Paper Written by Mary Claybon
Presented to Noonday
June 4, 2011
I do not like to label myself a liberal or Democrat or a feminist, just someone who has not been satisfied to be told how to think. I am open-minded and more of a free spirit, always interested in philosophy and life and enjoy listening to how others think and determine their beliefs and viewpoints. I became interested in religion and philosophy as a result of intermarriage, my background being very conservative Catholic and my husband of 37 years, being a conservative Jew.
We had a neighbor, a successful consultant and writer, divorced but living with a man who seemed to have a lot of time on his hands. He would stop by and talk to me about his yoga and meditation practice and other topics of philosophy and life. One day we got on the subject of books and he asked if I had read The Second Sex. I had not read The Feminine Mystique, let alone the book he mentioned.
He brought me a copy and I became curious about the author, Simone de Beauvoir.
I read the introduction of the book The Second Sex and was hooked. I loved her spirit and only wished I could meet her in Paris at one of her favorite writing spots and have a conversation.
Why am I so intrigued? She was a woman full of ideas and curious about others ideas. She came into the world as a little girl from a Catholic family in Paris and grew up to be a woman who shared her ideas through her writing, speaking, and intimate meetings and gatherings with interesting philosophers, artists and writers.
She is considered an existentialist and was known as the main lover of Jean Paul Sartre. He was her mentor, motivator, lover, the only person she would have considered a husband, and the best audience for her to clarify her ideas. They spent hours discussing their work. He was single minded and totally focused on writing and teaching his ideas. Simone also influenced him. They wrote about each other and their works were influenced by each other.
For a period of 10 years or more, I spent a lot of time “sharing ideas” with a man at restaurants, coffee shops, and homes. We traveled together and eventually parted ways, as his philosophy of life did not include dedication to a family but more a dedication to the ideas. I was a wife and mother, ingrained in my roles and made the choice to stay that way unlike Simone de Beauvoir who made the choice not to have a family.
I saw Simone as someone influenced by a man, as she tried to find herself, clarify her philosophy, and totally live her moments sharing her ideas, teaching, speaking, and living a life that was full and rich, but also marred with conflict and drama.
I could relate to her ambivalent Catholic upbringing, leaving her to dedicate her life to developing her own philosophy about God, religion, existence, and love. Since that time I have collected her memoirs, novels, biographies, and articles.
Some of you may be very familiar with her and her writing. If so I hope you enjoy the highlights of her life that I found most interesting. If not I trust I am introducing you to a great writer, philosopher, teacher, woman, artist and in my dreams, a friend.
She would have been an interesting member of Noonday. I am thrilled to be part of this classy, smart, and diverse group of women and I am honored to be able to present my paper, Une Femme à Femmes, A Woman to Women, about Simone de Beauvoir and my fascination with her and her life.
Une Femme à Femmes
Simone de Beauvoir was born on January 9, 1908 above the Café de la Rotund in Montparnasse (Paris) on the Boulevard Raspail. She begins her first volume of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter with:
I was born at four o-clock in the morning on the ninth of January 1908, in a room fitted with white-enameled furniture and overlooking the Boulevard, long dresses and ostrich feather hats and gentlemen wearing boaters and panamas, all smiling at a baby: they are my parents, my grandfather, uncles, aunts; and the baby is me. (Beauvoir 1959)
Simone de Beauvoir was baptized with the name Simone Ernestine (after her paternal grandmother) Lucie Marie (after the Virgin Mary) Bertrand de Beauvoir. The “de” is a sign of the bourgeoisie.
She was the older of two daughters born to a respected bourgeois family. She remained close to her younger sister Poupette (real name Helene, but named Poupette because of her small “doll-like features) her entire life.
Her father, Georges, was an aspiring actor, but instead became a lawyer although he was never successful in his profession. He would work on and off, but spent much of his life nurturing the intellect of Simone and admiring the beauty of Helene. Although active in their lives, he would often be absent at night, when he would frequent local bars.
Simone had an ambivalent relationship with her father. She wanted his approval and enjoyed sharing intellectual endeavors, but she would also say that his lack of affection and emotion for her as a little girl affected her for her lifetime. Simone loved the attention of her father, who spoke with her as an equal. He saw her as “ a mind”, and later she would grow to see him as a source of her misery and unhappiness. (Beauvoir , Memoirs 1959)
Her mother, Francoise was the loving parent, who doted on her daughters and was a role model for femininity. She also was a devout Catholic, and unlike her husband, practiced her religion with fervor.
