Jean Genet, 75, a critically acclaimed French dramatist, poet and novelist who drew upon his personal experiences to write of a seamy underculture populated by thieves, murderers and homosexual prostitutes, died of throat cancer yesterday in the hotel room in Paris where he had lived for years.
Mr. Genet was regarded by critics as one of the great French writers of this century, but his story themes, in which traditional morality was almost always inverted to make heroes and saints of the likes of pimps and killers, also scandalized and offended many ordinary readers.
He was probably best known for his autobiographical "Thief's Journal," a work published in 1949 that recounts details of a life of crime and petty thievery in the subcultures of Europe during the 1930s. Mr. Genet was also widely known for his novel, "Our Lady of the Flowers," a celebration of crime, betrayal and homosexuality written while in prison during the 1940s, and for his plays, "The Maids," "The Balcony," "The Blacks," and "The Screens."
Among his most enthusiastic admirers was the late French existential philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who called him a "liar, thief, pervert," and also a "saint and a martyr."
Sartre, author of "Saint Genet," an extensive study of Mr. Genet's life and works, said, "With each book, this possessed man becomes a little more the master of the demon that possesses him."
Born in Paris, the illegitimate son of a French prostitute, Mr. Genet was raised in a state foundling home until he was 7, when he was placed with peasant foster parents in the Massif Central region of France. When he was 10, his foster mother accused him of stealing some change from her purse, and according to Sartre, the incident proved to be a pivotal experience that would determine the course of the rest of his life.
"I answered yes to every accusation made against me, no matter how unjust," Sartre quoted Mr. Genet as saying. "Yes, I had to become what they said I was . . . . I was coward, thief, traitor, queer: whatever they saw in me."
One act of juvenile crime led to another, and Mr. Genet spent most of his adolescence in reform school where he remained until he was 21. He joined the French Foreign Legion but deserted after only a few days, and during the decade before World War II, he traveled through Europe as a beggar, thief and homosexual prostitute. "For a time I loved stealing, but prostitution appealed more to my easygoing ways," he wrote later in "Thief's Journal."
"Abandoned by my family, I found it natural to aggravate this fact by the love of males and that love by stealing . . . . Thus I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me."
Mr. Genet was in prison during most of the German occupation of Paris in World War II, and he had been in 13 jails and thrown out of five countries by the time he was 35. But it was also while in prison that he began to write, initially on the brown paper that prisoners were expected to use to make paper bags.
In addition to "Our Lady of the Flowers," Mr. Genet wrote "Miracle of the Roses," "Funeral Rites" and "Querelle de Brest" while in prison during the 1940s. All were characterized by lyrical eroticism, and in each the main characters pursued sin and corruption with dedication and enthusiasm.
Jailed a 10th time for theft in 1948, Mr. Genet faced a mandatory life sentence in prison, but he was pardoned after a delegation of leading French intellectuals including Sartre, Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau intervened on his behalf.
It was about then that he turned his energies towards poetry and drama. He wrote "The Blacks," probably his best-known play in the United States, in 1959, and two years later it ran for 1,408 performances in an off-Broadway run. The play, which had an all-black cast including some wearing white masks, involves the ritual murder of a white woman, and its production in the United States coincided with the beginnings of a rising black consciousness and feelings of rage over racial oppression.
At one point one of the characters declares, "We have masked our faces in order to live the loathsome lives they have ordered . . . . We are what they would have us be." A version of "The Blacks" was produced at the Kennedy Center in 1973 by the D.C. Black Repertory Company, despite an unsuccessful lawsuit by Mr. Genet attempting to stop the production on the grounds that he had not been consulted and had not received royalties.
Mr. Genet visited the United States in 1968 to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for Esquire Magazine. His account brought a rebuke from British journalist Henry Fairlie who wrote that "There was only one thing more violent than the behavior of Mayor Daley's police at Chicago, and that was the reporting of it by Jean Genet . . . ."
He spent two months in the United States in 1970 meeting with leaders of the Black Panther Party. "What made me feel close to them immediately is the hate they bear . . . their wish to destroy a society, to beat it -- a wish which was mine when I was very young," Mr. Genet said.
In 1983 Mr. Genet was awarded France's prestigious Grand Prix National des Lettres for his accumulated works, but he did not attend the ceremony. The award saluted him as a man who has "followed his destiny into the darkness."
He leaves no immediate survivors.