SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR grew up in the closed society of proper bourgeois Paris, so to go to the Sorbonne at all, much less to study philosophy, was a hard-won success. To her father, philosophy was “jibberish”; her mother worried that she would lose her faith, overlooking the fact that this had already happened. Beauvoir knew she would have no dowry, ergo no husband; she should at least be able to choose her career.
By her third year she was acquainted with most of her fellow students, with the glaring exception of a young man of brilliant mind but dubious reputation (alcohol, women), Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre and a few close friends shared a private language, heavy on the bon mot sarcastique, and they labeled Beauvoir “the badly dressed one with the beautiful blue eyes.” Still, he knew she was expected to score very high on exams that he himself had failed the previous year, for not sticking to the subject. He sent her his drawing of Leibnitz, the subject of her thesis, and asked to be introduced.
Toward that end Beauvoir was invited to a study session on a Monday morning in June of 1929, in Sartre’s room at the Cite Universitaire, for the purpose of expounding on Leibnitz. She had long yearned to be included in this unorthodox group, and was terrified that they might find her “silly,” although the one known for high jinks was Sartre. As host, however, he was reassuringly deferential. Shorter than she (under five feet), he wore a “more or less clean” shirt and slippers. The room was a shambles: the bed unmade, ashtrays unemptied, books and papers everywhere. He escorted her ceremoniously to the only chair. She had barely started on Leibnitz when the others declared him impossibly boring, but no one suggested that that was her fault, so she stayed for a discussion of Rousseau, interspersed with philosophical parodies by Sartre to Offenbach’s music. It was a day that authenticated her dreams. A dowerless voting woman had other options than marriage, of which the bourgeois life need never be a part. —Nancy Caldwell Sorel