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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were two of the twentieth century’s most prominent authors and philosophers, and the story of their decades-long relationship is one of the most famous literary romances of all time. From the corridors of the Sorbonne to the cafés of Paris’s Left Bank, Sartre and de Beauvoir were intimate rivals in both intellectual debate and sexual conquest.
In A Dangerous Liaison, Carole Seymour-Jones vividly describes how the beautiful and gifted de Beauvoir fell in love with the squinting, arrogant, hard-drinking Sartre. We learn about that first summer of 1929, filled with heated debates and dangerous ideas that led them to experiment with new ways of living. We hear how Sartre compromised with the Nazis and fell into a Soviet honey-trap. And, thanks to recently discovered letters written by the avowed feminist de Beauvoir, Seymour-Jones reveals the full story behind the couple’s philosophy of free love, including de Beauvoir’s lesbianism and her pimping of younger girls for Sartre in order to keep his love.
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On ne naît pas femme; on le devient. One is not born a woman, one becomes one.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE TROTTED beside Simone de Beauvoir as she strolled past the pond in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens, where a few brave children were still sailing their boats. It was October 1929. Dead leaves scudded across the surface of the water and snared the boats; a pale sun lit up the stone statues of the queens of French history. But Sartre's mind was not on the past but on the future. For the third time, he pressed twenty-one-year-old Simone to marry him.
He was twenty-four, high time for a bourgeois graduate to marry; his two best friends had already done so. And there were pecuniary advantages to matrimony. He was doing his National Service at Saint- Cyr and, if married, would qualify for an increase in pay.
Simone quickened her pace. For the third time, she refused. In her eyes, marriage was a middle-class trap that deformed character and stunted independence. 'Elle a dit "non",' recalls Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, her adopted daughter. 'She wanted to write, she didn't want children; yet she needed Sartre.' Anxious not to lose the delectable Mile de Beauvoir, Sartre proposed an alternative: 'What we have,' he said, 'is an essential love; but it's good if we both experience contingent affairs.'
He had couched his proposal in philosophical terms cunningly designed to appeal to the most brilliant female student of her generation. The pact he offered was far more to her liking. Instantly Simone pledged herself to Jean-Paul, the only man she'd met who was her intellectual equal. The lifetime commitment that followed would prove more enduring than many a marriage. Bound together by their difficult childhoods, by the intellectual fireworks they created, and by a deep, visceral need which Beauvoir called a 'twinship', together they would light up their century. Their notorious contract would break the mould of respectable marriage in including the freedom to have affairs with other people while remaining committed to each other. It would last more than fifty years and become remarkably symbolic for several generations of people who followed them.
None of this was achieved without pain, whose concealment demanded the construction of a legend. The disparity between myth and a darker truth grew with the passing years, as the fame of the 'model couple' spread world-wide.
But Sartre never forgot his first impressions of Simone. 'I think she's beautiful,' he told Madeleine Gobeil in an interview for American Vogue in 1965. 'I have always found her beautiful, even though she was wearing a hideous little hat when I met her for the first time. I was dead set on getting to know her because she was beautiful, because she had then, and still has the kind of face which attracts me. The miracle of Simone de Beauvoir is that she has the intelligence of a man and the sensitivity of a woman. In other words, she is everything I could want.'
For Beauvoir too, despite disappointment on many levels, Sartre remained the object of her love. He 'corresponded exactly to the dream- companion I had longed for since I was fifteen', she wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. 'He was the double in whom I found all my burning aspiration raised to the pitch of incandescence.' That summer of '29, 'when I left him at the beginning of August, I knew that he would never go out of my life again'.
* * *
Stépha, the Polish governess, watched Simone de Beauvoir barge into the drawing-room. Everyone knew that the awkward twenty-year-old was Mademoiselle Lacoin's 'charity case', whose silly father had lost all his money and property. The Lacoins themselves were outrageously wealthy: they lived in the chic rue de Berri in Paris, and had an estate at Gagnepain in the Basque country. Madame Lacoin had taken pity on her daughter Zaza's friend and invited her to stay. How everyone had laughed when the girl arrived in lisle stockings and an old cotton summer frock, bleached by the sun. Zaza, of course, was in white tussore, with a pink sash. Stépha had heard that Mademoiselle Zaza had a dowry of 250,000 francs, a small fortune.
Poor Simone, thought Stépha:
She didn't look very nice to me, although I am sure she thought she did, because she told me she had a new dress - awful, as I remember, very ill-fitting and a hideous colour. Her skin was not nice, her hair was sort of greasy-looking ... She looked as if she had been neglected all her life ... I knew many poor people among my student friends in Paris, and their poverty did not touch me as Simone's did.
