The eclectic relationship between Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir was too good to be true. Or was it?
In 1990, a collective gasp could be heard around the world: Simone de Beauvoir’s letters to Jean-Paul Sartre were published. In contrast to Sartre’s letters to Beauvoir, published a few years earlier after Sartre’s death, these letters were unedited – now everyone knew what the relationship of the famous couple really looked like. While Beauvoir-and-Sartre aficionados were deeply disappointed, others were full of schadenfreude: Finally there was proof that this relationship always sounded too good to be true! Somehow or other, the myth of the perfect intellectual couple was shattered. Why?
Well, instead of exchanging philosophical ideas and talking about the world’s problems, Beauvoir and Sartre discussed their numerous affairs, including the best ways to get rid of them. It was an existentialist soap-opera. In her memoirs Beauvoir had always stressed the fact that those books didn’t tell the whole story about Sartre and her: “There are many things which I firmly intend to leave in obscurity.” Like her bisexuality. In interviews, Beauvoir had always denied having sexual relations with women – in the letters to Sartre, she described those in great detail: “I’ve a very keen taste for her body”, she wrote about one of her female lovers. Is that really the legacy the glamorous philosophical couple leaves us with: Petty discussions about who bedded whom?
Small and not exactly good-looking
When Jean-Paul met Simone at the Sorbonne in 1929 it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. At least not for her. Jean-Paul Sartre was an unlikely womanizer: He was small and not exactly good-looking, but he made up for it with his bright mind, humor and entertaining qualities. The ladies loved him. For months, the 24-year-old Sartre had been keeping track of Simone de Beauvoir: a restrained, beautiful and clever student three years his junior. Both were studying philosophy and preparing for the prestigious and difficult exam called agrégation. Passing it – which few students did – would allow them to teach at secondary schools. Sartre desperately wanted to make Beauvoir’s acquaintance, but she kept her distance. Not surprising, given the fact that Beauvoir came from a sheltered and conservative household –and Sartre and his inner circle had a bad reputation: they smoked, they drunk and they were fond of silly jokes and pranks. Bro culture at its best. However, a month before the agrégation’s oral examination, Sartre proposed to his friends to invite Mademoiselle Beauvoir to join them during their studies.
The rest, as they say, is history. Soon, Beauvoir and “the little man”, Sartre, became inseparable. Beauvoir was happy: For the first time in her life, she felt intellectually dominated by another. Sartre challenged her, treated her as an equal. She knew for certain: This small, brilliant, slightly megalomaniac man was the companion she had already imagined as a young girl. For Sartre, Beauvoir was his equal as well: a fiercely independent woman who was able to keep up with him intellectually, supplementing his own thoughts.
A relationship with no precedent
Both Sartre and Beauvoir passed the oral exam: He came in first, she second. Soon the two lovebirds started discussing their mutual future. Sartre made it clear that he wouldn’t want to pass on affairs with other women. “What we have is an essential love”, he told Beauvoir, “but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.” It is hard to imagine that Beauvoir was immediately into this proposal. She was in love – and now the object of her love was asking for a complimentary ticket to bestow his favors on other women? But Beauvoir trusted Sartre and she was prepared to live a relationship for which there was no model to build upon. Willing to offer her a way out, Sartre even proposed marriage. Beauvoir declined. Instead, they agreed on a two-year lease, a pact: During Sartre’s military service, they would see each other as often as possible. Beauvoir, instead of directly entering the teaching profession and probably being send to the provinces, would remain in Paris. At the end of those two years, both would apply for jobs in different countries, separating for a few years, meeting again, separating again. That way, their relationship would never get boring. During the two-year period, there would only be no “contingent love affairs”. But they would still tell each other everything and never lie to each other. Their relationship would always prevail over routines and relationships with others. Later they revised their two-year pact, this time it was for life.
And this time, “contingent love affairs” were very much part of the plan. Beauvoir and Sartre were especially fond of a constellation they called “trio”. In 1936, they started their first “trio” with Beauvoir’s former student Olga Kosakiewicz (Beauvoir processed this experience in her debut novel She came to stay). Beauvoir’s proposal to Olga was this: She and Sartre would take care of her by supporting her financially and teaching her. Beauvoir soon started sleeping with Olga – Sartre pursued the girl relentlessly but never succeeded in seducing her.
