Simone de Beauvoir: The Courage to Love Differently

A Transatlantic Love Affair

A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelsen Algren
BY Simone de Beauvoir
(New Press, 1999)

Sartre and Beauvoir were both headed into serious relationships with other people who would agree that their modus vivendi was unacceptable. As the Second World War drew to a close, first Sartre, and then Beauvoir, was given the chance to spend time in America, an opportunity that both took with delight. No sooner had Sartre stepped off the plane than he was involved with Dolores Vanetti, a Frenchwoman who worked for the United States Office of War Information. She was a completely different proposition to the young, naïve girls Sartre had seduced up until then. She was older, married, rich and sophisticated. Beauvoir knew this was a harbinger of real trouble in their relationship and was sick with worry, plagued by migraines and nightmares and fits of weeping. The glamour of her pact with Sartre had been always part of the reason why the other women fell for him and accepted her as part of the package. Vanetti did not know or care for these rules and by the end of Sartre’s trip she had made it quite clear that it was marriage or nothing. Sartre, an ace prevaricator, returned to Simone and told her everything was fine, although it most certainly was not.

Beauvoir then left on her trip and, on a thirty-six-hour visit to Chicago, looked up a friend of a friend, the writer Nelson Algren. Their time together was an odd mix of latent eroticism and disquiet, and it might easily have ended there. Only as Beauvoir prepared to come home, full of enthusiasm for her reunion with Sartre, she received a message from him asking her to postpone her departure: he was with Vanetti and things were delicate. Beauvoir, mortified, turned around and went straight into Algren’s arms.

The glamour of her pact with Sartre had been always part of the reason why the other women fell for him and accepted her as part of the package.

The affair would last for five years, although most of it would take place via postal service. Algren, Beauvoir wrote, was “the only truly passionate love in my life.” He was the first man to give her an orgasm, Sartre being notoriously poor in bed. “It’s funny that we get along so well,” Algren told her. “I’ve never been able to get along with anybody.” He was not kidding. Known for his surly nature, Algren was not the obvious choice for a liaison with the cultivated Beauvoir. He was a working class man, tough and prickly, indifferent to European culture and ignorant of the French language. It did not take him long, though, to decide that he wanted Beauvoir to stay in Chicago and marry him, and then the problems began. She knew her career was based in Paris, and her loyalty to Sartre was so strong. As she travelled back and forth across the Atlantic, always having to negotiate the dates with Algren — because Sartre could only dedicate certain weeks to her due to his tight schedule with other women and his arrangements kept changing — Beauvoir fought a losing battle to keep Nelson sweet and loving despite only sharing a fraction of her life.

“I could not love you, want you and miss you more than I do,” she wrote to him, trying once again to explain that “Sartre needs me. In fact, he is very lonely, very tormented inside himself, very restless, and I am his only true friend, the only one who really understands him, helps him, works with him, gives him some peace and poise. For nearly twenty years he did everything for me; he helped me to live, to find myself, he sacrificed lots of things for my sake…. I could not desert him.” Quite what Beauvoir thought she would achieve with these declarations is hard to credit. Algren grew more difficult and hostile towards her each time she flew to see him. He said he did not love her, he refused to sleep with her, he threatened to remarry his ex-wife (and did) and still Beauvoir persisted in behaving as if there were hope. The situation teetered on the brink of unhinging her completely, her anxiety “bordered on mental aberration” she said, and put her on medication. In Chicago was a man she loved passionately who would not agree to the terms of engagement she herself had always lived by. And in Paris, she was half of a famous, revered couple whose relationship had never been more precarious. Sartre, that lonely, tormented man, still had his hands pretty full of the demanding Vanetti.

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