[PW] Taking the fire story

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
Mon Dec 25 06:21:42 PST 2017

Satya Keyes wrote:
> I need to know the source of, as well as the accurate telling of, the story
> that is answered “ I’ll take the fire.”
> The set up of the story includes an interviewer asking 3(?) people
> something like: Your house is on fire. You have 10(?) seconds to get out
> with your life...and you can take only one thing with you. What do you take?
> I need to know where to find this is originally quoted or written about (citations),
> who are the names of the people involved, and the exact wording of the story.

Here is a lead. It appears that the French writer Jean Cocteau
popularized this response during an interview, and he may have
originated it. Cocteau died in 1963. There are some matches in Google
Books (GB) for the response "Je crois que j'emporterais le feu." The
GB dates begin in 1962, but the 1962 match seems to be an instance of
bad metadata. There is a revealing match with a GB date of 1965 within
a collection of interviews conducted by André Fraigneau.

I hypothesize that the quotation began with Fraigneau's interview of
Jean Cocteau, but I am not sure precisely when it occurred.

Year: GB 1965
Title: Entretiens avec André Fraigneau (Interviews with André Fraigneau)
Authors: Jean Cocteau, André Fraigneau
Quote Page 80
Database: Google Books Snippet; must be verified with hardcopy; search
for "1965" displays a snippet with a 1965 copyright

[Begin extracted text - double-check for errors]
Jean Cocteau. — Je les entasse, mais je ne sais pas ce qui arrivera.

André Fraigneau. — Parmi ces objets il y en a bien certains auxquels
vous tenez particulièrement ? Si par exemple, je ne sais pas, enfin,
s'il y avait le feu chez vous, quel est l'objet que vous préféreriez
et que vous emporteriez ?

Jean Cocteau. — S'il y avait le feu chez moi ?

André Fraigneau. — Oui.

Jean Cocteau. — Je crois que j'emporterais le feu.
[End extracted text]

Ned Rorem states that he wrote an essay referring to Cocteau's remark
in English (and probably in the original French, too) in 1963.

Year: 2013
Title: Other Entertainment: Collected Pieces
Author: Ned Rorem
Chapter: Cocteau in America 1986

[Begin excerpt]
The day he died in 1963 I wrote an essay called "I'd Take the Fire."
The title is Jean Cocteau's answer—"J'emporterais le feu"—to the
familiar question, "If your house were burning down and you could take
away just one thing, what would it be?" My argument was that the
culture of France (all aspects of it—novels, painting, dance, theater,
music, even movies) had, since World War II, fallen from high and
shrunk into an elegant parasite.
[End excerpt]

The writer Paulo Coelho shared the anecdote on his blog in 2007.


[Begin excerpt]
A journalist went to interview Jean Cocteau, whose house was a jumble
of ornaments, paintings, drawings by famous artists and books. Cocteau
kept absolutely everything and felt a deep affection for every object.
It was then, in the middle of the interview, that the journalist
decided to ask Cocteau: ‘If this house were to catch fire right now
and you could take only one thing with you, what would you choose?’

‘And what did he reply?’ asks í lvaro Teixeira, a fellow guest at the
castle where we were staying and himself an expert on Cocteau’s life.

‘Cocteau said: “I would take the fire.”‘
[End excerpt]


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