The following piece is excerpted from Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters, which will be published by W. W. Norton & Company next week. Max Jacob was born in 1876 to a nonobservant Jewish family in Quimper, Brittany. After succeeding brilliantly at the lycée, he went to Paris for advanced studies at the École Coloniale and in law. He gravitated quickly, however, to a life in the arts. He met Picasso in 1901, and their intense friendship became the nucleus of the community of modern artists at the ramshackle studios in Montmartre, the Bateau-Lavoir. Jacob experienced a mystical vision of Christ in 1909 and formally converted to Roman Catholicism in 1915. He is most famous for his collection of radical prose poems, Le Cornet à dés (1917) (The Dice Cup), but he published many other collections of poems in verse and prose, novels, short stories, plays, and esthetic meditations. He spent two long periods in association with the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire (1921–1928 and 1936–1944). He was arrested by the gestapo in February 1944 and died of pneumonia on March 5, 1944, at the camp at Drancy. His name was on the list for the next transport to Auschwitz.
In late December of 1943, Max Jacob went to Orléans and Montargis to buy Christmas gifts for the children of the village of Saint-Benoît. He stayed for five days as a guest in the house of one of his doctor friends in Montargis, where he enjoyed the warmth of a cheerful family. He returned to Saint-Benoît for Christmas—the Mass celebrated in the basilica, the crèche with its plaster figures brought out year after year—followed by days of writing letters of New Year’s greetings and making ceremonial visits in the village. When he reported all this to Jacques Mezure on January 5, 1944, he didn’t yet know that his sister, Mirté-Léa, had been arrested.
Mirté-Léa was seized on January 4 and taken to the internment camp at Drancy. Jacob was beside himself. He threw himself into a campaign to save her, writing to everyone he imagined might have influence with the Germans: Cocteau, Marie Laurencin, Misia Sert, Sacha Guitry, the Bishop of Orléans, the Archbishop of Sens. He consulted his friend Julien Lanoë about whether or not to ask Coco Chanel, who had a German lover. His letters were heart-wrenching. He described his little sister, the “companion of his childhood,” her suffering as a widow, her devotion to her mentally handicapped son. “Dear friend, permit me to kiss your hands, the hem of your dress … I beg you, do something,” he implored Misia. Sacha Guitry replied that he couldn’t help “some unknown Jew.” If it were Max, he said, “he could do something.”
Drancy now contained men, women, and children. Transports to Auschwitz were leaving almost every week. Even as her brother sent his desperate appeals, Mirté-Léa was shoved into a train car on January 20; she went immediately to the gas chamber on her arrival. Max Jacob never knew what became of her.
When he wasn’t writing letters to save his sister, Jacob was reading Gongora. Better than Mallarmé, he told Marcel Béalu. On the freezing Sunday morning of February 20, Dr. Castelbon, one of the Montargis doctors, drove the Béalus to Saint-Benoît to visit Jacob. They clustered in his room at Madame Persillard’s house, warming themselves at his stove, and admired the drawings he was working on. They had lunch together in the restaurant of the little hotel. “At least they can’t take this away from me: I’ve loved,” said Jacob. He confessed to Dr. Castelbon: “You know, you can’t always believe me: I make things up. I know it’s wicked and I confess it every morning to the priest—and then start up again.” They visited the basilica as they had done so many times before. Jacob, who hadn’t signed his name in the visitors’ book for years, added his signature, and the dates 1921–1944.
The next morning Jacob rose early in the brutal cold to help the vicar, the Abbé Hatton, serve Mass in the chapel in the Hospice; then he returned to his room, lit his fire, and wrote his daily meditation. When he rejoined his friends, he was in a jolly mood, trilling a verse. After lunch, the doctor drove them to Sully—still half in ruins from German bombs—where the Béalus would catch the bus to Montargis. They planned a visit for the following Sunday. “Au revoir, les enfants!” called Max, waving at them as the bus pulled out.
On Tuesday, Jacob dined with his friends, Dr. Georges Durand and his wife, in the village; he left early to attend a parish meeting. The next day was Ash Wednesday: Jacob received the mark of death on his forehead that morning at the rite in the crypt of the basilica. On Thursday, February 24, he rose at dawn to write his meditation and to help the Abbé Hatton serve Mass. He was back in his room, writing letters, when a gray car from Orléans drove up and three Germans in trench coats got out. They rang the bell, climbed the stairs to his room, and arrested him. Madame Persillard dashed over to the parsonage to rally the priest and the vicar, but they were busy. (“They could have come!” she protested later. “It was a little funeral of no importance whatsoever!”) One of the monks from the basilica hurried to the scene, as did Dr. Castelbon, still at the hotel: he had time to thrust a flask of alcohol and a pair of his own woolen long johns into Jacob’s hands. “Keep his things here for when he returns,” ordered the Germans. Madame Persillard made him take a quilt: “A shame,” said Jacob. “You’ll never get it back.” She erupted, “You see! Fat lot of good it did you to pray so much!” Jacob stayed calm; before stepping into the car, he shook hands with the small group of villagers who had gathered. At the bistro next door, when the car had driven off, Dr. Castelbon heard a neighbor say, “That man, he couldn’t do no harm: he wasn’t writing anymore.” “He wrote with his paintings,” said his companion.
In Orléans, Jacob was incarcerated with sixty-five other Jews, men, women, and children, in a filthy, freezing military cell, ten by ten meters large. They had straw mats to sleep on, already soaked in urine. They were given soup at noon, a little Camembert at night. Jacob managed to dispatch a message to Jean Rousselot, the poet and police commissioner: “Perhaps your title will permit you to bring me some tobacco and matches. Let Cocteau know. In friendship, Max Jacob. Man of Letters, Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.” But Rousselot didn’t receive the message in time.
