Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘contingent’ lovers fight over letters

Long after existentialist philosopher’s death, simmering rivalry links protagonists

Simone de Beauvoir: “I loved Sartre, of course.”

Simone de Beauvoir: “I loved Sartre, of course.”

 

A collection of 112 love letters penned by the novelist, existentialist philosopher and original feminist Simone de Beauvoir has just been sold by the film maker Claude Lanzmann, who was one of Beauvoir’s lovers, to the Beinecke library of rare books and manuscripts at Yale University. Christie’s auctioneers oversaw the sale, for an undisclosed sum.

The letters have been lost to France because of what Lanzmann calls an absurd law that ascribes ownership to authors, not recipients, of letters, and the authors’ heirs.

Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, who was Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and partner, and remains her literary executor, blocked publication of the letters in France.

Le Bon’s decision was a manifestation of simmering rivalry among the aged survivors of the galaxy that surrounded Beauvoir and her partner, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir refused to allow Beauvoir’s letters to Claude Lanzmann to be published. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir refused to allow Beauvoir’s letters to Claude Lanzmann to be published. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

In 1929, Beauvoir and Sartre concluded a life-long pact to be true to their “essential” love for each other. Both promised total transparency about the “contingent” lovers who revolved around the most famous literary couple of 20th century France.

Often hurt

Beauvoir’s lovers were male and female; Sartre’s only female. She passed several of her female lovers on to Sartre. Those caught in their messy, semi-incestuous web were often hurt.

Le Bon’s refusal to allow Beauvoir’s letters to Lanzmann to be published was curious, since she had earlier published Beauvoir’s correspondance with Sartre and two other male lovers.

Lanzmann, now 92, and Le Bon, now 77, were both at Beauvoir’s bedside when she died in 1986. As Lanzmann told Le Monde, Beauvoir asked him to be Le Bon’s godfather when she adopted the young woman. Sartre had earlier asked Lanzmann to be godfather to his lover and adopted daughter, Arlette Elkaim.

Claude Lanzmann: “She wants, purely and simply, to eliminate me from the existence of Simone de Beauvoir.” Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images
Claude Lanzmann: “She wants, purely and simply, to eliminate me from the existence of Simone de Beauvoir.” Photograph: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Beauvoir had met Lanzmann, who was Sartre’s secretary and 17 years her junior, in the early 1950s. Sartre had affairs with Lanzmann’s sister Evelyne, and with Judith Magre, the actor who would become Lanzmann’s first wife.

Sartre was fully aware of Beauvoir’s passionate relationship with Lanzmann. The three occasionally went on holiday together. Lanzmann has boasted that Beauvoir’s letters to him are more extraordinary than those she sent to her US lover, Nelson Algren.

“I loved Sartre, of course,” Beauvoir wrote to Lanzmann in 1953. “But without true reciprocity, and without our bodies really counting . . . My darling child, you are my first absolute love, the love one never encounters, or only once. I never thought I would say this word which comes so naturally to me before you: I adore you . . . I am your woman, forever.”

Beauvoir lived with Lanzmann from 1952 until 1959. She met Le Bon, a philosophy student 33 years her junior, the following year. “You are my reincarnation,” Beauvoir told Le Bon.

Blocking publication

Le Bon has refused to comment on her reasons for blocking publication of Beauvoir’s letters to Lanzmann. He traces the bad blood between them to Le Bon’s publication of Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre in 1990. Beauvoir “would never have made them public herself, would never have allowed it to be done” because the letters criticised friends and relatives. “The very idea of hurting those close to her was unbearable to her,” said Lanzmann.

Lanzmann said he would never have considered publishing the letters, had Le Bon not tried to erase him from literary history.

Lanzmann has accused Le Bon of making sure he was not invited to the unveiling of a plaque marking the building in the rue Victor-Schoelcher where he lived with Beauvoir for eight years, or to the inauguration of a Paris bridge bearing Beauvoir’s name. “She wants, purely and simply, to eliminate me from the existence of Simone de Beauvoir,” he said.