Francine Weisweiller

Eccentric society hostess who became artistic and financial supporter to Jean Cocteau

Monday 22 December 2003 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Francine Worms: born 1918; married Alexander Weisweiller (one daughter); died Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France 8 December 2003.

Visitors to Jean Cocteau's house at Milly-la-Forêt can see a photograph of his writing desk adorned by photographs of certain of his dearest friends and lovers - Raymond Radiguet, Jean Marais and Edouard Dermithe among the latter. Accompanying them are Jean-Paul Sartre, Orson Welles, Pablo Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, a bust of Byron, a clutch of banderillas, and a painting of the radiantly beautiful Francine Weisweiller (née Worms).

This vividly eccentric society hostess was the wife of an American millionaire, Alexander ("Alec") Weisweiller, who owned a stable of thoroughbred racing horses. Francine as a girl had been introduced to him by her cousin Nicole de Rothschild, who, under the stage name of Nicole Stéphane, was to be engaged (unpaid) by Jean-Pierre Melville to play Elizabeth in the 1949 film version of Cocteau's highly successful play Les Enfants terribles. She was chosen partly because she was inexpensive, partly because of her strong physical resemblance to Edouard Dermithe, who played her brother.

Francine Weisweiller managed to persuade her reluctant husband to allow Cocteau to shoot scenes from the film in their vast apartment on the Place des Etats-Unis in Paris. She also succeeded in inveigling him into the financing of the film.

It was the beginning of an almost lifelong, almost familial companionship between Cocteau and his various friends and lovers, chief of whom at that period was Dermithe, his former gardener, whom Cocteau at the age of 60 adopted as his son.

Art historians enthuse over the frescoes Weisweiller commissioned Cocteau to paint in 1950 for her luxurious Villa Santo Sospir at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Weisweiller originally wanted him to paint only the doors of her residence, but Cocteau fell victim to the artistic impulse that Henri Matisse defined thus: "Once you start decorating one wall, the three others follow automatically." Weisweiller indulged him, and soon almost the whole place was one luminous fresco. It is dedicated to Francine Weisweiller in Cocteau's only colour film, La Villa Santo Sospir (1951), a kind of fake-amateur "home movie" short feature about daily life and love at Weisweiller's home - and at her expense.

Cocteau had a subtle gift for attracting aristocratic and wealthy Maecenases such as the Comte de Noailles, who financed in 1930 his first experimental film, Le Sang d'un poète (The Blood of a Poet). But Weisweiller was much more to Cocteau than an inexhaustible fount of hard cash. Her love for him was almost maternal, and it extended to his mostly gay friends including "Doudou", their affectionate nickname for the superbly handsome Edouard Dermithe. So Weisweiller, delighted with the decorations to her villa, got commissions for Cocteau in 1956 to decorate ("tattoo" was her term) the Chapelle Saint-Pierre at Villefranche-sur-Mer, a task interrupted only by a trip to Oxford University to have bestowed upon him an honorary doctoral degree - a great social occasion attended by Weisweiller and friends. (He had already been received as an Academician by the Academie Française in 1955: Weisweiller paid for his gorgeous green-embroidered investment uniform and elaborately scabbarded sword.)

She encouraged his graphic work throughout the 1950s, and got him commissions: the frescoes in the Menton City Hall (1956) and, in 1958, the church of Notre Dame de France in London, off Leicester Square, culminating in the greatest work of decoration in 1959 near his home at Milly-la-Forêt, in the beautiful church of Saint Blaise- des-Simples.

Weisweiller was among the many supporters, artistic and financial, in the creation of Cocteau's inimitable cinematic masterwork, Le Testament d'Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus, 1960). She obtained the support of the Minister of Culture, André Malraux, and help from nouvelle vague film-makers such as François Truffaut and Roger Vadim. Whoever happened to drop in during the filming was roped in for a brief "cameo" - Yul Brynner, Picasso, Daniel Gelin, Charles Aznavour, the matador Dominguin, Françoise Sagan. The main parts were played by Cocteau as the Poet, Jean Marais as Oedipus, Maria Casarès as the Princess and François Périer as Heurtebise.

Weisweiller makes a marvellous apparition in a long, trailing white robe by Balenciaga (paid for by herself) in the rather amorphous role of "a lady who has strayed into the wrong period". Cocteau demanded that Balenciaga should seek inspiration for the gown in period robes worn by Sarah Bernhardt, instructing him that "only a young woman who is not an actress could interpret the mysterious role of a live phantom of flesh and bone". The scene was carefully set up and shot to the best of her advantage in the spacious grounds of Weisweiller's villa, where the beautiful phantom appears, of course, grandly and entirely at home.

Wallace Fowlie in his Jean Cocteau: the history of a poet's age (1966) reports a conversation with the writer at the celebrated restaurant "Le Véfour" at the Palais-Royal in Paris, while Weisweiller's chauffeur waits for hours outside in the Rolls. Cocteau always paid tribute to her generosity:

I have to pay taxes of 63 per cent on my income. I am able to exist only thanks to the generosity of my good friend and benefactress Madame Weisweiller. Most of the year I live in her villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat . . .

Francine Weisweiller's brother, Gérard Worms, and she were partners in the publishing house Editions du Rocher, and it was Weisweiller who was instrumental in having Cocteau publish most of his works from the 1950s under that imprint. According to Claude Arnaud's recent biography Cocteau (2003), "Doudou, Francine and he [Cocteau] became a trio welded together by self-reflecting mirrors and the fumes of opium."

Alas, the long friendship between Cocteau and Weisweiller was broken up by a jealous rival, who estranged the pair by slandering Cocteau and his friends. Profoundly hurt by this estrangement, Cocteau became like his own Orpheus, leaving the heavens of Santo Sospir without looking back, suddenly cast out into the harsh world of reality.

But this shabby treatment by Weisweiller, seduced by an unscrupulous intruder Cocteau referred to contemptuously as the Mirliflore (a period word for "lickspittle lackey" at the court of Louis XIV) came fortunately towards the end of Cocteau's life. (He died in 1963.) And, unknown to Francine, he had forgiven her.

James Kirkup.

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