In the parade of lovers who have passed through New Orleans, it would be hard to find any couple to rival Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir for sheer intensity. Not even Tolstoy could have invented a romance so charged with complex personalities or issues. The gritty Chicago novelist and his brilliant Parisian auteur had an ocean between them. A gulf in backgrounds divided them as well.
Yet New Orleans influenced each of them, in different ways, and served as a brief, pivotal setting in the odyssey of their relationship. When the riverboat from Cincinnati arrived at the dock in May of 1948, they had the raw materials for something rich; when they left, other realizations were setting in.
Born in 1909 in Chicago, Nelson Algren grew up in poverty. His father was a struggling mechanic; his parents' fights left him with a jaded view of marriage and women. Algren also had a passion to write. As the Depression set in, he left Chicago, hitchhiked around the country and, in 1932, landed in New Orleans.
Hanging out with hobos and day-laborers, he marveled at the riot of colors and aromas at the French Market, the stacks of bananas on the river wharves. His biographer, Bettina Drew, writes of the slender Jew from the Midwest "eating a poorboy sandwich at the old French Market while watching a muscled black man, naked to the waist, decapitating huge snapping turtles for soup. He looked on in amazement as the executioner stacked the still-moving bodies into a huge, headless pyramid."
Something else made a deep impression on Algren: the parts of the Quarter and outlying neighborhoods that were lined with shuttered stalls for sex on the hoof. "The girls were so hard-pressed that if you bought one a pork sandwich for ten cents you could sleep with her," he jotted in a notebook.
After a profitless experience as a door-to-door salesman, Algren split for Texas and eventually found his way back to Chicago. He would use his New Orleans experiences as the setting for a novel he would publish nearly a quarter-century later, A Walk on the Wild Side, about a Texas drifter named Dove Linkhorn who rolls into town and falls in love with a hooker. "The town always seemed to be rocking," he wrote. "Rocked by its rivers, then by its trains, between boat bell and train bell go its see-saw hours. The town of the poor-boy sandwich and chicory coffee, where garlic hangs on strings and truckers sleep in their trucks. Where mailmen wore pith helmets and the poor people burned red candles all night in long old-fashioned lamps. The town where the old Negro women sang .... And piano-men at beat-out pianos grieved."
The language of Algren's earlier works is less self-consciously lyrical. In the years after World War II, scraping by in Chicago slum neighborhoods, he honed a fiery poetic voice in stories about poor folk, waitresses and the street denizens for whom he felt empathy. In an era of booming prosperity and anti-Communist fervor, Algren was interested in life's losers. In 1947, he published The Neon Wilderness, a collection of stories that established him, at 38, as a writer to watch.
Simone de Beauvoir was utterly different. A few months older than Algren, the noted French novelist and essayist had the beginnings of an international reputation. She was also deeply involved with Jean-Paul Sartre, the novelist, playwright and foremost exponent of Existentialism, a philosophy that reacted to the ravages of World War II with a view that people are born into a world devoid of meaning, and that each person must shape his own destiny. Sartre extended this belief into private life by insisting to de Beauvoir that each of them must be free to have "contiguous relationships." For a woman raised in a bourgeois Catholic family, the notion of a satellite of sexual and emotional involvements was a greater leap than her agnosticism.
Sartre and de Beauvoir had come through the grim years of the Nazi occupation with a profound intellectual bond. His desire for other women forced de Beauvoir to define her independence, even as Sartre remained her most significant other.
On Jan. 25, 1947, de Beauvoir flew to New York to see America for the first time. She gave lectures, met writers and, through a chain of spontaneous acquaintances, received Algren's phone number in Chicago -- a city where she would spend two days the following month.
At the time, Algren had one failed marriage behind him, and was given to one-night stands and short relationships. He was living in a small flat in a rundown neighborhood on Wabansia Avenue. But The Neon Wilderness had drawn good notices. "There is enough horror, ugliness and ghoulishness to satisfy Sartre," a Saturday Review critic said of The Neon Wilderness, making a comparison that, in hindsight, is freighted with irony.
