Tete-a-TeteSimone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Hazel Rowley
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060520590
Jean-Paul Sartre had been interested in her for months. At twenty-one, she was the youngest of the Sorbonne students preparing that year for the agrégation in philosophy, the competitive national teacher's examination. She had given a talk in class on Leibniz, and Sartre was struck by her beauty and brilliance, her husky voice, and her rapidfire speech.
His friend René Maheu had been courting her since the spring. Maheu was married, but he and Simone de Beauvoir seemed very taken with each other. They both went to the Bibliothèque Nationale, the National Library, to prepare for their exams, sat beside each other to work, and often had lunch together. Sartre had been hoping for an introduction, but Maheu guarded her fiercely. One afternoon, the two men had been strolling together in the Luxembourg Gardens when they saw Mademoiselle de Beauvoir across the pond. She was by herself, and it was obvious she had seen them, but Maheu chose to ignore her rather than present her to Sartre.
Early in May, she disappeared. A week or so later, Sartre and Maheu were sitting on a windowsill outside the lecture theater in one of the long, labyrinthine corridors of the Sorbonne when she appeared, wearing a black dress and little black hat swathed in crepe. Maheu went up to her, grasped her hand warmly, and asked why she was in mourning, but he did not introduce her to his friend.
Then Sartre took the initiative. During dull lectures, he and his friends entertained themselves by drawing humorous sketches in which they none too delicately expressed what they thought of certain philosophers and their philosophies. He picked out a particularly irreverent one, wrote on it, "To Mademoiselle Simone de Beauvoir, in memory of an explication of Leibniz," and asked Maheu to give it to her, which he did.
Sartre then made a suggestion to his two friends René Maheu and Paul Nizan. They were planning to prepare for the oral exams together. Simone de Beauvoir knew her Leibniz well and was clearly very bright; suppose they asked her to join them?
By mid-June, the written exams were over and there was only a month before the orals. Maheu was off to join his wife in Normandy for ten days. Sartre told him he would like to make the acquaintance of Mademoiselle de Beauvoir before they started working together as a group. He suggested a tearoom on the Rue de Médicis, across from the Luxembourg Gardens, five minutes from the Sorbonne. Maheu passed on the message but told Beauvoir he was afraid Sartre would take advantage of his absence to make off with her himself. "I don't want anyone to get in the way of my most precious feelings," Maheu said. He had talked about Sartre in glowing terms, but as far as women were concerned, he did not trust him an inch.
On the designated afternoon, Sartre waited in the tearoom, reading and smoking his pipe. He was taken aback when a fair-haired young woman walked up to him, introduced herself as Hélène de Beauvoir, and explained that her sister was unable to come. "How did you know I was Sartre?" he asked. Poupette, as everyone called her, looked sheepish. "Because . . . you are wearing glasses." Sartre pointed out that the man sitting in the other corner was also wearing glasses.
Sartre thought he knew why Simone de Beauvoir had not turned up, and he could guess how she had described him to her younger sister. He was right. Beauvoir had told Poupette that she would have no trouble recognizing Sartre. He was extremely short, he wore glasses, and he was "very ugly."1
Sartre was gallant, and took Poupette to see the new American film A Girl in Every Port. The conversation flagged. When she got home, Poupette told her sister that Jean-Paul Sartre was nothing like the lively dynamo Maheu had cracked him up to be.
This was not an auspicious beginning. Sartre could not stand being rejected by women. Throughout his life, he would never forgive his mother for betraying him, as he saw it, by marrying again, when he was eleven. Then there was that traumatic episode in La Rochelle, when he was twelve.
His father, Jean-Baptiste Sartre, had died when Jean-Paul was fifteen months old. Twenty-four-year-old Anne-Marie bundled up her little "Poulou" and went to live with her parents in Paris.2 She belonged to the dynasty of Schweitzers, a Protestant family from Alsace (the famous Albert Schweitzer was her cousin), and like all the Schweitzers, Anne-Marie was tall and slim. Physically, Poulou would take after his diminutive father. And when he was two, he went almost blind in his right eye.
Poulou was the little prince in his grandparents' house, doted on and idolized by his mother, grandmother, and grandfather. In that patriarchal householddominated by the lanky, bearded, and imperious Charles SchweitzerAnne-Marie felt to Poulou like an older sister. She was financially dependent on her parents, and they condescended to her. There were three bedrooms in the house: the grandfather's, the grandmother's, and the one they called "the children's," which Anne-Marie shared with her son.
Anne-Marie gave Poulou her undivided attention. They told each other their troubles. She read to him. She played the piano for him. On rainy Sundays they would earnestly debate whether to go to the circus, a museum, or a movie. Charles Schweitzer would appear at the door of his book-lined study. "Where are you children off to?" he would ask. It was usually the movies.
"All I wanted to see was Anne-Marie, the young girl of my mornings," Sartre would write in his autobiography, Words. "All I wanted to hear was her voice."