Simone and Poupette were educated in private schools and with strict Roman Catholic upbringing guided by their mother who wanted her girls to be brought up in her faith. She took them to church daily and at night led them in Catholic devotions.
Georges, Simone’s father, left the religious upbringing to his wife. He was more of a skeptic and lost his tenacity for Catholicism as an adolescent. He considered himself an unbeliever and supported intellectual and creative pursuits of his daughters.
As a very young girl whose father taught her to read at age 3 and who said “There is nothing in the world finer than to be an author,” Simone learned early to love literature and writing. Her mother also encouraged her to write, and at age 7 Simone wrote The Misfortunes of Marguerite (about her sister) and The Pickle Family, a parody of her own family. (Francis and Contier 1987)
At the age of 14 she no longer believed in God. Her mother prayed for her. (I can remember my own very Catholic mother saying Novenas for Sorrowful Mothers when I dated Steve, my very Jewish husband.) Simone felt that religion was only a method to avoid the truth and as her philosophy developed she believed we live according to two truths, the first that we exist and the second is that we will cease to exist. We have the freedom of choice on how we live this life. Simone chose to live life to the fullest.
Beauvoir detached from her family, her religion and the bourgeois life and wanted to leave the comfort of her past life to find her own truth. She was very interested in learning, studying and writing about life and hence entered the Sorbonne in Paris to study philosophy. The year was 1929 and she was 21 years old.
She studied with a group of philosophy students, one of whom was Jean-Paul Sartre. They both graduated at the top of their class, and from then on would enter a life- long relationship. He was number one in the class and she was number two as it would be the rest of their lives together. He would eventually be known as the most famous French man and she the most famous French feminist.
Although Beauvoir and Sartre were life-long companions, they were not monogamous. In fact they each had other relationships with men and women. Both were what we would consider bi-sexual today. They had both heterosexual and homosexual affairs. They rarely lived together but were constant companions even when in relationship with others.
In the book Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul (Rowley n.d.) Hazel Rowley wrote about their relationship as a ‘long strange and erotically multifaceted partnership….’ Rowley did her doctoral dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. She interviewed Simone in the 1970’s. She was intrigued by their relationship and ‘its attendant parade of lovers (some his, some hers, and some theirs). Rowley describes the ‘de facto marriage’ of Sartre and Beauvoir. They both had affairs-Beauvoir with men and women. (Fox 2011)
Sartre believed in freedom and was not interested in being tied to a relationship with a spouse or family; however, his relationship with Simone was as close to a marriage as either would ever experience.
Beauvoir and Sartre enjoyed intimate meetings and also had frequent meetings with like-minded friends in their apartments. They discussed philosophy and politics with stimulating intellectual conversations of the time. Sartre was busy writing and developing his philosophy of existentialism, and Beauvoir was working on her own writing based on her interpretation and philosophy.
Sartre’s work is very dark and negative, calling life meaningless and absurd, yet engaged in sharing ideas and political causes. While Simone agreed with many of his ideas on existentialism and politics, she had a more optimistic view of life. She loved life and strove for happiness in her “existence.” She lived according to two truths-The truth of existence and the truth of no longer existing-life and death-exist while simultaneously facing the horror of ending existence at the same time. In spite of what seems to be a dark philosophy, Simone was an optimist who made the most of her life.
Sartre influenced her work of course, but she was also a student of Hegel and Heidegger, and well versed in differentiating other philosophers and their theories about life. Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre were very social in intellectual circles and had many friends. They were friends with Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus, and the poet and actor Jean Cocteau. John Steinbeck and Virginia Wolf also influenced Beauvoir.
Her relationship with Sartre was based on her respect for his philosophical ideas as well as his commitment for sharing via the written word. They also shared political views and favored a “Marxist” or socialist viewpoint. They were both committed to writing and very disciplined. Simone would write either at his apartment, usually between 4 and 8 PM, or during the day at Parisian cafes, that are famous today because of it. Two of the most famous are Café Les Deux Magots and Café De Flore in Paris.
Sartre nicknamed her “ The Beaver” for two reasons. She was industrious in her thinking and writing like a beaver, and secondly her last name reminded him of the word Beaver.