On her return to Paris from Gagnepain, Stépha Awdykovicz attempted to take Simone's appearance in hand: 'Take off that hideous frock: I'm going to try one of my dresses on you - this green will suit you marvellously.' Simone was embarrassed to undress, knowing the state of her underclothes, but she allowed Stépha to pluck her eyebrows and clean her dirty nails with an orange-stick. With eye-liner, rouge and powder, her hair washed with ether, Simone was, if not transformed, improved. It was a flirtatious scene she used in a short story written in 1935, which carries undertones of sexuality:
'You have a lovely body,' she said. 'You are quite right not to wear a suspender belt.' She smiled archly. 'I don't wear one either,' she added. 'Feel.' She grasped my hand and pressed it to her belly ... 'I know who you are like with those high little breasts and that slightly rounded stomach,' she said. 'It's the women Cranach painted. Not a regular beauty, but much better. A faultless body is ... less touching.'
As a young student at the Sorbonne beginning to feel her way to freedom from her parents, but lacking in money and social graces, Simone was grateful to Stépha for taking her seriously and for showing her a protective friendship: 'From the very first I liked her so much,' said the governess. They met nearly every day for lunch, and Stépha brought Simone cakes and pastries, because she could afford only coffee and bread. She hugged and kissed Simone, who, coming from a family in which she received little physical contact from her parents, was astonished. In 1928 Stépha became the leader of a girl gang consisting of Simone, her sister Helene, and Gégé Pardo, a working-class friend from Hélène's art school in Montparnasse, who went together on adventures in the bars of the quartier. Night-clubs, with their dim, orange lights, dancing bodies pressed close, their seductive odours of sweat, tobacco and cheap scent, exercised a powerful fascination for Simone; all around her, sex was the currency. Pimps lurked in the shadows, watching their women. Violence lurked just beneath the surface. In the Jockey, fitted out like a cowboy saloon, Hemingway and his friends drank whisky and listened to the lowlife canaille songs of Kiki, model and mistress of photographer Man Ray. The Monocle, on the boulevard Edgar-Quinet, a temple to Sapphic love, was ruled over by Lulu de Montparnasse. 'From the owner to the barmaid, from the waitresses to the hat-check girl, all the women were dressed as men,' remembered the photographer Brassaï. 'A tornado of virility had gusted through the place ... changing women into boys, gangsters, policemen.' In black tuxedos, women danced breast to breast, their hair 'sacrificed on Sappho's altar'. The club was, said the photographer, the capital of Gomorrah.
Simone was by turns shocked and excited. Her feelings for Stépha grew warmer. 'I love Stépha as a man loves a woman,' she wrote in her secret journal on 31 December 1928. All the same, she was a dutiful Catholic girl. It was embarrassing to call on Stépha, who lived in a hotel in the place Saint-Sulpice, round the corner from the rue de Rennes, and find her being painted in the nude by her Spanish boyfriend, an artist named Fernando Gerassi. Clearly the couple enjoyed sexual relations. Simone put her hands up to her eyes: 'Physical love was ... a tragic fall from grace, and I hadn't the courage to attempt it.'
La vie de Bohème both repelled and attracted her. Wandering down the boulevard Barbes, watching the whores and pimps, Simone began to lose her sense of horror at the sight of working women, and to feel instead 'a sort of envy'. There was an honesty and freedom about their lives which impressed her. She was surprised at her feelings:
There is within me I know not what yearning ... maybe a monstrous lust - ever present, for noise, fighting, savage violence, and above all for the gutter. ... I want life, the whole of life.
Yet it had all started so differently.
* * *
Beauvoir was born at four o'clock on the morning of 9 January 1908 in her parents' bedroom at 103 boulevard du Montparnasse. Twenty-one- year-old Françoise, the new mother, presented her first-born to her husband. Georges Bertrand de Beauvoir looked down into eyes as blue as a Delft plate, and chose names befitting a young girl of good family: Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie. She seemed destined for a life of privilege.
The Beauvoirs' elegant first-floor apartment overlooked the boulevard Raspail, a highly respectable bourgeois street on the Left Bank. The apartment itself was an oasis of upper-middle-class values: Françoise saw to that. The decor, apart from the white-enamelled master bedroom, was overwhelmingly red and black. 'The upholstery was of red moquette, the Renaissance dining room was red, the figured silk hangings over the stained-glass doors were red, and the velvet curtains in Papa's study, red also,' recalled Simone. Warm, womb-like, reassuring, the scarlet sofas and black pearwood furniture were as solid as her routine; every morning Louise, her nanny, dressed Simone, took the rags out of her hair and brushed her dark ringlets into a cascade of curls, telling her how lucky she was to have the unusual colouring of blue eyes and brown hair. At night Louise slept in the nursery.
Of Georges, Simone saw little. He left every morning for the law courts, briefcase under his arm, but when he came home in the evenings he would magic francs out of the end of his daughter's nose, and present his young wife with a bunch of Parma violets. In those early years the young couple would laugh and kiss, and disappear into the bedroom.
Two and a half years later a younger daughter was born, Helene, blonde, compliant and pretty. Simone nicknamed her sister 'Poupette' or Little Doll. The family was complete, but already cracks were appearing in its fabric.
