The enduring riddle of Simone de Beauvoir’s life centers on a man and a book. The book is The Second Sex, first published in 1949; impassioned, encyclopedic, and influential, it remains an intellectual cornerstone of postwar feminism. The man is Jean-Paul Sartre, writer, militant, high priest of existentialism, and Simone de Beauvoir’s partner in one of the most storied love affairs of the 20th century.

The riddle is this: How could the prophet of women’s liberation have so thoroughly fooled herself about the nature of her lifelong relationship with Sartre? For, as Deirdre Bair confirms in this biography, subordination to Sartre was, on one level, what their relationship was all about.

Beauvoir herself vehemently disagreed with this assessment. In her view, which she stubbornly defended until her death in 1986, she and Sartre had pioneered a new and unconventional kind of union; theirs was an authentic collaboration, based on a mutual commitment to openness, honesty, and equality. ”What we have,” Sartre famously declared to her in 1929, shortly after their romance had begun, ”is an essential love” — immediately adding the proviso that would sometimes cause Beauvoir grief in the years to come: ”It is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs.”

As Bair shows in exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail, experience such affairs Sartre did. ”Despite the fact that (he) was undersized, wall-eyed, and shabbily dressed,” marveled one insider, ”he had no more difficulty finding women to sleep with than Cary Grant.” Beauvoir’s role in many of these affairs was curious. ”He was very sensitive,” she explained to Bair at one point. ”He wanted everyone to love him always” — and Beauvoir could not stand to see him wounded. So if Sartre wished to sleep with one of her students, she took it upon herself to help him do so. As one witness to these unusual practices bluntly summarized them, ”She pimped for him.”

At the same time, she devoted herself unconditionally to his philosophy, defending him in print against his critics, reading and commenting on every word he wrote, sometimes ghostwriting essays and speeches for him. ”His work was more important than mine,” Beauvoir told Bair. ”I was intelligent certainly, but Sartre was a genius.”

Seeking an explanation for Beauvoir’s behavior, Bair focuses on her haute bourgeois family background. Born in 1908, she was raised by a strict mother who was ”virtue incarnate.” Drilled in proper etiquette, she retained surprising traces of prudishness long after she had become a renowned feminist. Although at the time of her graduation from the Sorbonne in 1929 Beauvoir was regarded as perhaps the most brilliant female philosophy student in the history of French education, Bair implies that she never entirely overcame a sense of inferiority that was the natural product of her own conventional upbringing.

As far as it goes, this account is persuasive. But Bair devotes too little attention to the intellectual and political context of Beauvoir’s continuing commitment to Sartre. Because she did not have complete access to Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, just published in France, Bair misses the extent as well as the intensity of Beauvoir’s own sexual exploits; just like Sartre, she experienced many a contingent love affair. Worst of all, Bair has no handle on philosophy. This means that the central ingredient in Beauvoir and Sartre’s half-century-long romance is missing.

In the first volume of her memoirs, published 30 years after they had met, Beauvoir recalled Sartre’s appeal: ”He was interested in everything and never took anything for granted. Confronted with an object, he would look it straight in the face instead of trying to explain it away with a myth, a word, an impression, or a preconceived idea: he wouldn’t let it go until he had grasped all of its ins and outs and all of its multiple significations.”

This is a fair summary of much of what is most admirable about Sartre’s way of thinking. It is also, not coincidentally, a perfect evocation of the philosophical spirit that animates The Second Sex. In this respect, Bair’s relentless emphasis on Sartre’s philandering misses the point. It was a mind that Simone de Beauvoir never ceased to love.

That their intellectual partnership proved mutually productive seems obvious. That many other aspects of their relationship were cruel, heartless, and hypocritical this biography demonstrates. And Beauvoir’s own verdict? ”Well I just don’t give a damn,” she angrily told Bair at one point. ”It’s my life, and I lived it the way I wanted. I’m sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say that it’s too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life. It’s very messy in the real world.” After finishing this flawed but often moving biography, no reader is likely to disagree. B+

Simon De Beauvoir
  • Book