Back in 1993, Bianca Bienenfeld, the daughter of Polish Jewish refugees, who'd been passed back and forth between the two writers beginning in the late 1930s, published her memoirs, titling the book A Disgraceful Affair.
You didn't think things could get any worse but, as it turns out, Bienenfeld's was just one of a number of ménages that the famous couple initiated. A new book by Hazel Rowley, Tète à Tète, gives a far more detailed picture of how this dynamic duo comported themselves in and out of bed – their own and others.
I've purchased the book, though I haven't read it yet, almost purely on the strength of Louis Menand's review in the Sept. 26 New Yorker. Like most Menand pieces, it goes beyond the dimensions of what we call a review and is more an essay – and a finely detailed one at that. In the end, though, he seems to pardon Sartre and de Beauvoir because of who they were and what they accomplished.
I'm far more unforgiving, believing that intellectuals – who school us, as these two did, on what is right and wrong – should be held to a higher standard. Both failed deplorably.
Menand begins with the simple, fairly benign statement, "Jean-Paul Sartre preferred the company of women," which by the end of the review seems downright evil.
Sartre and Beauvoir "were famous as a couple with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables, and were free to enjoy other relationships, but who maintained a kind of soul marriage. Their liaison was part of the mystique of existentialism."
But the truth was far more complex. Sartre eventually stopped sleeping with Beauvoir, had countless other affairs, mostly with much younger women, and Beauvoir went on to have her own extended relationships with the American novelist Nelson Algren and the director of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann.
The whole picture did not become clear until after their deaths. In 1990, Beauvoir's executrix published her Letters to Sartre and, as Menand says, they were not edited in any way and thus shocked many people.
"The revelation was not the promiscuity; it was the hypocrisy. In interviews, Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in the letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The most appalling discovery, for many readers, was what 'telling each other everything' really meant. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection."
Beauvoir would actually often begin affairs with women and then pass them on to Sartre, as in the case of poor Bianca Bienenfeld.
Ah, the life of the mind!