Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir biographer, dies at 84

Writer scored coup by persuading the reclusive Irish writer to let her chronicle his life

Biographies: Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. Photographs: Francis Apesteguy/Getty and Jehle/Uullstein Bild via Getty

Biographies: Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett. Photographs: Francis Apesteguy/Getty and Jehle/Uullstein Bild via Getty

 

Deirdre Bair, who as an unknown writer half a century ago scored a coup by getting the reclusive Samuel Beckett to agree to let her write his biography, then secured the same permission from another towering literary figure, Simone de Beauvoir, has died at the age of 84.

Her daughter, Katney Bair, said the cause was heart failure. The American writer, who died on Friday, called herself “an accidental biographer, one who had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it”.

She came to that decision somewhat serendipitously. Having received a fellowship to do graduate study at Columbia University, in New York, she needed a research subject. After making too-slow progress on a medieval-studies topic, she decided to turn to a 20th-century author instead. She wrote the names of some possibilities on index cards.

Beckett replied to Bair’s letter and, to her shock, said, ‘Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal,’ adding that ‘if you come to Paris I will see you’

“Without thinking about which name might present the best opportunity for original research,” she said years later, “or even which I liked the most, I shuffled them into alphabetical order. There were no As, and Beckett came first, before Joseph Conrad and EM Forster. Beckett it shall be, I said to myself, and that was how my life in biography began.”

She dove into a study of his novels (Molloy, Malone Dies) and plays (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days), and, she said, “reading Beckett’s work made me want answers to a lot of questions, all of which were based on the life from which the work sprang.” Eventually she decided to attempt a biography and, from her home in Connecticut, wrote to Beckett in Paris in July 1971.

“The mail between New Haven and Paris was probably never again as swift as it was during that exchange,” she said. “A week to the day after I mailed my letter, I received his reply.” To her shock, Beckett said, “Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal,” adding that “if you come to Paris I will see you.”

Years of interviews and other research followed before Samuel Beckett: A Biography appeared, in 1978. The paperback release won a US National Book Award in 1981.

Biographer: Deirdre Bair in 2005. Photograph: Thomas McDonald/New York Times
Biographer: Deirdre Bair in 2005. Photograph: Thomas McDonald/New York Times

Bair’s biography of Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex, among other books) was also years in the making and written with its subject’s co-operation. It was published in 1990. “To Ms Bair’s credit,” Herbert Mitgang wrote in a review in the New York Times, “her book isn’t just a love letter but a fair-minded and often skeptical appraisal of Beauvoir’s life. At the end, I found myself respecting but not always liking Beauvoir and her circle because of the heavy cloak of arrogance they wove around themselves.”

Bair later wrote biographies of the writer Anaïs Nin (1995), the psychiatrist Carl Jung (2003), the illustrator Saul Steinberg (2012) and the gangster Al Capone (2016), but her first two books remained her calling cards. People asked her about Beckett and Beauvoir so often that she wrote a book about her experiences as their biographer: Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me, published last year.

Bair said that Beauvoir could be mercurial, especially if the biographer’s questions ventured into areas she didn’t want scrutinised. Once, when they had been working together for three years, Beauvoir abruptly stopped the interview and told her to leave.

Simone de Beauvoir literally shoved me out the door of her apartment. And then I thought, Well, now what do I do? I’ve invested three years in this book

“She literally shoved me out the door of her apartment,” Bair said. “And then I thought, Well, now what do I do? I’ve invested three years in this book. Well, I simply went back for the next appointment that we had scheduled as if nothing had happened, and she treated me exactly as if nothing had happened. And that’s how we worked.”

Bair said in 1995 that the only response to her biography she received from Beckett, who died in 1989, was a brief note: “Dear Mrs Bair: Seems a very handsome looking book.”

Beauvoir died in 1986, before that biography was published. In the book, Bair recalled what turned out to be her final meeting with Beauvoir. Their other sessions had always ended with a handshake. “This time,” she wrote, “tiny woman that she was, she reached up out and half embraced me, tall woman that I am, by placing her hands around my upper arms and giving me a brisk shake.” – New York Times