The villa of sighs: Cocteau and Picasso's home from home
Francine Weisweiller’s home on the French coast, the Villa Santo Sospir, entertained bon viveurs including Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Prince Aly Khan and many others
The view from Villa Santo Sospir in the south of France
Three in love: Francine Weisweiller, Édouard Dermit and Jean Cocteau
The villa’s living room with frescoes by Jean Cocteau
The Villa Santo Sospir faces the lighthouse off Cap-Ferrat, the bay of Villefranche, and Nice in the distance. For more than a decade, Francine Weisweiller, a rich and beautiful Jewish socialite who had escaped the Holocaust, lived there in a ménage-à-trois with the gay painter, poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau and Cocteau’s bisexual lover, Édouard Dermit.
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 and their infant daughter Carole fled to a farm near Pau. Alec’s mother, who refused to leave her home in Antibes, perished at Auschwitz.
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.
When the war ended, the Weisweillers regained their mansion on the Place des États-Unis in Paris, and their fortune. Alec purchased the Villa Santo Sospir, with its spectacular sea views, for Francine. It was named after the rocky point where, in centuries past, the wives of fishermen sighed and waited for the return of their husbands.
After her marriage to Weisweiller, Francine had affairs with Prince Aly Khan, who left her for Rita Hayworth, and with her husband’s cousin, Guy de Rothschild. The actress Simone Simon became Alec’s semi-official mistress. The Weisweillers remained on friendly terms and never divorced.
Nicole de Rothschild, another cousin of Alec, introduced Francine to Cocteau in 1949, when he was filming Les Enfant Terribles. Cocteau established deep friendships with three successive female patrons: Viscountess Marie-Laure de Noailles and Coco Chanel before the war; Francine Weisweiller after.
Chanel was treated as a pariah after the war, because she’d had an affair with a German officer. She closed her boutiques and could no longer subsidise Cocteau’s creations. So Weisweiller took her place.
Cocteau was exhausted on completing Les Enfants Terribles. Francine invited him and his new conquest, the handsome son of a Yugoslav coal miner, to spend a week at Santo Sospir. Édouard quickly seduced Francine. He and Cocteau stayed for nearly 12 years.
Cocteau had spotted Édouard Dermit in the gardens of the Palais Royal when he went to cry on the shoulder of his friend Colette, over the loss of his great love, Jean Marais, to another man.
Édouard was known to all as “Doudou” and Cocteau was his Pygmalion. “Cocteau taught him exquisite manners. He was very gentle,” recalls Michel Déon (94), the French academician who lives in Co Galway. As a friend of Cocteau, Déon was a frequent visitor to Santo Sospir.
Édouard and Francine’s affair took place literally under the eyes of Cocteau. “Cocteau liked to sit in that armchair, smoking his opium pipe, while they made love,” says Éric Marteau, who was Francine’s nurse and confidant for the last 11 years of her life, and is now the guide to Santo Sospir.
It may not have been the first time that Cocteau made love by proxy. In the 1930s, he wanted to marry Princess Nathalie Paley, the daughter of a Russian grand duke. Paley had an affair with Cocteau’s then lover, Marais.