She wanted to be known not just as a feminist but also as a writer of many genres. And that she was. She wrote novels, essays, articles, travel journals, memoirs and a play.
Her first novel was L’Invitee /She Came to Stay (1943). This was the same year Sartre published the first edition of Being and Nothingness, his work on existentialism, which is reflected in this story based on their relationship with a young student, Olga Bost, who was intimate with both of them. Simone had to get used to the idea that the other woman was there to stay.
All Men are Mortal (1946) was a novel that I tried to read, but as much as I love Simone de Beauvoir and love her writing, I could not get into the story. It is a book about two people who challenge mortality by becoming immortal.
The book she is most noted for is The Second Sex, which was written in 1952, the year I was born when Beauvoir was 44. I now wish I had asked my mother about this book, but I suspect she would not have been interested. The Pope banned this book and being the good Catholic Mom was, this would not have been on her bookshelf.
Until 1949, Beauvoir was better known as Sartre’s companion of more than twenty years than as the author of several well-received novels. She decided to write a book about women in order to learn more about herself. (Introduction to Bair 1990)
Although she considered herself a free woman, Beauvoir was under Sartre’s spell for years and known as his consort. “Le Deuxieme Sexe” The Second Sex would be the turning point in her life and notoriety. It was also a turning point in her relationships. It was during the writing that she had an affair with the American novelist Nelson Algren, whom she met when she visited the United States.
During the 60s she wrote many articles and gave interviews mostly about her feministic philosophy, discussing her book The Second Sex. She kept her calendar open for engagements to speak and said yes to as many invitations as she could.
She did a lot of speaking with Sartre. Some felt she was his mouthpiece, but after the success of her book she was asked to speak separately from Sartre and became an important figure in and of herself.
Woman who saw The Second Sex as “a secret code that we emerging women used to send messages to each other” sought to emulate her ideas. The “secret code” gathered momentum among women, and Beauvoir committed herself to feminism and writing on behalf of women. (Schwarzer 1984)
The main theme of her book is that we are the second sex to men. Our biology-menstruation and pregnancy limits us to certain circumstances and can leave us limited in the role of mother and wife. Beauvoir felt that to be a complete woman, we needed to go beyond the roles and live a full life. Women have a duty to go beyond traditional roles and to nurture their intellectual lives. In this book she describes the woman who is not self-actualized as simply a thing. Her definition of feminism was reaching your potential as a woman-as a whole person. Her most famous quote from the book is, “One is not born a woman. One becomes a woman.” (Second Sex, S. D. Beauvoir 1989)
It is interesting that she exhorted that we lead our own lives, our own way and not in the shadow of another, especially a man. She did not always practice what she preached because she was still under the spell of Sartre. With the success of her book, which she wrote to clarify her own values and ideas, she gained the confidence to speak her own mind. Eventually she grew stronger as an autonomous woman. (Bair 1990)
She will admit that many of her ideas came from Sartre and his existential works especially Being and Nothingness. She wrote about women seeking freedom to emerge as an important sex, yet clearly her premise is that indeed women come second to men and get their ideas from men.
It is ironic that she should write a book about feminine freedom and yet be caught in the trap of following a male figure. Simone always felt that Sartre considered her an equal.
She became very well known after The Second Sex and although she was thought of as the most famous French feminist, she wanted to be known for all of her writing.
‘I am a writer’, Simone de Beauvoir insisted. ‘I have written novels, philosophy, social criticism, a play-and yet all people know about is The Second Sex. Granted I am pleased that that book has had such an impact, and I do not deny the importance of feminism in my life, but first of all I am a writer!’ (Bair 1990)
Beauvoir wrote The Mandarins (1954-won the Prix Goncourt) as kind of an intimate dedication to her affair with Nelson Algren, which had ended two years prior to its publication. Other works of Beauvoir included The Long March (1958), The Blood of Others (1964) Les Belles Images (1967) and more.
Her memoirs were written in volumes. The publisher Alber Knopf criticized her as having “verbal diarrhea”. And I must admit that it is difficult to simply read her books. You can read several pages as you get into her world and then put it down and go onto other reading.
