When Nelson Algren Fell in Love with Simone de Beauvoir

The Start of a Seven-Month Affair That Changed Both Writers' Lives

By  Colin Asher

(February 21–September 23, 1947)

Nelson Algren boarded the El on a Friday evening and rode it toward the Loop—beneath Milwaukee Avenue, through the narrow tunnel under the Chicago River, and then south under State Street. He emerged at Monroe station and began walking east toward the Palmer House—a swank hotel where uniformed porters greeted soigné tourists beneath a gilded awning.

Nelson entered the Palmer House lobby and looked around. The floors were covered with thick carpet woven in intricate geometric designs. The walls were marble, and the ceiling was a mosaic of gold, alabaster, and mint-green tile. Eventually, he spotted the entrance to a cocktail lounge called Le Petit Café and sat at an empty table.

An hour earlier, he had been cooking himself dinner when his phone rang. He answered, heard a heavily accented voice he didn’t recognize, and hung up. He did the same when it rang again. When he picked it up the third time, he hollered, “Wrong number!” He was angry by the fourth ring, but didn’t yell into the mouthpiece because he heard an operator speaking.

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“Please be patient and stay on the line for a moment,” she said.

A woman’s voice came through the earpiece then. She said she was visiting Chicago, and asked if he would like to meet. She was speaking broken English with a French accent, and he was about to decline when she mentioned Richard Wright and Mary Guggenheim.

“Where are you at?” he asked then. “I’ll come down.”

“Leetle café,” she said. “Palmer House.”

Nelson spotted the woman a few minutes after he entered the lounge.

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She was pale and trim, about his age. A white coat hung on her shoulders; a green scarf encircled her neck. Her dark hair was pulled up on top of her head, and she was walking in a loop between the café and the lobby—in and out of the bar’s dim light and the warm glow cast by the chandeliers in the main room—and clutching a copy of Partisan Review.

Nelson watched the woman pace, and tried to decide whether or not to introduce himself. She had said her name was Simone de Beauvoir when they spoke on the phone, but that meant little to Nelson. He had read her name only once, in a letter from Mary Guggenheim. A well-regarded French philosopher visited my apartment, Guggenheim had said, and she has a fascinating relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre—they are collaborators, and partners, but both carry on affairs with other people as well.

Nelson made a joke of Guggenheim’s enthusiasm when he replied, the way he usually did. “That Simone Boudoir sounds real chi-chi,” he wrote, “and I’m sure J-P Sartre, whoever he may be, is real lucky. I bet she says, J-P honey, bite my little titties. And J-P, the hog, chews her tits clean off.” But now that the woman in question was a few feet away, his attitude changed. She wasn’t just an intellectual making a reputation for herself on the dinner party circuit in New York City, she was also a bundle of energy pacing the floor of a Chicago hotel like a predator.

Nelson finally decided to say hello, and then he invited Beauvoir to join him in the café and bought her a drink. They faced each other across a small table and tried to carry on a conversation, but it was no easy task.

The first problem was language. Nelson’s French was limited to the slang he picked up after the armistice, and he spoke English with a Chicago drawl that was almost indecipherable to Beauvoir. His sentences flowed with a rhythm like a twelve-bar blues, and he sprinkled them with idiomatic phrases that even native speakers found challenging. The lounge was quiet, and they were sitting close together, but she could only understand half of what he said.

I’m the only serious writer in this city, Nelson bragged, and I have been since Richard Wright left.

But experience was a greater barrier. Beauvoir was a product of the Parisian bourgeoisie. She attended a convent school as a child, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then taught at lycées for more than a decade before becoming a full-time writer. The French government was sponsoring her visit to America so that she could lecture on “the moral problems of the postwar writer,” and over the last two weeks she had been to New York, Connecticut, Washington, DC, Virginia, New York again, then Ohio, and now Illinois. Nelson was the son of a semiliterate mechanic who went bankrupt. He attended a state college, spent five years drifting around the country looking for work after he graduated, and hadn’t even been to downtown Chicago for months.

Nelson began talking about his time in Europe because he could think of nothing else they had in common. “I told her all about the war,” he said later. “All about the war. Where I thought she’d been while I was fighting it I didn’t stop to think.” But eventually, he ran out of material and realized he should propose an activity that didn’t require so much conversation.

We could go listen to music, he said, but then he undercut the suggestion by saying that most of the city’s jazz clubs were dull. We can visit a burlesque if you want, or if you prefer I can take you to see some places you would probably never see otherwise.

