by her own butler. Some scenes were filmed at Santo-Sospir and some on her yacht. And so it seemed set to continue; but after an attack of bronchitis at Kitzbuhl in 1957, Francine's health began to fail. The bronchitis later became chronic, and as the years went by, in the words of her daughter, she wore the illness like "a second skin".

Then, in 1960, aged 45, she felt the need to seduce. As her daughter put it, a bad writer nicknamed "Mirliflore" (his real name was Henri Viard) caught her in his web and imposed his presence on the family. John Richardson described him as "more macho, less obtrusive". Meanwhile, according to Cocteau's perceptive biographer Frederick Brown, Francine tired of having Cocteau in the house. He demanded from her "the undivided attention of a mother, the ready spirit of a playmate, and the devotion of a cultist". Quarrels and arguments became frequent, until Cocteau packed his bags and retreated to Villefranche, finally settling for good at his home at Milly-la-Forêt.

Jean Marais tried to breach the rift, but Francine remained cool until October 1963, when she paid Cocteau a visit, hoping to effect a reconciliation. She was greeted with his words: "You bring death with you!" And so it proved. On October 11 1963, Edith Piaf died and Cocteau was engrossed in delivering tributes to her, one of which was broadcast on French radio. Attempting to answer a telephone call about another Piaf tribute, he suffered a pulmonary oedema and died. Francine attended his funeral.

The later years were sad. The Weisweiller fortune dissolved "like snow in the sun"; the Paris house and collections were sold. Estranged from her husband, and sometimes resented by her daughter, Francine retreated to a lonely life at Santo-Sospir. The villa went to sleep, the telephone did not ring, the hall table was devoid of letters. All that remained were Cocteau's adornments.

Francine lived on in poor health, past the celebrations in France marking the 40th anniversary of Cocteau's death this year, and died at the villa on December 8.




January 20, 2004, Volume IV, Number 11

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