Night had fallen as Algren crossed the lobby of the posh Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago on Feb. 21, 1947. There she sat, with fair brown hair, the creamy complexion of a French patrician and "a petite body [that] had been kept firm by long walks in the European countryside," according to Bettina Drew in Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. Algren gave de Beauvoir a tour of Chicago's slum streets, seedy bars and homeless shelters. Seeing the impoverished underbelly of a great American city appealed to her instincts as a writer and made her more curious about her guide. Keeping extensive notes in a diary, she wrote of seeing him the next day: "I'm living a real Chicago afternoon in the company of an authentic native ... N.A. was an adolescent during the Great Depression. He looked for work throughout America, stowing away in freight trucks, eating and sleeping at the expense of the Salvation Army. In New Orleans he was a peddler; the job paid little, and for weeks he lived exclusively on bananas."
He was authentic all right, and in the weeks that followed, as she visited Hollywood, New Mexico and Texas, she kept thinking of him. She reached New Orleans in late March; he was still in Chicago.
In 1947, much of the French Quarter had fallen into disrepair. De Beauvoir was charmed by the elegance-within-decay and was attracted to the city beyond the Quarter, as well. "I would like to walk for days along these lanes," she wrote. "Many of these homes are a hundred years old, and time has covered their wooden architecture with a persistent plant life, turning them into the color of lichen and moss. They're often surrounded by gardens of capricious foliage; yet in none of these private Edens is spring as magnificently exalted as it is on the public avenues, where the beds of azaleas seem endless. In France these are the boring flowers that one sees in pots at florist shops; they're gifts for your grandmother on her birthday. ... Yet here they are real flowers."
All those pink blossoms, but the man who had eaten the bananas was far from the private Edens. As de Beauvoir wound her way north to New York, she called Algren. He joined her in a Greenwich Village hotel in May for the final days of her trip.
The attraction was mutual. In intellect, grace and looks, de Beauvoir was several notches above the women he had known. She spoke excellent English -- and she was French! For de Beauvoir, she had found more than an "authentic native" -- he was a primitive literary man, an iconoclast far removed from salons of Paris or literary gatherings in New York, a writer in the muscle of the Midwest so utterly different from the slightly built, wall-eyed Sartre, living in his world of ideas. Algren had hitched train rides. He wrote about what he had lived. And as de Beauvoir was getting in the cab for the airport, he put a ring on her finger -- a sign of his love, to be sure, but not an engagement ring.
"My own sweet wonderful and beloved local youth," she wrote in a letter on May 17, 1947, on the plane crossing the Atlantic. "I put my forehead against the window and I cried, with the beautiful blue sea below me, and crying was sweet because it was your love, your love and my love, our love, I love you."
The next day, back in Paris, she sent another letter: "My precious beloved Chicago man. ... I'll write very often. Write to me very often too. I am your wife forever." Her letter of May 21 begins: "My beloved husband."
In the first year or so of their correspondence, de Beauvoir mentions Sartre, but does not dwell on their relationship. Yet she was wrestling with an enormous conflict. The streams of letters she wrote, promising to keep house as Algren wrote and pining for "our Wabansia nest," seem a contradiction of the feminist independence that her life would come to symbolize. Yet in the simplest terms of love, the letters make sense: she was fantasizing with Algren about what she could not have with Sartre, a dream life that harked back to the domestic harbors of a proper French girlhood.
By August 1947, de Beauvoir was making plans to visit Chicago. "Nelson, my beloved husband," she began her letter of Aug. 3. "In a month I shall be with you." It was surely heady stuff for Algren, in his flat on rundown Wabansia.
