In her memoir, “Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me,” out Nov. 12, biographer Deirdre Bair recounts her experience writing the biographies of authors Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir — who’s perhaps best known for the seminal feminist work “The Second Sex” — was a writer, intellectual and activist. In this excerpt, Bair recounts one of the first sessions she had with Beauvoir at her apartment in Paris.
On her birthday, snow fell steadily, and it was bitterly cold. The weather system that was making my trip miserable had been battering the entire country—there were floods all over France, and the Seine was about to overflow onto the quays. Part of the extensive preparation I had done beforehand was to confide everything from thoughts to fears in the DD. This time I wrote: “I am very nervous and filled with anxiety. She is 74 today and I am not sure what I will find when I get there.” What I found was “an absolutely charming woman, warm and friendly, telling me if it would be easier to speak English with my terrible head cold and laryngitis, I should go ahead and she would reply in French.”
Beauvoir plunked herself down in her usual spot in the corner of one of the daybed-sofas while I stood there, still in my coat, uncertain of what I should do. I took off the coat and decided to sit in one of the three slipper chairs facing her while putting it on the one next to me, as she had not offered to take it or hang it up. In every subsequent meeting I would perform the same little routine of making myself comfortable. Her only concern was for the work ahead.
I noticed that on the coffee table between us she had already set up her own tape recorder next to three or four carefully arranged fountain pens and a small writing pad. I chattered away nervously as I dug into my bag for similar equipment, which I then placed opposite hers. I made a spontaneous gesture of pulling out the pile of notecards with questions I intended to ask, my “intellectual solitaire” cards, probably to show her that I, too, had the materials of “work.” Beckett had never seen the cards I made during the time we worked together, and he had no idea how I slaved before each meeting to memorize and mentally arrange the order in which I wanted to ask them. But Beauvoir was different, and her eyes actually lit up when she saw the first pile I presented. It proved to her that I took the forthcoming book seriously and that I had indeed spent the previous year doing research, reading intensively, coming up with various theories. This initial pile, a good two to three inches thick, contained only the easy questions I thought we might cover at the first meeting. I had several more such piles back in the apartment, ready and waiting for future sessions.
And so we began. I thought I would ease into my questioning by asking about her earliest childhood memories, but she went first because she wanted to thank me. “Women come from all over the world to write about me, but all they want to write about is The Second Sex.” Here she pounded one fist into the other open hand as she said, “I wrote so much else. I wrote philosophy, politics, fiction, autobiography ...” She seemed to be pausing to catch her breath after every genre, and then she said, “You are the only one who wants to write about everything. Everyone else only wants to write about feminism.” It threw me off-balance, but I did not have the luxury of reflecting on her generous appraisal until after I left, when I grasped the truth in it. During the 1970s and 1980s she had been slotted into the niche of feminist icon—all well and good, but she did not want to be there in perpetuity. Aware of her many different contributions to culture and society and extremely proud of them, she wanted posterity to acknowledge all her accomplishments.
After I thanked her for her comment, I launched into my first questions about her childhood. Her answers to the first one or two were perfunctory, and I could tell she had something else on her mind. She interrupted me as I began to ask another and said, “Look here, I understand you have made arrangements to talk to many people here in Paris. Who will you see?” I stopped the questioning and pulled out the date book with the list of all my appointments.
She seemed impressed, nodding her head repeatedly and making a little noise that sounded like clucking. I was to be in Paris for two solid months, until the end of February, and I had booked interviews and appointments for every day that I did not see her. She and I were to meet at least twice each week, reserving the possibility of a third or even a fourth session if need be.
I told her I would begin my interviews with the persons to whom she was closest, those she and Sartre had chosen to call their “family.” Among them were Jacques-Laurent Bost and his wife, Olga; her ex- lover and good friend Claude Lanzmann; her Sartrean friends Jean Pouillon and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis; her childhood friend Geraldine “GéGé” Pardo; and her friend who had just become her newly adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. Equally important was her sister, Hélène de Beauvoir de Roulet.
She was inordinately pleased that I had arranged interviews with Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras, for she was extremely proud of being ranked in their company. She had the same reaction when I told her I had talked to Mary McCarthy, for she was always eager to hear what American writers thought of her work. I showed her the list I had made of writers, publishers, professors, and feminist activists and asked her to contribute the names of anyone I might have omitted. She was quite excited about all those names but was thrilled most of all that I would meet Yvette Roudy, the minister for the rights of women, a cabinet position in the French government.
I also showed her the list of people I had interviewed during the previous year, mostly Americans but also French scholars and writers who had attended conferences in the United States or Canada. She liked it that the list contained the names of scholars whose specialty was Sartre, for she felt that many of them did not take her seriously: “They ignore me; they don’t want to admit how important Sartre and I were to each other.”
