Why a Collection of Simone de Beauvoir’s Love Letters Was Just Sold to Yale

The 112 letters were written to filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who had a seven-year relationship with the French philosopher

de beauvoir
Government Press Office

While pioneering philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is famously buried adjacent to fellow philosopher and long-term partner Jean-Paul Sartre, during her adult life de Beauvoir only ever lived with one man: Claude Lanzmann, the journalist and filmmaker best known for his sweeping, 9.5-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah. As the Agence France-Presse reports, Lanzmann has sold 112 of de Beauvoir’s fervid love letters to Yale in the hopes of ensuring that he forever remains a part of her legacy.

Researchers interested in diving through the complete collection of the letters can now do so by paying a visit to Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The French newspaper Le Monde has also published one of the letters online. “I thought I would never say the words that now come naturally to me when I see you – I adore you. I adore you with all my body and soul,” de Beauvoir writes in the 1953 message, which has never before been seen by the general public, according to the AFP.  “You are my destiny, my eternity, my life.”

When Lanzmann and de Beauvoir first met in the early 1950s, she was 44 and he was 26. Several years earlier, in 1949, de Beauvoir had published her seminal treatise, The Second Sex, which analyzed the construction of womanhood throughout history and argued for women’s liberation from passivity and social alienation. At the time, Lanzmann was working as a secretary for Sartre, whose ongoing relationship with de Beauvoir was well-known to be an open one, allowing both to pursue other dalliances. In 2012, Lanzmann recalled to Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian that de Beauvoir would wake up with him in the morning, and then have lunch with Sartre. Often, the three of them would eat dinner together.

But in the 1953 letter to Lanzmann, de Beauvoir explains that her relationship with Sartre was of a different, less physically intimate nature than the intense romance she shared with her younger lover. “I loved him for sure,” she writes of Sartre, “but without it being returned – our bodies were for nothing.”

Lanzmann is now 92 years old; de Beauvoir died in 1986. Lanzmann’s decision to sell the letters from his former lover was impelled by a conflict with de Beauvoir’s adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, who is the philosopher’s literary executor. According to the AFP, Lanzmann has accused Le Bon de Beauvoir of trying to “purely and simply eliminate me from the existence of Simone de Beauvoir,” and he worried that his correspondence with the philosopher would be forgotten, which is why he decided to sell the letters to Yale. Le Bon de Beauvoir reportedly did not respond to the AFP’s request for comment.

As Thu-Huong Ha of Quartz notes, this is not the first time that a conflict has arisen over de Beauvoir’s literary legacy. In 2005, Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, who was Sartre’s adopted daughter, demanded that major cuts be made to a book about the couple’s complex, sometimes torrid relationship.

Lanzmann, however, shared many details about his own romance with de Beauvoir in his memoir, The Patagonian Hare. “From the first,” he writes, “I loved the veil of her voice, her blue eyes, the purity of her face and, more especially, of her nostrils. Something in the way I looked at her, in my attentiveness when she spoke or interrupted Sartre … must have alerted her to my attraction for her.”

Editor's note, January 24, 2018: This piece initially reported that the collection is only available to Yale researchers. In fact, no affiliation with Yale University is required to access the letters.

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