The Torrid Affair Between Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir
” . . . a place of my own to live in, with a woman of my own and perhaps a child of my own. There’s nothing extraordinary about wanting such things. . . .”
So wrote Nelson Algren to Simone de Beauvoir when he feared that their love affair was, in her words, “doomed to come to an end, and soon.” Neither wanted it to die. Both had plunged madly and sexually in love on her first trip to America in 1947. Their tragedy was that they chose work, and their respective cities over love.
“I could not live just for happiness and love, I could not give up my writing . . . in the only place where my writing and work may have a meaning,” de Beauvoir pleaded in defense of Paris. “My job,” Algren shot back, “is to write about [Chicago] and I can only do it here.”
De Beauvoir and Algren ached for each other. Their love was a spectacular affirmation--at first--of two great hearts and minds struggling past language, personal and cultural incongruities. The “failure” of their relationship was in many ways a function of the competing claims of Paris or Chicago. Today, bicoastal affairs are no big deal. But in 1949 transatlantic flights were difficult and expensive. De Beauvoir tried to fill the physical void with these enchanting, generous and passionately relaxed letters.
” . . . writing to you is like kissing you. It is something physical,” de Beauvoir insisted. But Algren, with typical Chicago realism, knew “no arms are warm when they’re on the other side of the ocean.” Writers in love can be hell on each other.
Before meeting Algren, de Beauvoir was a fairly conventional cafe intellectual who slept around but was hooked on her teacher-companion-lover, Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone and Jean-Paul would rather talk than screw (as is often the custom in intellectual circles). They were fused at the hip by words, ideas and the shared misery of having survived, as sometime resistantes, in Nazi-occupied France. They freely practiced “ontological freedom.” Translated: Sartre kept de Beauvoir on a tight emotional leash to guarantee to himself the constant availability of her intellect, on which he was increasingly dependent. (“A man’s brain in a woman’s body,” Sartre liked to say about her--and the dolt thought it was praise.)
Over time, de Beauvoir became Sartre’s editor, often-unacknowledged co-writer (he was going blind) and bouncer-pimp, helping him to screen and then ruthlessly dispose of his bimbos. In Paris cafe culture, few eyebrows were raised. But such “sophistication” struck Algren, a neighborhood guy with a wonderful ear for other people’s bullshit, as pure malarkey if not downright weird. For him, love was not contingent or any other Sartrean evasion but rudely simple. You fell in love, made love, maybe married and had kids. Nuts to phenomenology.
Nelson Algren was a half-Swedish Jew who was extremely proud of his fists, his cock and his struggle against the odds at the poker table where, until the popular success of “The Man With the Golden Arm,” he made a better living as a dealer than as a writer. De Beauvoir was a provincial middle-class girl who, also against the odds, had made it in the oppressively male-dominated Left Bank intellectual empire over which Sartre reigned after the liberation of Paris.
Creatively, Simone and Nelson owed each other a tremendous, untraceable debt. He opened her up to an emotional freedom she had never before experienced. His thumbprints are all over de Beauvoir’s now-classic “The Second Sex,” a densely argued theoretical analysis of victimhood, “the female wound,” which became an international best-seller. On Algren’s work, de Beauvoir’s impact is less evident--until we recall that the main female character in “The Man With the Golden Arm” (which won a Pulitzer), might easily have jumped off the pages of “The Second Sex.”
Until meeting Algren, de Beauvoir’s experience was mainly secondhand, “egghead,” bookish. By contrast, Algren was born with his face in the gutter. He lived with, and among, junkies, small-time whores, grifters and the walking dead of Division Street. He wrote from his tortured heart--and from direct observation of the garbage-strewn streets he lived on. He had served jail time. Like Chekhov, he was a poet of losers.
A prickly loner, Algren has been too easily slotted as “provincial,” “regional” or merely dismissed as de Beauvoir’s stud. “This boor, this alien being,” Sylvie Le Bon, de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter and editor of this volume, calls Algren in her introduction.
Some boor. Nelson Algren was an American original, a darkly funny writer whom Hemingway rated as second only to himself. Street-smart but also deceptively versed in Russian and French classics he had the bad luck--and good fortune--to be a “Chicago writer.” Chicago is murder on its writers. The “city on the make” rarely forgives home-bred satirists who take a scalpel to it. Algren’s greatest stories, like “How the Devil Came to Division Street” and “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” burn with his cool anger that--in Brecht’s phrase--having no money is the greatest crime on Earth. That’s why he loved criminals.