The torrent of correspondence continued after the visit and, in May of 1948, de Beauvoir again flew to Chicago. They took the train to Cincinnati, where they stayed two days before catching a riverboat down the Mississippi River. They kept a joint journal (now part of Algren's papers at Ohio State University), in which they described the curtain of heat that descended as the riverboat headed South. When they reached New Orleans on May 10, the humidity was thick. "This was the night we felt something wonderful and strange was going to happen," Algren wrote. "And I got so drunk in anticipation. Got so I don't know whether it ever really did."
De Beauvoir reacted to "heat [that] was so blinding I was dizzy from it and did not appreciate my time there" -- so different from the cool March and the pink azaleas of the year before. The trip also marked Algren's first return since he was a young hitchhiker in 1932. "But the city had changed," writes Bettina Drew. "Now it was a prosperous tourist town living off its flamboyant past: more prosperous but much duller than in 1932. ... [H]e saw that the old cheap wooden bungalows had either been boarded up or bulldozed for housing projects."
The exotic, shabbily romantic city each of them remembered had become a different, less attractive place. So, too, were the dynamics of their relationship changing. "New Orleans seems to have been a disappointment that neither wanted to admit to the other," writes Deirdre Bair in Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography.
De Beauvoir had not concealed her relationship with Sartre. But a few days later, after they flew from New Orleans to the Mexican town of Merida on the Yucatan peninsula, the realization hit Algren that she would eventually fly back to her Frenchman. They bickered in Mexico but returned to Chicago, clinging to possibilities. In July, after three months together, she returned to Paris.
Geography continued to prove a hurdle. Even without Sartre, Paris was the professional and personal center of de Beauvoir's world. And Chicago was Algren's mooring, the city that provided characters and settings for his work. His project at hand was The Man With the Golden Arm, the story of a heroin addict. In the early months of 1949, as he was finishing the novel, de Beauvoir was in the final stages of The Second Sex, a treatise on women that would become a primary text of feminism and her most famous book.
Algren traveled to France in May of 1949 and spent several tender months with de Beauvoir. She introduced him to her circle, including Sartre, who treated him with respect as a writer and honored his privacy with de Beauvoir, a kind of pluralism of the heart that must, on some level, have struck Algren as weird.
The Second Sex was published in Paris that fall, and The Man With the Golden Arm was published in New York, receiving the first National Book Award and earning its author an enduring place in American literature. The two books were both controversial and prophetic. De Beauvoir's work would echo decades later in the women's liberation movement. And years before drug abuse became a national issue, Algren's gripping, sometimes surrealist narrative cast a cold light on the life of an addict.
With his earnings, Algren rented a house near a lake in rural Indiana, where de Beauvoir joined him in mid-summer of 1950. Algren had been spending time with his ex-wife (whom he would eventually remarry), and when de Beauvoir arrived he told her he didn't love her any more. Nevertheless, she stayed three months. In a New York hotel, before her flight to Europe, she wrote him: "I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away from myself. ... I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you -- not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it."
Ten years later, after Algren divorced his wife a second time and de Beauvoir had broken off a long relationship with writer and film director Claude Lanzmann (best known for his 10-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah), Algren flew to Paris. Their situations were quite different now: she was a renowned author, and he was down on his luck. A Walk on the Wild Side had not been a smashing success. He spent six months in Europe, most of the time in Paris. Twice she left Algren in her apartment to travel with Sartre. Algren drank and brooded while she was gone. But she also spent several weeks traveling with Algren in Greece and Turkey.
He returned to America and they remained friends -- until the American edition of her memoir Force of Circumstance was published in 1963. When Algren read her account of the early years of their romance, he broke off contact with her, feeling that his privacy had been invaded. When the Paris Review asked him about the relationship, he replied: "Yeah, she came to Chicago and I showed her around, took her to see the electric chair."
Algren spent his final years on Long Island, a self-imposed exile from Chicago. When he died in 1981, de Beauvoir was surprised to see that he had kept copies of all her letters. She died in 1986 and was buried wearing the ring that he gave her in 1947, when she left that first time, on the plane back to Paris.