The Spiritual Sisters of Simone de Beauvoir
On Édith Thomas, Dominique Aury, and the Women of Postwar France
“Was it the weight of war on my too young shoulders?” Claude Lanzmann asked in his memoirs. “Was it the precarious equilibrium of those years between life and death? This new freedom of mine meant that I needed to prove my own existence with sometimes gratuitous acts.” The experience of war and the feeling of having cheated death for four years were key to postwar Paris intellectuals’ and artists’ unquenchable thirst for freedom in every aspect of their lives. Whether born into the working class or the bourgeoisie, they wanted little to do with their caste’s traditions and conventions or with propriety. Family was an institution to be banished, children a plague to avoid at all costs.
However, these were the hardest notions to do away with, and while Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir managed to stick to their initial plan of “no marriage, no children,” or simply “no children” for Arthur Koestler, for the sake of art and life experimentation, others, usually men, decided to carry on the hypocrisy of their elders by marrying and then enjoying a secret and very free other life on the side. It did not make them particularly happy, though, and men like Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty who chose trompe l’oeil existences crushed many lives around them.
Strong and remarkable women were also hungry for freedom in all its forms. Simone de Beauvoir and Janet Flanner, Édith Thomas, and Dominique Aury, were among the many women who called men’s bluff and decided that they, too, would live according to their desires and ambitions without any restraints. Financially independent, intelligent, bold, curious about life’s pleasures and sensations, not afraid of the danger of repeated illegal abortions, those feminist pioneers offered a model of emancipation for many generations to come. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, or bisexuals, on the subject of sex they had “a Greek amoral point of view.” Juliette Gréco, Françoise Sagan, and Brigitte Bardot were all the little sisters of Simone de Beauvoir.
It was la rentrée in Paris, the period in early September when Parisians come back rested and suntanned from their provincial family homes, children count their pencils and wipe the dust from their satchels, and reviewers sharpen their wits for the new season of novels, films, and plays. La rentrée was always a time for new projects, and Simone had one. Just before their summer holidays, Sartre had suggested to her a possible topic for an essay: women’s condition—in other words, what it meant to be a woman. Simone liked the idea and would draw on her experiences. She was no longer a debutante; at 38, she could take more risks in both subject and form.
At first, she thought the task would be easy and that this study would be almost like an exercise in style; she envisaged a very short essay. Simone had been brought up by her father, who had hoped for a boy. Seeing her intellectual and academic abilities, he had pushed her, so her experience was different from that of many other women. “I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me, ‘You think that way because you are a woman’; the fact that I was a woman, my femaleness, had never bothered me in any way. ‘In my case,’ I said to Sartre, ‘it hasn’t really mattered.’” Sartre urged her to reconsider: “But still, you weren’t brought up in the same way as a boy: you should take a closer look.” She did. Every morning she went to the National Library on the rue de Richelieu.
There, on the beautiful but hard wooden benches of the oval room, bathed in the warm September sun filtering through the glass skylight, Simone had an epiphany. “It was a revelation. This world was a masculine world, my childhood was nourished by myths concocted by men, and I hadn’t reacted to them in the same way I would have done if I had been a boy. I became so interested that I gave up the project of a personal confes ion in order to focus on the condition of woman.” This was not going to be a short and quick essay. She had started researching The Second Sex, a book that would shake the world.
Simone had so far lived her life as she pleased by breaking social conventions, so researching this subject was also a journey of self-discovery. She would understand in the process why she fascinated younger women. Her life was a model of emancipation, one that the younger generation aspired to and one that she was going to analyze in great detail, not shying away from sexually explicit content.
At exactly the same moment, Édith Thomas was working on historical biographies of remarkable women through the ages. Her two latest novels, which had finally been published at the end of 1945, had encouraged her to pursue this direction.
Having published seven novels since the age of 22 without ever enjoying real success, she thought changing literary genres, from fiction to nonfiction, might prove liberating. After all, she had just been appointed chief curator at the Archives Nationales with access to a vast wealth of historical documents and material.
She interested two publishers, one in a portrait of Joan of Arc, another in a collection of profiles of feminist pioneers from the Second Republic of 1848.
Dominique was now working as a feature writer and critic for L’Arche, a literary magazine. She wanted to help Édith in every way she could. She saw in Édith a champion of women’s rights or, as it was called then, la condition féminine. “All the heroines in Édith Thomas’s novels refuse, at their own peril, the ordinary condition of women. They refuse to live for and through somebody else. They want to be autonomous.” Bolstered by Dominique’s support, Édith embarked on those new editorial projects, while finishing a collection of short stories she would call Ève et les autres. There was an over all theme in these short stories: women reclaimed their independence from their husbands and from God, and asserted their ambition to be free and to fulfill all their desires in life.
Thomas was an excitable and feverish writer and often got carried away by ideology. Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliance lay, on the contrary, in a rigorous intellectual approach combined with a cool and superbly concise style. And while posterity chose to remember only one of them, it is striking that both women, of similar age, were coming to grips with the same existential dilemmas at the same time just a few streets away from each other: how to be free and a woman, how to be independent and autonomous in a man’s world.