Beauvoir accepted the last suggestion gratefully. The regal Palmer House Hotel seemed “monstrous” to her, and when she was in upstate New York, she had wondered, “Why did they build so many copies of the same house?” She was beginning to think America was a shallow and conformist country, so she was eager to see what Nelson could show her.

They left the hotel on foot, crossed the canal south of the Chicago River, and then ventured down West Madison Street, past billiard halls, bars, and the Hotel Major, where rooms rented for three dollars a week. Signs extolling liquor and Pabst Blue Ribbon bathed them in neon light as they walked, and Nelson talked about Chicago. He told Beauvoir about the bomb that went off at Haymarket Square in 1886, and the arrests and convictions that followed. Lately, he said, the city has been fixated on a serial killer named William Heirens, who murdered a woman with a knife and used her lipstick to write a note that said, For heavens / Sake catch me / Before I kill more.

I’m the only serious writer in this city, Nelson bragged, and I have been since Richard Wright left. Nelson and Beauvoir visited a midnight mission and a cheap burlesque, and then entered a small club. They bought drinks and found seats near the back of the room, and then Nelson announced: Everyone here is sinister and dangerous. Beauvoir had developed a taste for his flavor of humor by then, so she shot back, “I think you’re the only sinister thing around here.”

The room thrummed with life. A few black musicians played with their backs to the rear wall, and couples moved in time with the beat. A woman with curly blond hair sat at the bar alone, screamed at antagonists no one else could see, drained her beer, and then hiked up her skirt and gamboled through the room. An old drunk woke up with his head at on a table, grabbed the arm of a large woman dressed in rags, and pulled her toward the band. And then a man who waddled like a bird forced his way onto the dance floor and began jumping and prancing spastically.

He’s here every day, Nelson explained, and he always does that. The club reminded Beauvoir of Sammy’s Bowery Follies in New York City, but there was something distinct about it. Wealthy socialites visited Sammy’s for the cathartic thrill of drinking with the poor. Actors performed, and people cadged for drinks—but there were no socialites on West Madison Street. The club was a world all its own, and she was only welcome because Nelson was a regular.

“Beautiful and ugly, grotesque and tragic, and also good and evil—each has its place. America doesn’t like to think these extremes can mingle.”

“It’s beautiful,” Beauvoir said.

The comment surprised Nelson. “With us,” he said, “beautiful and ugly, grotesque and tragic, and also good and evil—each has its place. America doesn’t like to think these extremes can mingle.”

If you like this place, he added, “I’m going to show you something even better.”

They walked down the block and visited a saloon. The main room was almost empty when they arrived, but it filled after midnight when the temperature outside dropped. Some customers begged Nelson for money when they came in, or tried to sell him pencils. Others bellied up to the bar, bought beer from a woman with peroxide-blond hair, and paid her a dime so they could spend the night sleeping on a bench in the makeshift shelter on the building’s second floor. Every one of them was filthy and rank—“so dirty,” Beauvoir wrote later, “you’d think their very bones were gray.”

Nelson motioned toward the woman behind the bar. “Everything I know about French literature is thanks to her,” he said.

Beauvoir thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.

Nelson asked the woman to join them for a glass of wine, and when she learned that Beauvoir was visiting from Paris, she began reeling off questions.

“How is [André] Malraux doing on his latest novel?” she asked. “Is there a second volume?

“And Sartre? Has he finished Les Chemins de la liberté?”

I was “stupefied,” Beauvoir wrote later.

That woman runs the bar and the shelter at night, Nelson explained later, but she spends her days getting high and reading. She floats in and out of hospitals, and she’s been to prison several times.

Beauvoir ordered a whiskey and swallowed it. Then she and Nelson left. It was around two in the morning and Beauvoir was tired, but she didn’t want to return to the Palmer House, so she went to Nelson’s apartment instead. They entered through the door that opened into the kitchen, but soon they were in the bedroom and their clothes were off. She was upset by what she had seen that night, and they began making love “initially because he wanted to comfort me,” she wrote, “then because it was passion.”

*

Beauvoir returned to her hotel the next day, delivered the lecture she was scheduled to give, and then met the two French government officials who were coordinating her visit for lunch. They brought her to a private club housed near the top of one of the skyscrapers in the Loop, and seated her so that she faced a set of windows that looked onto the Chicago River and the gleaming monoliths that stand guard along its banks.

