Born June 18, 1903, the bisexual French novelist Raymond Radiguet, known in literary circles as Monsieur Bébé, achieved wealth and critical acclaim for his scandalous first novel before dying at twenty.
The Devil in the Flesh
Raymond Radiguet dropped out of school and finished his first novel by the age of seventeen. Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh) described the affair between a young woman whose husband was away fighting at the front and a sixteen-year-old boy.
Raymond didn’t make up the story — it was based on his own schoolboy experience. But he did not restrict his real-life sexual activity to cuckolding war heroes. He also became the lover of his mentor, Jean Cocteau, unrivalled giant of the French literary and art world.
Cocteau introduced Raymond to publisher Bernard Grasset who both liked the book and saw potential in the writer’s precociousness.
He offered a massive advance and organised the largest publicity campaign for a book France had ever witnessed.
It worked. Le Diable au corps sold 46,000 copies in the first month and Raymond Radiguet became a literary celebrity. The avant-garde adopted the almost-child prodigy as their young darling. Friends included the artist Pablo Picasso and praise flowed from authors like Aldous Huxley (Brave New World).
However, Cocteau’s friend Ernest Hemingway grumbled that the young writer employed sexual wile to advantage his career. According to Hemingway, Raymond Radiguet “knew how to make his career not only with his pen but with his pencil.”
Bébé est vicieuse
With his new wealth, Raymond became something of a fashion plate — Coco Chanel was another friend. He also began to drink heavily and smoke opium. He slept with men and women. Raymond also considered marriage, not wanting to end up “a forty-year-old man called Madame Cocteau.”
Although they undoubtedly loved each other, Cocteau was equally as vicious about his young paramour. He complained to Hemingway, “Bébé est vicieuse. Il aime les femmes.”
The English translation — ‘Baby is depraved. He likes women’ — doesn’t capture the extreme cattiness of the phrase. The adjective vicieuse is usually ascribed to evil and debauched she-bitches like Lucretia Borgia.
Carefree days at the beach
Many of the existing photos of Raymond Radiguet were taken during a seaside holiday he took with Cocteau and other gay literary friends in late 1923.
It seems strange to look at them now. To see a famous young author of the 1920s in affectionate and carefree poses with other men and sometimes, unashamedly full frontal nude. It’s not how we imagine the world a century ago. But they lived in France, a country that decriminalised homosexuality well before most and celebrated openly-queer writers and artists.
Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet even wore matching rings commissioned from renowned jeweller Louis Cartier. Of course, Cocteau consequently lived openly with the champion boxer Panama Al Brown without causing public scandal. The French queer experience differed wildly from that in Anglo countries.
However, the carefree days at the beach ended with Raymond Radiguet’s death. He contracted typhoid, possibly from bad oysters, and died.
With Jean Cocteau heartbroken, Coco Chanel organised an elaborate all-white funeral down to the hearse and the horses that pulled it.
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