In Black and White: 10 Famed Literary Jailbirds

Jean Genet

After being dishonorably discharged from the French foreign legion, Genet returned to Paris where he was in and out of jail for theft, lewd acts, use of false papers, and vagrancy. It was in prison that he secretly wrote his very first poem, “Le condamné à mort,” and his largely autobiographical first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. Soon after, he sought out Jean Cocteau (or for the days when these kinds of people were just milling about, waiting to be approached!) and showed him his writing — with Cocteau’s help, Our Lady of the Flowers was published. In 1949, after ten convictions, Genet was threatened with a life sentence, but Cocteau, as well as Genet’s new friends, Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to save him. He would never be imprisoned again.