A few minutes after they arrived, a baroness who was in the country to lecture on “French cheerfulness during the Resistance” joined their party and began reciting patriotic slogans. Beauvoir’s minders listened respectfully, but she couldn’t focus on anything being said because there was too much dissonance between the city Nelson had shown her the night before and the shining metropolis she was dining above—one felt real to her, the other seemed like a fraud.

Beauvoir’s escorts had already scheduled the remainder of her day, but she couldn’t stand the idea of wasting any more time. So she ran. I have to visit a sick friend, she said when lunch ended. It was a lie.

She asked her escorts how to get to Nelson’s apartment, but they forbade her to go alone. It’s too dangerous, they said. We’ll take you.

He found an article that taught him more about the woman he’d just shared his bed with than she had revealed in two days of stilted conversation.

They borrowed a government car—a dark, sleek thing—and sat her down in the back and began driving. The car threaded through the Loop, and then proceeded north and west. As it did, she gazed through the windows. She saw department stores at first, then train tracks, wooden shacks, rundown factories, and vacant lots.

Beauvoir jumped out of the car when she spotted Nelson’s building and pounded on the door. The sound surprised him. He had been waiting for her to call, but wasn’t expecting a visit. He grinned a big, toothy grin when he saw her, and chided her playfully for arriving in an expensive vehicle.

My neighbors will get the wrong idea, he said. They’ll think I have money and start asking for loans.

They went inside then, and made love. When they finished, Nelson gave Beauvoir a tour of his neighborhood. They ogled pink and yellow pastries in a Polish bakery where no one spoke English, drank vodka in bars that had been speakeasies when Nelson was in high school, and teased each other. She called him Crocodile because he kept flashing his teeth when he smiled, and he called her a “crazy frog” for arriving at his apartment unannounced.

Beauvoir returned to the Loop that evening to have dinner with her minders. Lobster and martinis were served, and she thought: This is a facade. She called Nelson after her meal and said she couldn’t see him again before she left. She was upset, and she refused to let go of the phone until someone removed the handset by force.

Beauvoir went to the train station, boarded her train, entered her cabin, closed the green curtain separating it from the corridor, and began reading The Neon Wilderness. She thought about Nelson and his apartment as the train rolled west, and as she did, his lifestyle took on metaphorical significance. “He seems to me,” she wrote later, “one of the most striking examples of that great intellectual solitude in which American writers live today.”

That night, she wrote Nelson a letter. “Before going to sleep I have to tell you I really liked the book very much, and I have thought I liked you very much too—I think you felt it though we spoke so little—I am not going to say thank you any more, because it does not mean much; but you have to know I was happy, being with you.” She said she would try to visit Chicago before returning to Paris, but then hedged. It will be even harder to say goodbye next time, she wrote.

After Beauvoir left, Nelson picked up a copy of The New Yorker that had been sitting around his apartment. He began reading, and when he reached page 19 he found an article that taught him more about the woman he’d just shared his bed with than she had revealed in two days of stilted conversation. “Last week, we had a talk with Simone de Beauvoir,” it began, “the French novelist, playwright, and No. 2 Existentialist, just before she left town on a coast-to-coast lecture tour.”

Beauvoir’s letter arrived a day or two later, and Nelson responded enthusiastically. I want to see you again too, he wrote. “Too bad for us if another separation is going to be difficult.”

*

The weeks following Beauvoir’s visit were a heady time for Nelson. He received a letter from the American Academy of Arts informing him that he had been awarded $1,000 “in recognition of his stories . . . in which . . . there is the dramatic sense of right against wrong and everkindled hopefulness.” Then he received a package containing two of Carl Sandburg’s books, and a letter from their author expressing his admiration for The Neon Wilderness. Nelson hadn’t been expecting either missive, and their combined effect was bracing.

They were also hectic weeks. Ken McCormick visited Chicago to read the first 100 pages of Nelson’s novel. Jesse Blue, Bud Fallon, and a local actor named Ted Liss dropped by Nelson’s apartment repeatedly, and then Mary Guggenheim returned. She told Nelson she was visiting him, but that was a lie. She had quit her job and given up her apartment before leaving New York, and she was planning to move into the Wabansia Avenue flat.

I’m “only a boy from the provinces,” he joked when she caught him looking wide-eyed—“a local youth,” “a Chicago man.”