These were symbolized by their apartment which, like Janus, faced two ways. The corbelled wrought-iron balcony, on which Simone perched with a telescope spying on the passers-by, overlooked not only the smart boulevard Raspail but the legendary Carrefour Vavin, the crossroads at the raffish end of the boulevard du Montparnasse. In fact number 103 was next door to the coal depot from which blackened half-naked men emerged with sacks on their backs. To make matters worse, just two years after Simone's birth a rowdy new cafe opened underneath the apartment: La Rotonde. It was full of foreigners, 'wogs and pacifists', as her right-wing father called immigrant painters like Pablo Picasso, who would pay his bar bill with one of his canvases. At night the sound of music, of brawling customers, filtered upstairs: Russians smashed glasses, drunken Americans fell over.
And Georges de Beauvoir was not the aristocrat he had appeared when he first paid court to Françoise Brasseur, a rich banker's daughter. In the seventeenth century a certain Sébastien, Baron de Murat and Seigneur de Beauvoir, had been a king's councillor and superintendent of buildings at the chateau of Fontainebleau. He boasted a fine crest of a rampant golden lion on a silver field, under a golden fleur-de-lys. Another de Beauvoir lost his head during the Revolution, but there was no connection between any of these aristocrats and Georges. As Simone wrote with painful honesty: 'In the ranks of high society to which he laid claim for admittance, he found that he was a nobody; the "de" in de Beauvoir showed that he had a handle to his name, but the name was an obscure one, and did not automatically open for him the doors of the best clubs and the most aristocratic salons.' But even if he was not a lord, Georges de Beauvoir was determined to live like one.
Born on 25 June 1878, Georges was the grandson of a tax inspector, François-Narcisse Bertrand de Beauvoir, whose eldest son, Ernest-Narcisse, also a civil servant, married an heiress from Arras, Léontine Wartelle. The couple lived at 110 boulevard Saint-Germain, and Georges excelled at the elite College Stanislas until his mother died when he was thirteen. He became a dandy, spending his time with the actresses of the Comédie Française and taking up amateur dramatics.
Enrolling at the Faculty of Law, Georges could not be troubled to present the necessary thesis. Instead he took the job of secretary to a well-known lawyer, Alphonse Deville.
He was contemptuous of successes which are obtained by the expense of hard work and effort. If you were 'born' to be someone, you automatically possessed all the essential qualities - wit, talent, charm and good breeding.
Acting gave him an entrée into the salons of the aristocracy, and legacies from his parents smoothed his path. While his elder brother, Gaston, made a living on the racetrack, Georges bought his way into high society.
By 1907 his legacies were dwindling. Georges could not be bothered to master briefs. His career stalled. It was time to find a rich wife.
At Houlgate, a fashionable seaside resort, a meeting was arranged between Georges and Françoise. He knew only that she was the daughter of Gustave Brasseur, Belgian founder of the Bank of the Meuse, named after the river that runs through Verdun, in western Lorraine. Françoise, tall, dark and musical, product of an opulent upbringing, had hoped to marry her first cousin, Charles Champigneulles, heir to a prosperous stained-glass business, but when whispers of corruption in the bank spread through Verdun, he vanished. Georges, fresh from Paris and unaware that Brasseur was on the verge of bankruptcy, was attracted by the promise of a fine dot or dowry to the reluctant, provincial brunette who had always played second fiddle to her blonde sister, Lili. Françoise, a devout Catholic educated at the prestigious Couvent des Oiseaux, to her surprise fell suddenly and passionately in love with the charming lawyer with a noble-sounding name, who offered her escape from an unhappy home life. Within months they were married.
But as Georges placed his honeymoon bets at the Nice racetrack, panic-stricken investors were withdrawing their money. In July 1909 the bank went into liquidation. Brasseur was sent to prison. On his release he fled to the slums around Montparnasse station, eventually moving with his wife and Lili into a flat in rue Denfert, on the east side of the local cemetery. Old friends ostracized them. Françoise was deeply affected. 'She believed herself to be dishonoured, to the point that she broke with all her relations in Verdun,' remembered Simone. 'The dowry promised to Papa was never paid.' Although Georges did not openly reproach his wife, she always felt to blame for the family's descent into comparative poverty.
Simone denied the impact of the scandal, protesting, 'I was very happy. My childhood was never affected by this drama,' but it had huge consequences. She often refused to eat. 'A spoonful for Mama, and another for Grandmama,' her mother coaxed her, but the child burst into tears at the sight of milk puddings and screamed at the oiliness of fat meat; tasting the clamminess of shellfish, she vomited. When her nanny, Louise, took her for a walk, Simone stood with her nose pressed to the windows of the confectioners, staring at the candied fruits and acid drops, and refused to go to the park. In desperation Françoise pounded sugared almonds in a mortar and added double cream for her sweet- toothed daughter, until Simone consented to dip her spoon into the mixture and finish the bowl. On the evenings when her parents entertained, and her mother took her seat at the grand piano, her profile, lit by crystal chandeliers, reflecting a myriad images in the gilt drawing- room mirrors, Simone hid behind the sofa. Biting thoughtfully into a candied apricot, she felt its exploding sweetness. Eating was both an exploration and an act of conquest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Dangerous Liaison"
Copyright © 2008 Carole Seymour-Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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