Jean Cocteau & Good Times at Santo Sospir
Here, the joy practically jumps off the walls. “I didn’t have to dress the walls; I had to paint on their skin, that’s why I treated the frescoes linearly, with few colours that enhanced the tattoos. Santo Sospir is a tattooed villa.” – Jean Cocteau
Heiress socialite Francine Weisweiller was one of the prettiest, wealthiest, and most stylish women in Paris. John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, described Francine as “an exquisitely dressed, excessively spoiled little beauty.” There was some truth in this: Much to the horror of her parents, Francine impulsively married a boyfriend at the age of 17, only to divorce him three months later. She was momentarily disowned; she supported herself as a makeup girl at Elizabeth Arden in the meantime.
In August 1943, one of Francine’s lovers, an Italian diplomat, warned her that the Germans were about to extend their occupation of France all the way to the Mediterranean. Francine, her husband Alec (both Jewish) and their infant daughter Carole fled to a farm near Pau, France. One day, during a raid by the Gestapo, Alec and Francine hid for hours in a ravine, covered with leaves. If they survived, Alec promised, he would buy Francine the house of her dreams.
The haute-bohemian villa Santo Sospir was built shortly after the war and was purchased by Alec and Francine in 1946. Following through on his promise, he bought it for her as a prize for surviving the war. Alex spent most of his time in Paris living with his mistress, the beautiful and temperamental actress Simone Simon, so Francine lived in the villa alone. After her marriage to Weisweiller, Francine had affairs with Prince Aly Khan, who left her for actress Rita Hayworth, and with her husband’s cousin, Guy de Rothschild. After Aly Khan left her for Hayworth, Francine banned her household from seeing Hayworth’s movies.
Picasso and his wife Jacqueline visited Santo Sospir, and attended bullfights with Cocteau and Francine. Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo came to dinner. The conductor Herbert von Karajan met his wife Eliette, a model for Dior, on the Orpheus II, Francine’s black-hulled yacht with a white sail painted by Cocteau. Francine was dressed by the great couturiers – Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent (who considered her a muse so important that he often dressed her for free), Givenchy, and Balenciaga. They too visited the villa.
In the spring of 1950, she was introduced to the gay French poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist and critic, Jean Cocteau. It happened during the shooting for the Enfants Terribles movie, based on his famous novel. Nicole de Rothschild, the main actress of the film, introduced them and Francine was instantly besotted with Cocteau. They began an intense period of close friendship and patronage.
Right away, Francine invited Jean Cocteau to spend a week in her house in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, which was a flowering enclave and one of the loveliest seaside villas in Cap Ferrat. Cocteau and his young boyfriend arrived for what was to be a few days, and wound up staying there on and off for twelve years while he completed other commissions, including St. Pierre Chapel.
She lived there in a ménage-à-trois with Jean Cocteau and Cocteau’s handsome bisexual lover, Édouard Dermit. Cocteau, Francine and Édouard were inseparable. Cocteau designed the Cartier ring with three colors of gold as a symbol of their threesome. They painted together in the atelier Francine built in the garden.
Their relationship was intense. Cocteau wrote a book about his own opium addiction. Through Cocteau, Francine too became addicted. Sweet, gentle Édouard procured opium for them in nightclubs. In the words of Frederick Brown, one of Cocteau’s biographers, he demanded of Francine “the undivided attention of a mother, the ready spirit of a playmate, and the devotion of a cultist” — which she provided, along with a seemingly bottomless fortune.
Francine was a devotee of the Parisian decorator Madeleine Castaing, whose touches are everywhere from furniture and walls fashioned out of reeds to leopard print carpets all around the house. Just enough whimsy to stay sophisticated, with fanciful accents throughout-a chair whose wooden frame is carved with lilies of the valley, a ceramic roast chicken and other eccentric touches.
Used as a holiday home, the walls of the villa had remained empty until Cocteau’s stay. A few days after his arrival, he said: “I’m tired of idleness, I wither here…”. The house was already a temple of sky-high but quirky Parisian style –think opium den meets tony beach cottage– but Cocteau was distressed by the sad white walls in such a riot of eclectic design. He asked Francine if he could draw the head of Apollo above the fireplace in the living room. Inch by inch, he tattooed all the walls of the house with frescoes.
In Santo Sospir, there were no constraints to his creative genius, no fishermen to assuage, or religion to pay deference to, so he let the muses fly. He painted with abandon, and the walls are a triumph of his signature line drawings, some of which have words attached in his tidy penman-ship, giving the appearance of animated stories.
As Cocteau explains in La Villa Santo Sospir, a 35-minute montage film he made of the house in 1952, these were not frescoes but “tattoos.” Indeed, most of them are simple outlines, rendered in thick black lines. “It was not necessary to dress up the walls,” he says. “It was necessary to draw on their skin.”