Nelson took time away from his novel to be with Guggenheim when she arrived. They slept together, and spent a weekend in Gary, Indiana, with Neal and Christine Rowland—friends from Rat Alley. It was a pleasant visit until Nelson realized Guggenheim was planning to move in with him. He withdrew from her then, and let her know she was going to have to find somewhere else to live. They barely spoke when they returned to Chicago, and she left soon afterward.

He didn’t make a scene, she said. “He just let me go.”

The memory of Beauvoir’s visit and the letters she sent him from the road were the only constant in Nelson’s life that spring. She wrote from California and then New York, and he responded in kind. He sent books to her Manhattan hotel, and when she received them, she asked him to visit before she returned to France. He said he couldn’t leave because he had too much work to do, so she flew to Chicago instead.

Nelson and Beauvoir spent three days in his apartment, and then she convinced him to fly east with her. He had never been on an airplane.

They checked into a hotel called the Brevoort when they reached New York City, and then she visited the Pam Am ticket office and delayed her return to Paris by a week. She and Nelson had seventeen days together, and they spent most of them in seclusion.

They made love on the twin beds in their room, and then reclined, smoked, and talked. Beauvoir offered Nelson her impressions of American women and asked what he thought of her ideas. He asked her about the status of French women, and when he learned that France had only enfranchised women to vote two years earlier, he pressed her with questions. She was planning to write a long essay about the role of women in society, and its contours came into focus as they spoke. They agreed she should write a long article, or maybe a book, about “women’s status throughout the world.” This project eventually became The Second Sex—the book that made Beauvoir an international figure.

Beauvoir led the way when she and Nelson emerged from their room—to Harlem so that they could hear some jazz, and then through the Bowery and the Lower East Side. She had spent hours walking alone on her first visit, so she narrated as they explored. He listened intently when she spoke, and gawked at the city like a credulous child. He stared at brightly colored clothes when he spotted them drying on a line above a narrow street, a tattoo parlor, and a store selling “black buffer” that was guaranteed to cure anyone with sore eyes.

I’m “only a boy from the provinces,” he joked when she caught him looking wide-eyed—“a local youth,” “a Chicago man.”

Beauvoir had been warned about Nelson. Mary Guggenheim told her he could be moody and neurotic, and some New Yorkers claimed he was unstable. But over the course of the two weeks they spent at the Brevoort, she decided neither assessment was accurate.

“If he was sometimes blunt and rude, as people claimed,” she wrote, “it was certainly only as a defense. For he possessed that rarest of all gifts, which I should call goodness if the word had not been so abused.”

Nelson began falling in love with Beauvoir on that trip. She was beautiful to him, but also an intellectual and professional peer who managed to be both steeped in the European academic tradition and devoid of pretensions. It was as if she materialized from the ether to fill a need he wasn’t aware of having, and he demonstrated his affection by presenting her with trinkets. He gave her a red fountain pen because they were both writers, and he bought her an ornately decorated silver ring. When Beauvoir received the ring, she placed it on the middle finger of her left hand. It reached almost to her knuckle, and for the next several years she twirled it constantly.

She was falling in love as well, but even at her most infatuated, she understood that their relationship would be fraught. He was at the beginning of a project that would tie him to Chicago for years, and she had to tend to her editorial duties at Les Temps modernes, her writing, and her relationship with Sartre. She told Nelson at the Brevoort that she would never move to America, and though he claimed to accept that fact, she suspected he did not. “[H]e believed me,” she wrote, “without at all understanding what I meant.”

Beauvoir wanted to say goodbye in their hotel room when she left New York on May 17, but Nelson insisted on putting her in a taxi. She began sobbing when it drove away, but managed to compose herself before she reached Idlewild Airport in Queens. She boarded her plane without incident, but then she opened the copy of Never Come Morning Nelson had handed her that afternoon and found an inscription inside the front cover:

à Simone:

I send this book with you
That it may pass
Where you shall pass:
Down the murmurous evening light
Of storied streets
In your own France

Simone, I send this poem there, too,
That part of me may go with you.

Beauvoir began sobbing again when she read it. Then she pulled herself together and wrote a letter. “I feel you with me,” it said, “and where I shall pass you will pass, not the book only but all of you. I love you.”

__________________________________

Reprinted from Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher. Copyright © 2019 by Colin Asher Bosio-Cady. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Colin Asher
Colin Asher
Colin Asher is an award-winning writer whose work has been featured in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. An instructor at CUNY, he was a 2015/2016 Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography.





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