When Nelson Algren Met Simone de Beauvoir . . .



An account from Carole Seymour-Jones's new biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, A Dangerous Liaison (Overlook, due September 10), about Algren and de Beauvoir's first meeting in Chicago:

"[Mary] Guggenheim sent Algren a note warning him that the French novelist was on her way. The acclaimed author of Never Come Morning was not impressed by Mary's account of the existentialist craze sweeping France, or her stories of la grande Sartreuse. 'That Simone de Boudoir sounds real chi-chi and I'm sure J-P Sartre, whoever he may be, is real lucky,' he replied sarcastically.

"'I bet she says, J-P honey, bite my little titties. And J-P, the hog, chews her tits clean off.' . . .When, however, Beauvoir arrived in Chicago on 21 February with thirty-six hours to spare, she nearly failed to make contact. . . . Beauvoir eats a 'melancholy supper' alone in a drugstore. But, remembering how New York only opened up for her when she found the right guides, she tries Algren again. . . .

"Clutching a book to identify herself, Beauvoir awaits her date. . . . Sitting next to him in the bar, Beauvoir finds that 'I lose half his sentences.' He also is barely able to penetrate her pronounced French accent, or understand her broken English, as she enthuses over the 'thrillings' (thrillers) she has seen at the movies. But language is unimportant. He finds her attractive. . . . The description she has been given of him, unstable, moody, neurotic, inclines her in his favour. . . .

"On West Madison Avenue, Chicago's Bowery, Nelson and Simone . . . walk into a bar. Chicago's flotsam and jetsam inhabit it; cripples and prostitutes dance. Madness and ecstasy. 'It is beautiful,' says Beauvoir. That remark pleases Algren, because it seems typically French. 'With us,' he says, 'beautiful and ugly, grotesque and tragic, and also good and evil—each has its place. Americans don't like to think that these extremes can mingle.' Satisfied that this place fascinates her, he says, 'I'm going to show you something even better."

By "something even better" Algren meant his apartment on Wabansia.

Add a comment