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Tête-a-Tête: Sartre and de Beauvoir – Beds and Reds

Tête-a-Tête

Review by Gerald Levy

JEAN-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met in Paris as philosophy students in 1929. They were together for 50 years. Together, but not alone, as the late princess would have put it, for there were scores, perhaps hundreds, of other people in their relationship.

Passing out top of the list at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, they became, first, school teachers, and, later, the most renowned left-wing intellectuals in France, regarded by their followers as pre-eminent moral philosophers. Tête-a-Tête, readable, informed, and lucid, exposes the gaps and, often, the wide deep crevices, between what they preached and what they practised.

At the heart of Sartre’s philosophy was thought to be his profound belief in human freedom. In his life, he reduced women to servility. He preached truth and systematically practised deception.

He preached human rights, but openly supported Stalin. He also taught that love is a conflict to be resolved by the domination of one party over the other; this book shows that in Sartre’s own life there was never any doubt as to who the dominant party would be.

Just after Hitler came to power in 1933, Sartre went to spend a year in Berlin. Come the war, he enlisted as a uniformed member of the French army, as a meteorologist, and was captured by the Germans. They gave him a copy of Being and Time, by the Nazi party member, Martin Heidegger. Sartre began writing Being and Nothingness.

In March 1941, he was released, according to him because he tricked his captors into believing he was a civilian, and unfit for service. On arrival in Paris, he formed a resistance group which distributed tracts while maintaining no security, and enjoying a charmed life. The communist resistance wanted nothing to do with him, believing that he had been set free in order to spy on them.

In 1943, he published Being and Nothingness. Adopting Heidegger’s approach, often impenetrable to Anglo-Saxon eyes, it made Sartre’s reputation, and became the central existentialist tract.

De Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949. Well-written, intelligent, perceptive, it remains a landmark in the struggle for women’s rights.

When she wrote it, Sartre was her principal lover. He had rejected her sexually when she was about 33, but they worked side by side throughout his life. He said that she was the one person who knew him and what he was trying to achieve.

Sartre and de Beauvoir shared a common interest in young women, and they went to bed, separately, with shoals of them. A few lasted for many years, some lasted no more than a night. Unscrupulous and predatory, the two of them were sexual sharks, working together, in some cases sharing, and sometimes supporting, the girls they had seduced.

‘Something of a sadist’

An example: in 1938 the 30-year-old de Beauvoir, while conducting an affaire with a young student at the Sorbonne, Jacques-Laurent Bost, began a parallel one with her best student at the Lycée Molière, the 16-year-old Bianca Bienenfeld. A few months later, Sartre courted Bianca, and took her, still a virgin, to a hotel. As they entered the bedroom he told her that the chambermaid would be in for a surprise, for he had taken another girl’s virginity the day before. Sartre emerges from this book as something of a sadist.

He was a short, fat, ugly man with terrible eyes. He smoked three packs a day, and from middle age took vast quantities of amphetamines, accompanied by much coffee and some alcohol, and followed by sleeping pills. He was generous, and carried substantial wads of notes about him. (It is not entirely clear where he got them from.)

He seduced with words – and by means of his towering reputation. Like Don Giovanni, he was emotionally cold, but with an insatiable appetite for conquest. And like a Turkish sultan, he maintained a harem, and alternated imperiously between the beds of his subjugated women.

He would visit them in their various apartments, on set days, for an hour or two at a time, according to a strict timetable. De Beauvoir maintained a similar routine, allocating her girls perhaps an hour and a half, perhaps two hours, a week. One of them accused her of being ‘nothing but a clock in a refrigerator’.

Tête-a-Tête is sub-titled, ‘The Life and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’, but it concentrates heavily on the love bits.

Occasionally it is written in the romantic style of George Sand, more often it is a straightforward and uncritical account of a myriad of sexual and emotional relationships. But information relating to the non-erotic is perhaps a little too sketchy. For example, it would have been nice to have been told when, and where, Sartre was born. June 21, 1905, in Paris, actually.