The drawings are partially based on the Greek mythology that had obsessed him for so much of his career. Over the mantelpiece, Apollo glares with his hair fanned towards two hulking priests of the sun, who both wear the typical fishing berets of Villefranche. The Mediterranean, just outside the villa, was his other source of inspiration, and there are ‘ bright suns, the echo of a perched village and a simple fisherman’s lunch.
There are gods, satyrs, unicorns and in Francine’s room, the story of the goddess Diana changing Actaeon into a stag when he happened upon her bathing. The longtime caretaker, Eric, shows visitors around the house, filled with photographs of Francine, her daughter Carole, Picasso and other illustrious guests, who were served gin cocktails prepared from the mirrored bar cabinet stocked with Angostura bitters and Aperol.
Cocteau was very inspired by two other artists in his social circle who had painted their ways across the Cote d’Azur, Matisse and Picasso, and his drawings offered the occasional homage. The vignette of the fisherman’s meal is of sea urchins and fougasse, which Cocteau coined “Picasso’s hands”, after a photograph by Robert Doisneau where the artist leans against a table set with fat doughy fingers of the cherished local bread. Picasso may have been just as genius, but Cocteau’s mark is equally indelible in the south of France.
Fueled by Francine’s money, the exploits of this unusual couple—their dinners, their travels, their friends—soon became legendary, and Santo Sospir was the center of the action. Cocteau used the house as a set for a number of films in which Francine appeared, and the two were the talk of France and beyond.
Eventually, however, relations between the two of them cooled. Francine began a romance with the young writer and screenwriter Henri Viard, which distracted her from her relationship with Cocteau. Viard detested the artist, who in turn labeled Weisweiller’s new lover “the mirliflore,” a term that came from the court of Louis XIV and described a pretentious dandy. When Viard moved into Santo Sospir in 1961, Cocteau was kicked out, and deeply wounded by what he saw as a betrayal. They reconciled only in October 1963 — as it happened, just hours before Cocteau died. Francine came to visit him at his home in Villefranche-sur-Mer. “You bring death with you,” he told her, joking as he lay in his bed.
By the time Cocteau died, in 1963, he had transformed the villa’s barren white walls into a veritable dream space, a psychedelic fantasia of Greek myths drawn and scrawled in special pigments he made with raw milk. An omnipotent Apollo scowls over the mantel; a hungover Bacchus sleeps off a bender in a bedroom downstairs.
After Francine Weisweiller died, in 2003, it was possible to visit Santo Sospir, but only if you wrote a letter to the foundation set up by her daughter Carole and pleaded your case. What you found on arrival, inevitably, was that the magic lay not just in the Cocteau tattoos themselves but in the fact that they were peeling as you stared at them, that there were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, that some of the beds were unmade.
But that was then. Land in Cap Ferrat is now some of the most expensive per square foot on the planet. Eventually Carole could no longer afford the steep taxes, she says. In 2016 she sold Santo Sospir in its entirety for a reported €12 million to the Russian real estate developer Ilia Melia, who lives in Monaco.
The trinkets were still on the tables, the clothes hanging in the closets, the decades of yellowed paperbacks rotting on the shelves. Melia says he had long admired the work of Jean Cocteau but did not know the full story of this particular villa before he walked in the door for the first time. “I usually take forever to make decisions like that,” he says, referring to potential purchases. “But this one I made instantly.”
He says Santo Sospir is now in the throes of a complete restoration. On the one hand, it will remain a private villa, but it will also continue to allow visitors by appointment, as it has since Francine’s death. The house and its grounds have long since been classified as a Monument Historique, which means that the French government, in the interest of preserving the property’s authenticity, must approve any renovations. Melia’s project is intended to celebrate the history of the house, to host concerts, festivals, and exhibitions connected to Cocteau and the art of the Côte d’Azur at least two or three times per year, he says. “Truly, nothing about the history will be changed.”
Eric Marteau came to Santo Sospir more than 20 years ago to serve as Weisweiller’s caretaker as she struggled with age. The first time he met her, he recalls, she was smoking an opium pipe and brushed aside his formalities with a quick “Call me Francine.” After her death Marteau became the villa’s principal caretaker, looking after its subtle squalor and telling its story to the few who trickled in. Now 50, he has given tours of the house for years — lately for the guests from the Four Seasons. “We’re in the jetset now. Everything is very five-star. Back in the day it really was not like that.”
More About Jean Cocteau
Continue to Jean Cocteau’s Time in Villefranche or learn about the Jean Cocteau Art Museum in Menton.
Here’s a list of famous villas, the celebrities who owned them, and the crazy things that happened there.