I enjoy picking up her books and reading any paragraph. Her writing transports me to another era, another milieu, another world, and a world I could enjoy for a time and then come back to my precious world of the ordinary. Someday I wish to go to France and trace her steps through the cafes and coffee shops that were once her hangouts where she socialized with fellow philosophers, teachers and friends.
She is a woman who is on a journey of self-discovery while she reveals her most vulnerable self. I love that about her. She risked not fitting in…. She was on a life-long journey of soul searching and allowed her journey to be public through her volumes of memoirs. The first was Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter written in 1959, which begins with her birth up to when she moved in with her grandmother and entered the Sorbonne. Next came The Prime of Life written in 1963 (1929-1944) about meeting Sartre, and developing her philosophy and teaching. This is also the time when she and Sartre were separated by his mobilization and imprisonment during WWII; Force of Circumstance Volume I, After the War (1944-1952) -The development of her Marxist, Existentialist, and Feminist philosophy. From 1947-1951, she and Sartre had another long separation as Beauvoir traveled to the United States and had lengthy stays during her affair with Nelson Algren. In 1947 she met Richard Wright (Author of Native Son and Black Boy) who escorted her through Harlem on her first trip to New York. She wrote Volume II, Hard Times (1952-1962) while still seeing Algren and publishing her book The Second Sex.
Her final volume of her autobiography is All Said and Done –written in 1974 (1962- 1972). This volume chronicles her travels with Sartre. They traveled all over the world together and separately much of the time to support political issues. Their major travels were to Brazil and Cuba in 1960. In Cuba they met with Fidel Castro; then went to the Soviet Union in 1962, 1964, and 1966; Japan in 1966; Israel and Egypt in 1967. They also made several visits to Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. They traveled to Stockholm in 1966 to participate in the Russell Tribunal on the war in Vietnam. She and Sartre were opposed that war.
In between writing her personal autobiography in volumes, she wrote several other books that were autobiographical and reflective about her thoughts on aging and death. A Very Easy Death, Written 1966 is a day-by-day recounting of her mother’s death. She wrote two books on aging and how elderly are viewed in society-Old Age (1970), and The Coming of Age ( 1973).
Her last work was Adieux, Farewell to Sartre, a description of his death in the hospital, April 15, 1980.
Beauvoir remained very feminine during her life, even though she wanted to be equal to men. She liked to shop and enjoyed picking out her outfits and clothes.
She expected promptness. She was short, but considered quite attractive. Sartre was a tiny man and considered somewhat ugly.
She drank scotch, “measured exactly one ounce into a battered pewter jigger, then poured it with equal care into a large Mexican glass tumbler.” (Bair 1990) Although she would try to moderate, like Sartre, she became addicted to alcohol and amphetamines. One of her ailments at the end of her life was cirrhosis of the liver.
She believed in an optimistic view of life and that happiness is a choice in front of all of us, but when faced with the anti-semitism in Europe and seeing the persecution of Jews and others, she could no longer simply worry about her own happiness. She was gripped by humanistic guilt as she saw atrocities and injustice and as her students would come to her in tears helpless to understand what was going on around them.
“Her change in outlook was extreme and almost immediate; never again would her own personal happiness be her only concern. ‘ I renounced my individualistic, antihumanist way of life. I learned the value of solidarity.’ She wrote. “ In 1939 my existence was upset…. History took hold of me and never let go thereafter.” (Francis and Contier 1987)
She was a friend of Claude Lanzmann, a French writer and movie director famous for directing the documentary Shoah, about the Holocaust. Simone de Beauvoir contributes to introduction of this movie. Lanzmann was with Simone at her death.
Simone de Beauvoir said “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.”
She never wanted to have children, nor did Sartre. In 1973 she campaigned for the legalization of abortion. In an open letter she admitted that she and Sartre had undergone a procedure to interrupt a pregnancy. (Introducing Sartre pp 72). This is not consistent in all of the sources. Some said she did not have an abortion, but that she allowed abortions to take place in her apartment.
They each adopted friends to be heirs to their literary estates. Sartre adopted a young Algerian student, Arlette Elkaim in 1965 and Beauvoir adopted her friend and fellow traveler, Sylvie le Bon.
Sartre died April 15, 1980. When you watch video clips of the funeral, you see Simone in a wheelchair, very sad, at the gravesite. Some said she was lost after Sartre’s death, but those who knew her intimately could see that she kept herself busy even in her later years. After Sartre died she traveled with Sylvie le Bon, and it was after his death that Beauvoir published her memoirs.
