Every night I go to bed with a French woman. My wife doesn’t mind, because the French woman is dead.
So I’m not climbing under the covers with Simone de Beauvoir, herself, alas, but with her book, “America Day by Day,” an account of her visit to the United States for a four-month lecture tour in 1947.
To be honest, I was only vaguely familiar with Beauvoir: some kind of existentialist, lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, pioneering feminist author of “The Second Sex” — still more than most know (“She’s related to Jackie Kennedy, right?” a friend asked). I can’t put on airs; I hadn’t read a word of hers. But my co-author, Sara Bader, has, and in checking sources for our upcoming book, I called up “America Day by Day” on Google. I started to read around the lines we quote and was hooked. I married a really smart woman, but Beauvoir is a really, really smart woman.
Off to the library I trotted. And they say you can’t find books serendipitously online.
At first I thought the book’s charm would be her quirky Gallic views on American life, such as her delight at drinking scotch, which she calls “one of the keys to America,” or her baffled rejection of ear muffs:
“Men remain bareheaded. But many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.”
Her timing is excellent. She finds Los Angeles in the grip of the Black Dahlia murders. She can’t turn around without bumping into someone famous, whether touring Madison Street dives with Nelson Algren, who heard her voice on the phone and hung up the first two times Beauvoir called — she had been given his number by a friend. She called back again, and they became lovers.
But that isn’t why I’m writing about her.
Barely two weeks in this country and she’s at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church with her pal, Richard Wright, listening to Adam Clayton Powell preach.
“I’m struck by the social aspect of his sermon,” she writes. “It seems less like a religious gathering than a political meeting.”
That’s the first of easily 10 solid pages of observation and comments on race relations in America in 1947, and what really struck me, reading them, was how spot-on they were then and how sadly apt they are today.