In the prison in Orléans, Jacob exercised his famous gifts: perhaps they had never been so useful. He told jokes, sang, recited verses, cast horoscopes; he tended the sick, applying cupping glasses (from two jars) on a woman suffering from pneumonia; he soothed the desperate. On February 26 the wretched group was trucked to the station, packed into a train, and hauled to the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. From the train, Jacob was able to send a few appeals for help. To Cocteau he wrote, “Dear Jean. I write you in a train car, courtesy of the gendarmes who guard us. We’ll soon be at Drancy. That’s all I have to say. Sacha [Guitry], when asked to help my sister, said, ‘If it was Max, I could do something.’ Well, it’s me. Kisses, Max.” To the Chanoine Fleureau at Saint-Benoît he wrote, “Dear M. the curé, Please excuse this letter from a drowning man, written courtesy of the gendarmes. I would like to tell you that I’ll soon be at Drancy. I have some conversions in progress. I trust in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom that has begun. Max Jacob. I forget no one in my continual prayers.”
From Paris, buses carried the prisoners to Drancy. In the ritual of arrival, Jacob passed, with his companions, from one table to another in the courtyard to be processed. He gave up his 5,520 francs and his gold watch; those effects were duly registered. He gave his personal information. At the registration table, one of the clerks, Madame Bloch, a prisoner herself, recognized Jacob as a friend of her mother, Madame Léon, also detained in the camp. He was assigned to the fourth floor of stairway nineteen, given the number 15,872, the letter B, and a green sticker—symbols of those to be deported in the next transport. He was scheduled to leave for Auschwitz in transport 69, March 7.
Outside of Drancy, Jacob’s friends bestirred themselves. Cocteau pulled every string he could reach, scheming with Georges Prade, a wealthy businessman who ran the collaborationist newspaper Les Nouveaux Temps: Prade owned a gouache of Jacob’s and had already been called on to help Mirté-Léa. Cocteau composed a letter of appeal for Jacob’s release, which Prade took to the counselor Hans-Henning von Bose at the German embassy.
By some mystic coincidence, Jacob’s old friend the composer Henri Sauguet had begun to tinker with some poems from Jacob’s Pénitents en maillots roses in February when Pierre Colle called with news of the poet’s arrest. He and Colle went to find Picasso at lunch at his customary bistro, Le Catalan, near his studio on the rue des Grands Augustins. Picasso was in a lousy mood, Sauguet recalled. Whether or not he already knew of Jacob’s arrest was unclear. He did say, “Max is an angel. He can fly over the wall by himself.”
This incident is perhaps the most widely known story about Max Jacob, and is the one thing many people think they know about him. It provides several satisfactions: that of showing a famous artist to be a monster, and his lost friend as a victim. But the situation was far more complex. Picasso, it’s true, was no hero; he betrayed Apollinaire back in 1911 when they were interrogated about the theft of the Mona Lisa. But though German authorities did visit Picasso’s studio during the Occupation, the painter was vulnerable: he was a resident alien in Vichy France, and to be deported to Franco’s Spain would have been catastrophic. When he heard about Cocteau’s appeal, Picasso went to Prade and offered to sign it. Prade dissuaded him, arguing that the signature would carry no weight with the gestapo and would only make Picasso’s position in Paris more delicate than ever. The wisecrack itself was in the cruel lingua franca of the Bateau-Lavoir.
On his straw mat on the fourth floor, Jacob shivered in the cold and began to cough violently. Word spread through the camp that a famous poet had arrived, and prisoners slipped past guards to see him. On the first day, he could still speak; he entertained guests in his old way, narrating tales. But by the next day he was racked with pain in his chest; he could hardly breathe, and began to vomit. He was transferred to what passed for an infirmary, and there he was cared for by several Jewish doctors who were fellow prisoners.
Max Jacob was dying of pneumonia. There was no medicine. All that could be provided was a cot, relatively clean sheets, and most of all, kindness. The several accounts of his last hours seem contradictory, but one can imagine that all are true, reflecting different phases of his agony. One witness who lived to report the scene was a Jewish doctor who claimed that Max Jacob died peacefully. He said, “I’m with God,” and already seemed far away. He expressed only one desire: to die as a Catholic. He made this request tactfully, apologetically, not wanting to offend his fellow Jews: “You understand, I’ve given my life to this passion.” Another Jewish doctor who attended him, Raymond Weille, remembered that Jacob kept asking for a priest. There was no priest in the camp, but a few Jewish Catholic prisoners recited the prayers for the dying over him.
Others witnessed a more agonized death. Jacob hallucinated, he cried out. He saw trees marching and tried to seize them. The cold was crawling up his legs, he groaned. But his last words seem to have been peaceful: “You have the face of an angel,” he told the doctor leaning over him. He died at 9 P.M., March 5. Madame Bloch, her sister, and two nurses laid out the body in a little room near the entrance to the camp.
Transport 69, carrying 1,501 people, left without him on March 7, for Auschwitz.
Five of Max Jacob’s poems—translated from the French by Elizabeth Bishop—were published in the Fall 2018 issue. Rosanna Warren’s essay about Bishop’s translations appeared alongside the poems.
Rosanna Warren teaches at the University of Chicago. She is the author of six books of poetry, most recently So Forth (2020) and Ghost in a Red Hat (2011). Her biography Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters will be released next week. She has published a book of literary criticism, edited a volume of essays about translation, and received awards from the Academy of American Poets, The American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New England Poetry Club, among others.
From Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters, by Rosanna Warren, which will be published next week by W. W. Norton & Company.