One of the best biographies of Beauvoir is by Deirdre Bair. Another is by Toril Moy, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Toril May quotes Angela Carter “There is one question every thinking woman in the Western world must have asked herself at one time or another. Why is a nice girl like Simone de Beauvoir sucking up to a boring old fart like Jean Paul Sartre?”
Hazel Rowley, in a lecture on Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre states,
“When you read Beauvoir’s memoirs you find yourself wanting to live more courageously, to read more books, travel across the world, fall in love again, take stronger political stands, write more, work harder, play more intensely, and look more tenderly at the beauty of the natural world. If that’s not all about passion, what is? “(Rowley 2005)
I very much agree. When I read Simone I feel passionate about life, want to go to a café and write, keep up with my journals, and enjoy the journey. She loved life and considered it a great adventure.
Simone said this about herself “ I have never met anyone in the whole of my life who was so well equipped for happiness as I was, or who labored so stubbornly to achieve it.” And about her relationship to Sartre “He corresponded exactly to the dream companion I had longed for since I was fifteen: he was the double in whom I found all my burning aspirations raised to the pitch of incandescence. I should always be able to share everything with him.” (Francis and Contier 1987)
They had a marriage without a marriage. They had freedom to experience others while still being with each other, but as in traditional wedding vows they did share
“Until death do us part” and they stayed together until Sartre died. When she died, Beauvoir was buried beside him.
In March 1986, she became very ill and was hospitalized with cirrhosis of the liver, pulmonary edema, and pneumonia. Beauvoir died on April 14, 1986, one day short of the sixth anniversary of the death of her love, Sartre (Brand 2009)
Her Obituary was in the New York Times. They are buried together in Montparnasse, France, where visitors from all over the world pay their last respects today.
Bair, Deidre. Simone de Beauvoir A Biography. New York, New York: Touchstone Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Beauvoir, Simone De. A Very Easy Death. Translated by Patrick O’ Brian. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.
Beauvoir, Simone de. After the War :Force of Circumstance, I. Translated by Richard Howard/ New Introduction by Toril Moi. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
Beauvoir, Simone De. All Men are Mortal. Translated by Leanard M. Friedman. New York: Norton.
—. All Said and Done. Translated by Patrick O’BrianNew Introduction by Toril Moi. New York: Paragon House, 1993.
—. Hard Times: Force of Circumnstance ,II. Translated by Richard Howard/ New Introduction by Toril Moi. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
—. Letters to Sartre. Edited by Quniton Hoare. Translated by Quniton Hoare. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993.
Beauvoir, Simone de. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Translated by James Kirkup. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959.
Beauvoir, Simone De. Old Age. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Penguin Books, 1970.
—. The Coming of Age. Translated by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Warner Paperpack Library, 1973.
—. The Prime of Life. First Paragon Edition. Translated by Peter Green /Introduction by Toril Moi. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
—. The Second Sex. Edited by H.M.Parshley. Translated by H.M.Parshley. New York: Vantage Books, 1989.
Brand, Gerhard. Magil’s Survey of World Literature: Simone de Beauvoir. January 9, 2009. http://salempress.com (accessed May 20, 2011).
Fallaize, Elizabeth. The Novels of Simone de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Fox, Margalit. “Hazel Rowley, 59, Writer About Charismatic Lives.” New York Times. New York, New York: New York Times, March 19, 2011.
Francis, Claude, and Fernande Contier. Simone de Beauvoir A Life…A Love Story. Translated by Lisa Nesselson. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press , 1987.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1974.
New York Times. “Simone de Beauvoir, Author and Intellectual, Dies in Paris at 78.” New York Times . New York: New York Times, April 15, 1986.
Rowley, Hazel. Tete a Tete. New York.
—. Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. French Culture Series/Literature and Philosophy. Oct 20, 2005. http://forum-network.org/lecture/tete-tete-simone-de-beauvoir-and-jean-paul-sartre (accessed May 20, 2011).
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1966.
Schwarzer, Alice. After The Second Sex: Conversations with Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Marianne Howarth. Pantheon, 1984.
Thody, Philip, and Howard Read. Introducing Sartre. Edited by Richard Appignanesi. Duxford, Cambridge: Icon Books, 1998.