Sex, without being into it
Beauvoir and Sartre would repeat this pattern over and over again. They acted as parents, adopting a young girl, supporting her, teaching her, seducing her. The relations within the “trio” were uneven: Olga, as later Bianca Bienenfeld and other girls, were financially and often emotionally dependent on Beauvoir and Sartre. As long as the couple found someone interesting, they were charming and amiable – but if they had had enough of them, they turned aloof and cruel. In Paris, Beauvoir and Sartre gathered a group of close friends and acquaintances, “la petite famille”. This “family” was a complicated network, overseen by Beauvoir and Sartre. Most of the time the members of the family didn’t know the whole picture – Olga had no clue that Beauvoir had an affair with her boyfriend (and later husband) Jacques-Laurent Bost, Sartre’s girlfriend Wanda (Olga’s sister) was oblivious to the fact that Sartre was sleeping with Bianca. And so on, and so forth.
This all sounds quite stressful. Still, the sneakiness and the schemes seemed to have amused Beauvoir and Sartre. Their letters are full of stories about their respective conquests and affairs: Bianca is jealous, Bost and Olga are fighting. Oh, these spoiled kids. The letters and exchanges can be seen as a sexual ersatz: Sartre might have pursued sex, but he wasn’t really into it. He preferred the process of seduction to the act itself. Beauvoir on the other hand was a very sexual woman. The family, with all its smaller and bigger dramas allowed Beauvoir and Sartre to have sexual relations even after theirs stopped. Sartre might not have been a great lover – but he had a way with words.
Beauvoir and Sartre were thus oversharing long before oversharing even became a term. Their letters make them seem condescending and exploitive. To their credit, both of them knew this. When Sartre dumped Bianca in March 1940 – he was stationed as a soldier at that time – Beauvoir later wrote him:
“I never blamed you for making the break, since after all that’s what I’d advised you to do. But I blamed us – myself as much as you, actually – in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable that we’d managed to make her suffer so much.”
Sartre often used Beauvoir to end relationship he no longer wanted to pursue. Either as the bearer of the bad news or as means to an end: His women almost never knew of each other – but they all knew of Beauvoir, whom Sartre presented as the reason why he had to end his “contingent” love affairs. Put the blame on her, Mesdemoiselles! Beauvoir was the real deal, he would never leave her.
Trying and failing
Which doesn’t mean the pact was never threatened in its 51 years of existence. Both Beauvoir and Sartre fell seriously in love with others, Sartre even considered marrying one of his girlfriends. But in the end, the pact survived – and lasted until the end of their lives (Sartre died in 1980, Beauvoir in 1986). It may not have been the perfect relationship between equals it was often seen as; but nor was it a farce, only constructed to hide a dirty truth. Beauvoir and Sartre were both complicated characters, so why should their relationship have been easy? They might have been a unique intellectual powerhouse, but in the end they were still a man and a woman committed to one another – no matter what. Colette Audry, Beuavoir’s teacher colleague in Rouen, remembers: “Theirs was a new kind of relationship, and I had never seen anything like it. I can’t describe what it was like to be present when those two were together. It was so intense that sometimes it made others who saw it sad not to have it.”
From the beginning, there was more at stake for Beauvoir: In the 1920s, deciding against marriage and children might have been okay for a bourgeois man like Sartre, but it wasn’t for a bourgeois woman like Beauvoir. When she chose a life with Sartre, she chose a life radically different from the one she was brought up to lead. She jumped, hoping that the risk would pay. In the end, it did. She got her freedom, even if she wasn’t free from jealousy. Nor was Sartre, for that matter. Sartre and Beauvoir had no archetypes, no models to base on their relationship. They had to learn that freedom isn’t just given once, but that in a relationship, it is an ongoing process. They tried and yes, often they failed – mostly other people. But isn’t trying and failing always better than not trying at all?