Many women around Simone had not mustered the courage to break free. This was the overwhelming norm in the middle class. Simone only had to look at the 30-year-old English rose Mamaine Paget, Arthur Koestler’s partner and wife-to-be. Orphaned at a young age, along with her twin sister Celia, she had been educated at exclusive English and French boarding schools paid for by relatively well-off cousins. Intelligent, polyglot, cultured, pretty, and feminine, the sisters had turned heads in their late teens at the chic opera soirées of Glyndebourne, in the south of England. However, all they could apparently aspire to was to become socialites or “wives of.” The alternative, to break away from their milieu, would have required an incredible determination, a steely character, and even a certain degree of madness. Mamaine did not have this in her. She was soft in a good way, sensitive, caring, a little mischievous certainly, but not rebellious. Mamaine was everything Simone de Beauvoir and Édith Thomas had refused to be and had fought hard not to be. Mamaine, like Francine Camus, was going to be a wife whose talents would lie in fostering her husband’s career without ever getting the credit for it. This imbalance, this injustice, and the hypocrisy surrounding it would both poison their marital and family lives and ruin their health.
“It is striking that both women, of similar age, were coming to grips with the same existential dilemmas at the same time just a few streets away from each other: how to be free and a woman.”
Mamaine had been the secret behind her husband’s success since she met him at a party given by Cyril Connolly in his London flat in Bedford Square in January 1944. This became especially true once he decided to write and publish in English. Mamaine was Koestler’s translator, editor, and copy editor, and the one he constantly bullied and occasionally made love to, though not exclusively. It was the second time he had switched languages. As a student he had gone from Hungarian to German, and he had now decided to leave German aside. He also had a history of relying heavily on the women in his life to translate, research, type, and edit his work. His current success, Darkness at Noon, had been written in German on the eve of the war and translated into English by his then British girlfriend, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, who had passed the manuscript on to Macmillan in London.
There were some advantages for the women who ran Koestler’s work and life. Through Koestler, Mamaine lived a scintillating life and met the greatest intellectuals and writers of her time, who often fell for her, and very occasionally she for them. On February 15, 1946, she wrote a postcard to her sister Celia from the dining car of a train leaving Lausanne in Switzerland: “Dear Twinny, yesterday I lunched with [Tristan] Tzara, who asked me to go to Vienna with him as a guest of the [Russian] government; he’s a Stalinist of the deepest dye.”
The couple also regularly entertained renowned guests: the recently widowed George Orwell had come to spend Christmas with his 18-month-old son, Richard, and had rather embarrassingly asked Mamaine’s sister Celia to marry him (desperately, Orwell had asked a string of young women to marry him). There was also the “extraordinarily witty and charming” philosopher Bertrand Russell and his third wife; after one too many drinks, Russell had issued fantastic predictions. “Russell said that as the Catholic population of America was increasing by leaps and bounds the United States would one day be Catholic-controlled, and we should then be faced with a new choice: Stalin or the Pope.”
Mamaine had agreed to move in with Koestler a year earlier and to live in Wales at Bwlch Ocyn. Arthur did not like London and somehow the Welsh hills reminded him of Austria. He had promised marriage, a promise he took seven years to deliver, perhaps because of his refusal to have children, which she had eventually and reluctantly accepted. Their daily life could be austere. Having to do all the domestic chores, occasionally helped by a “moronic servant,” Mamaine also did all Koestler’s secretarial work.
For the younger generation just after Mamaine’s, who were born in the late 1920s and early 1930s and who were children during the war, autonomy was much more desirable than domestic life and worth taking risks for. It might have been the air of Saint-Germaindes-Prés, the return of real and strong coffee to their cups, or their adoration for Simone de Beauvoir, but Juliette Gréco and her friend Anne Marie Cazalis were not going to be anyone’s submissive other halves. It was not only a question of working and earning one’s living but also, as Édith Thomas had said about her heroines, one of self-reliance and not feeling dependent on anyone else in order to feel whole.
Those younger women also firmly intended to enjoy a very free sex life, just like Dominique Aury and Simone de Beauvoir. Gréco and Cazalis found Combat’s young and not so young journalists, who spent their nights at the Méphisto bar on the boulevard Saint-Germain, very attractive. “Between two jives, they disappeared from Paris for a few days, traveling to the Black Forest to go and interview Martin Heidegger. The German philosopher would puff on his porcelain pipe and declare: ‘the atomic bomb is the logical consequence of Descartes’ and would then dismiss his French visitors.” Despite their admiration, Gréco and Cazalis were not going to throw themselves at these journalists. They were, in fact, gamines fatales. They decided to take men as seriously as men usually took them.
One evening in February 1946, the 38-year-old phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was also a terrific dancer in his spare time, noticed a raven-haired teenager with doe eyes at the Méphisto. He approached her. Her silence and seeming indifference intrigued him greatly. The married Merleau-Ponty had just fallen for Juliette Gréco, aged 19. She was not entirely insensitive to his charm, though, and the Creole black pudding they served at the Méphisto helped. She was very hungry in those days, with very little money to live on, but was too proud to tell anyone. She felt instant sympathy for people who shared their dinner with her. Merleau-Ponty was also a professor of philosophy, and in her book that was the closest one could get to God—that is, if God existed. The day after her first encounter with him she bought the February issue of Les Temps modernes; she had heard he had a long opening essay in it titled “Faith and Bad Faith.”
From Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris, 1940-50. Used with permission of Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2018 by Agnès Poirier.