Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre: An Existential Love Story
By Hannah Brown | On | Comments (0)
The two intellectuals known as the mother of modern feminism and father of existentialism shared a half-century partnership that defied the conventions of their time and ours.
From 1929, when Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre met in the same elite graduate program in philosophy, to when they were buried side-by-side in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, they shared each other’s work and lives without ever sharing a home.
The love affair
De Beauvoir and Sartre were classmates and competitors at the Sorbonne in 1929, studying for the aggregate in philosophy, a prestigious graduate degree. Although Sartre’s marks surpassed de Beauvoir’s, she was, at 21, the youngest person ever to pass the exam.
In October of that year, the two began their romantic partnership, an experiment in personal responsibility and open-heartedness. De Beauvoir, who had defied social pressures earlier in life by renouncing the Catholic faith, flouted expectation yet again by turning down a marriage proposal from Sartre.
Instead, the couple came to an agreement that rejected what they considered bourgeois hypocrisy – that is, the patriarchal expectation that married men engage in extramarital affairs and lie to their wives, who, in turn, stoically feign ignorance. Rather than pretending at monogamy, the lovers each had the freedom to pursue sexual and romantic relationships outside their own. The only condition was total transparency.
An open relationship
The pair never married or shared a home. Instead, they met daily in Parisian cafés to talk, write, edit each other’s work, and often, share details of their secondary liaisons. Their intellectual and emotional intimacy persisted for 51 years, through Sartre’s traumatic service and capture in World War II and long after the sexual component of the philosophers’ “soul marriage” had faded away.
Simone de Beauvoir, who Sartre playfully referred to as “The Beaver,” never published a piece of writing without her partner’s input until after his death. Likewise, he referred to her as a “filter” for his books, and some scholars have even made the case that she wrote some of them for him.
More about Simone de Beauvoir’s life and work
Trouble in paradise
De Beauvoir and Sartre’s partnership and unconventional relationship had high visibility within the tightly-knit social circle that was the center of both their social and professional lives. As part of the Parisian intellectual community, their circumstances created a keenly-felt pressure to present a harmonious front.
Scholars and journalists often accuse de Beauvoir of publicly masking painful bouts of jealousy. While her inner emotional life is unclear, what’s evident is the manipulative, often dishonest, and arguably cruel treatment to which both Sartre and de Beauvoir subjected much-younger female consorts.
Take, for example, 16-year-old Bianca Bienenfeld, a student of de Beauvoir’s who was 14 years her junior. Soon after the two women began their affair, de Beauvoir introduced her lover to Sartre. He promptly made it his mission to seduce Bienenfeld. After a romantic entanglement between the three of them, de Beauvoir told Sartre to end it, which he abruptly did in a letter.
Bienenfeld, who was Jewish, later narrowly escaped the Nazi occupation of France. Neither de Beauvoir nor Sartre tried to find her. When she read “Letters to Sartre” and saw the flippant tone the pair took toward her, she said, “Their perversity was carefully concealed beneath Sartre’s meek and mild exterior and the Beaver’s serious and austere appearance. In fact, they were acting out a commonplace version of ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’”
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An appetite for conquest
Bienenfeld may be an extreme example, but she’s not atypical. Sartre tended to treat younger romantic prospects (all of whom were female) more as conquests than partners, spending months or years persuading them to get into bed with him and then bouncing off to regale “the Beaver” with details. He would pay his mistresses’ rent to ensure they were nearby while trying to keep them ignorant of each other. De Beauvoir was sometimes among the deceived, but at other times she was his accomplice in deception.
For her part, de Beauvoir’s outside relationships appear more amorous and tended to be longer-term. There was Nelson Algren, the American novelist, with whom she shared a decade of transatlantic love letters, addressing him as her “beloved husband.” He was a thinly veiled character in her 1954 novel, The Mandarins.
She even lived with Claude Lanzmann, a French filmmaker, for the bulk of the 1950s. But these were her relationships with men. When it came to her same-gender partnerships, de Beauvoir tended to be more exploitative. There was the painful entanglement with Bienenfeld described earlier, for example, and an affair with Natalie Sorokine, a 17-year-old student, which cost de Beauvoir her teaching license.
Iconic but flawed
If we can learn anything from looking back on Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s romantic lives and partnerships, it’s that an incredible intellect and a world-changing body of work don’t render a person free of flaws. The love they had for each other is as undeniable as the harm that befell many who became entangled with it.
Still, we can count among the many questions that de Beauvoir raised in her life and writing: When free of gendered and oppressive social expectations, what does love look like?
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“We were two of a kind, and our relationship would endure as long as we did: but it could not make up entirely for the fleeting riches to be had from encounters with different people.” — Simone de Beauvoir, on her relationship with Sartre
— Contributed by Hannah Brown