Algren also loved Paris and France, where he’d been a GI in World War II. While the Chicago Public Library had refused to stock his books on grounds of “obscenity,” the French opened their arms to this tall, rangy, moviestar-handsome man with a gift of dry self-mockery. In France, Algren became a much-read author, often via translations generously sponsored by de Beauvoir and Sartre. But unlike his close friend, the black Chicago writer and Paris expatriate Richard Wright, Algren could not permanently tear himself away from the seductive grimness of Chicago. Not even for Simone. The irony is that the city he clung to was moving away from him.
Algren’s moral base was his local Polish and Italian neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. But the white “ethnics” were shifting to the suburbs, which Algren loathed. Latinos moved in--a cosmic shift for a writer unable, or unwilling, to master Spanish (his French was lousy too). Chicago gradually became alien to its master poet. Deprived of his human raw material, Algren exiled himself to spooky rooms in New Jersey, to tramp steamers (one trip provoked his superb “Who Lost an American?”), to near-bankruptcy and a confidence-eroding loneliness.
Meanwhile, de Beauvoir’s star rose and rose. She published more books and became richer. She and Sartre became the Gracie Allen and George Burns of international left-wingism, inseparable, almost interchangeable, never silent. Paris cafe culture, absurd as it is, supported and validated de Beauvoir; Chicago virtually blacklisted Algren.
He became a homeless American maverick who could not sell out even if he wanted to. (“Because,” he joked, “nobody wants to buy me.”) He marched for the Rosenbergs and thereby lost a Guggenheim and his U.S. passport. He refused to compromise or rat on his beliefs or his friends. His mocking contempt for the New York critical establishment, nimbly turning their coats from left to right, cost him dearly. Literary taste makers turned venomously on Algren and the social-realist tradition. (One of his responses was to show up at fashionable cocktail parties dressed like the archetypal rube, Mortimer Snerd.)
Cold War critics virtually “disappeared” Algren off the literary map. They took a terrible revenge on him for celebrating the “wrong” people--the helplessly self-destructive (so like himself, in some ways) and freaks ill-equipped for the new postwar affluence.
As her letters show, the Cold War was a major fact in de Beauvoir and Algren’s relationship, cementing it at first, then helping to kill it. Both were independent leftists friendlier to the Communists than was prudent. The U.S. State Department, terrified of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s snoops, tried to keep Algren in, and de Beauvoir out of, the country. The long separations gradually revealed a serious political fracture between them.
De Beauvoir’s dread of a Third World War scenario, in which the Soviet army invaded France, was widely shared as a personal reality by Europeans who had experienced the Nazi terror. Americans, even left-wingers like Algren, were more insulated. He dismissed de Beauvoir’s fantasy of fleeing to Brazil as “hysterical.” Why not, he blithely suggested, come to America (and be with me)?
Her reply goes to the core of their predicament. "[W]e have to write, but we have to be trusted by people we write for, and it would be a betrayal to go [emphasis added] to the States. Going means approval. . . . To choose U.S. would be . . . against all we write and said.” De Beauvoir’s loyalty, Sartre aside, was to her widening constituency of French readers. Whereas Algren’s connection was to the “guys on the block"--the anonymous, out-of-luck stumblebums he wrote about but who, he knew, never would read him. That’s how it is in Chicago.
De Beauvoir’s letters to Algren stop in 1964, long after they both realized that even the most willing hearts could not heal the wound of distance. It didn’t help when her novel “The Mandarins” sketched Algren (aka “Lewis Brogan”) as sulky and withdrawn--a boor. It was a violent blow to his heart and to his private code. He almost never wrote about his personal friends or the literati; she hardly ever wrote about anything but. He should have seen it coming. But what lover does?
Nelson Algren was the last of a certain kind of man. Simone de Beauvoir was the first of a certain kind of woman. Despite everything, they stayed in love--in my opinion--for the rest of their lives. In 1981, Algren was killed by a fatal heart attack only minutes after exploding with anger at a reporter for asking him personal questions about de Beauvoir. When she died in 1986, she was buried in Montmartre cemetery alongside Sartre--but wearing Nelson Algren’s ring.
Algren doesn’t get much of a look in de Beauvoir’s letters as edited by Le Bon. (His unpublished letters to de Beauvoir appear to be in legal limbo.) The result is a wonderful, one-sided book, an outpouring of a woman’s love that reveals a lighter, funnier and more physically sensuous de Beauvoir than we are used to. She lives more fully in these pages than in anything else of hers I’ve read. Algren, who let de Beauvoir experience her first orgasm at 39, had a lover’s heart.