Once Beauvoir saw how intensely I had studied her life and work and how much preparation I had done to write about both, she relaxed and said that because we had done enough for one day, we should stop now and have a relaxing drink before I left. This first encounter set down a pattern that would repeat, with little variation, for the next five years. “Do you drink scotch?” she asked, and before I could answer she was up and shuffling toward her refrigerator, which was not hidden in her kitchen but in clear sight on the back wall of the living area. When she opened it, I could see that it was spotless, pristine, and empty save for a large bottle of Johnnie Walker Red—and sometimes in subsequent meetings a bottle of vodka as well. At one point there was also a plastic-covered arrangement of petits fours on a shelf, but it remained untouched and unmoved for the better part of a year. I thought perhaps it was not real food but an art object of some kind. Occasionally there would be a dried-out slice of something she had forgotten to eat or some fruit long past its prime, but most of the time all the refrigerator contained was the liquor. She told me she did not keep food because either Sylvie brought her dinner or she went out with friends. In her later years, when she did not go out to lunch routinely, Sylvie also brought her something for the next day.
While she was fussing to collect the bottle and glasses, I had the opportunity to look around the seating area. I saw the thick gold satin spreads on the daybed-sofas and the pillows that topped them in gemlike colors of amethyst, emerald, and sapphire, the same colors that graced each of the little chairs that faced them. The sofas were clear on that first occasion, but by the time she grew used to my visits, she did not bother to hide the clutter that accumulated where she usually sat and which gave the setting a slightly comical aspect. Beauvoir, like her mother before her, exhibited the practical behavior of a frugal bourgeois housewife: to protect the gold coverlet of the sofa where she liked best to curl up and read, she covered it with a flamboyant American Indian blanket. It was especially jarring in the midst of her one attempt at decorative elegance, since the blanket was where she kept her telephone and piled books, manuscripts, stacks of unanswered mail, wadded paper handkerchiefs, a comfortable old sweater, and the other detritus of a writer’s workplace.
It was dark outside when we finished the work session, and she had reached up from her perch on the sofa to turn on the floor lamp made for her by Diego Giacometti. It was next to the shelf where she had a collection of his brother Alberto’s tiny metal figures, and it threw enough light to make them cast magical shadows. She shuffled back to the coffee table, carrying the bottle, two glasses, and a battered pewter jigger. There was a large Mexican glass tumbler for her and a small plain glass for me. Into mine she carefully poured one jiggerful of scotch, putting it aside before filling her own glass to the brim. She told me that “Sylvie waters the scotch because she thinks I drink too much. She thinks I don’t notice, but I do.” It had not been diluted too much on that first visit, but in later years I had trouble swallowing what was little more than faintly colored water. Beauvoir, on the other hand, hastily downed several glasses to my one, as if that would be the only way she could get enough.
She was an old woman when I met her, and as she was comfortable in my presence, she was often dressed in the dowdy red robe she had worn on our very first meeting. There were times when I took someone to meet her, or when I was escorting her to an event or a dinner, and on those occasions she made an effort to impress. Her usual outfit then consisted of neat brown trousers, a beige shirt, a patterned sweater-vest, and of course the ubiquitous turban. When she was in the red robe, I tried not to dwell on how I described her in the DD, as “lumpy, grumpy, frumpy, and dumpy,” but instead to envision the beautiful, vital, and dynamic young woman she had been. That was the woman I wanted to write about and the one I wanted to describe most strongly, an accomplished woman in the fullness of her life.
The whiskey at the end of each session—usually running two hours, if not longer—became our ritual. Those post- interview conversations were never tape-recorded, nor did I take notes, for this was our social hour, when we were to enjoy random conversation as we decompressed after what were sometimes fractious and argumentative sessions. That did not stop me from taking extensive notes immediately after they ended, when I rushed down to my favorite café, the Dôme on the boulevard du Montparnasse, to sit at a little table overlooking the street where I could people-watch, drink a glass of white wine, and write or record my impressions.
Very often Beauvoir volunteered information in these post-interview conversations that surprised me, as she did on the first meeting. I had the feeling she was trying to woo me when she launched into a diatribe about how my book would differ from some of the recent ones about her. It was clear that she read everything, and unlike Samuel Beckett, who professed ignorance but revealed significant familiarity with those about him, Beauvoir did not hesitate to express her opinions. She liked Carol Ascher’s 1981 book but was disappointed because Ascher wrote “too much about herself and forgot to write about me.” Of Axel Madsen, “I thought I should sue him for all the lies he wrote, but Sylvie told me not to bother. It would give him too much attention.” Benny Lévy (also known as Pierre Victor), who wrote about Sartre in the last distressing years of his life, drew her most furious ire: “I hate him! I hate him!”
She often switched topics rapidly, sometimes more quickly than I could follow. After dissecting all the books about her, she asked what she should call me. Should I be “Madame Bair,” or could she call me—and here she tried to pronounce my first name, which came out sounding something like “Dared” but with an extremely long and highly emphasized r, that French glottal roll I could never manage. I told her she must call me whatever was easiest for her, and she decided on “Darrred,” (or so it sounded to me). I never asked what I should call her, for to me she was always “Madame” or “Madame de Beauvoir.”