Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me
de Deirdre Bair
NOTA DE LEITURA
Esta página toca em diversos assuntos ligados à vida da americana Deirdre Bair, que faleceu a 17 de Abril que findou (nascera em 21 de Junho de 1935), com 84 anos de idade.
O último livro que publicou em 2019 foi Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me e descreve as andanças que fez para concluir as duas biografias, a de Beckett em 1978 e a de Simone de Beauvoir em 1990.
A biografia de Samuel Beckett acabou-a certinha e não lhe deixou dúvidas porquanto ele só veio a falecer em 1989. Foi um livro trabalhoso, mas saiu-lhe muito bem e o biografado deu uma colaboração amigável. Embora não ajudasse muito, permitiu que ela encontrasse as fontes que lhe interessavam, embora não autorizasse o uso de gravador nem de apontamentos escritos. Era ela que, após as entrevistas tinha de ir a correr para passar ao papel o que se passara na conversa.
Já a redacção da biografia de Simone de Beauvoir foi entrevada pelo falecimento repentino desta em 14 de Abril de 1986. A autora francesa permitia gravador e cadernos de apontamentos mas afinal omitia elementos de interesse de que a biógrafa só depois de concluído o livro teve conhecimento. A herdeira universal de Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvie le Bon, que depois de adoptada usou o nome de Sylvie Le Bon-de Beauvoir, publicou em 1990 (mas após a biografia, que saiu no mesmo ano) as obras Lettres á Sartre (2 volumes) e Journal de Guerre que traziam elementos importantes que Simone de Beauvoir tinha omitido na biografia. Entre estes, as cartas de uma amante de Simone e de Sartre chamada Bianca Bienenfeld (Bianca Lamblin após o casamento com Bernard Lamblin). A biógrafa sabia da existência dela, mas não teve acesso às cartas.
Sartre e Simone de Beauvoir tinham uma vida amorosa bastante esquisita, Simone namorava as adolescentes e depois “passava-as” a Sartre e assim perfaziam um trio. Deirdre Bair sabia da existência de Bianca, mas não a conseguiu encontrar. Bianca fora corrida por Sartre, abandonou a ligação sexual com Simone de Beauvoir depois do seu casamento em 12 de Fevereiro de 1941 mas manteve a amizade com Simone até à morte desta. Foi surpreendida pela publicação das cartas de Simone a Sartre onde a rebaixavam usando o pseudónimo de Louise Védrine. Furiosa, escreveu um livrinho Mémoires d’une jeune fille dérangée, gozando com o título do livro de Simone Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.
A publicação das cartas e diários de Simone de Beauvoir surpreendeu também a biógrafa Deirdre Bair, assim como o livro de Bianca em 1993 (publicado também na América em 1996 com o título A Disgraceful Affair).
Diz Bianca no seu livro : "J’ai découvert que Simone de Beauvoir puisait dans ses classes de jeunes filles une chair fraîche à laquelle elle goûtait avant de la refiler, ou faut-il dire plus grossièrement encore, de la rabattre sur Sartre ».
E conclui que a publicação das cartas a Sartre e do Diário de Guerra permitiu-lhe ver a falsidade dela: “… j’avais reçu en plein visage la figure de sa verité et de la verité de nos rapports anciens. Mes yeux étaient enfim dessillées. Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir ne m’ont fait, finalement, que du mal".
Deirdre Bair teve alguma dificuldade em definir a sexualidade de Simone de Beauvoir que já não se considerava lésbica. Sobre a sua relação com Sylvie le Bom, sua herdeira universal, dizia: “We are not lesbians! (…) we kiss on the lips, we hug, we touch each other’s breasts, but we don’t do anything “ – and here other downward flick – “down there! So you can’t call us lesbians!”
A biógrafa conclui que Simone de Beauvoir tinha uma complexa identidade sexual!...
Buying drinks and rebuffing sexual advances ... the literary biographer reveals all about the process of writing two acclaimed lives
Fri 28 Feb 2020
When Samuel Beckett agreed to let Deirdre Bair write his biography, everyone assumed it was because he was sleeping with her. The year was 1971 and there could be no other explanation as to why the reclusive Grand Old Man of Irish and European letters should bestow a pearl of such great price on a young American with no more than a recent PhD to her name. Evil-minded gossip flew around the obstreperous ragtag of ivy league professors, Irish poets, Parisian intellectuals and New York critics who had appointed themselves gate-keepers of the Beckett universe. If anyone was going to write about the author of Waiting for Godot, Molloy and Krapp’s Last Tape, they had always imagined it would be them. Now, it transpired, this American had pillow-talked her way into the literary gig of the century while they had been busy going to international Beckett conferences, getting drunk in Dublin pubs or fretting about why “Sam” hadn’t replied to their last three letters.
Yet as Bair reveals in what she calls her “bio-memoir”, the Nobel laureate never bothered to conceal his erotic indifference to the earnest, happily married woman who had cheekily suggested that she was the best person to write his life.
No one had been more surprised when he agreed to meet her in Paris and then announced that he would do nothing to either “help or hinder” her in writing his biography. Of course, he proceeded to do both. Beckett’s rules of engagement were bafflingly opaque and shifted constantly throughout the seven years of their non-collaboration. “Mr Beckett” would meet “Mrs Bair” for interview sessions, but only when it suited him, which wasn’t often. She was not to take any notes during their meetings, which meant that she was obliged to scamper to a cafe afterwards and scribble down whatever she could remember. Despite the promise not to hinder, Beckett retreated into a cold sulk whenever his would-be biographer broached topics he did not care to discuss. Creepiest of all, behind the scenes he pumped his friends, colleagues and collaborators, whom Bair wearily dubbed “the Becketteers”, for the latest gossip on the book’s progress. No wonder the neophyte biographer felt “like a marionette whose strings he was pulling, because I never knew where I stood with him”.
You would never have guessed any of this from Samuel Beckett: A Biography, which was published in 1978 to general acclaim and went on to win a National Book Award. It was a terrific example of mid-20th-century American biography at its chilly best: rigorously researched – Bair reveals here that each fact had to have three independent sources before she allowed it over the threshold – and strenuously impersonal in the sense that the author never allows her own presence to intrude. But that didn’t mean for a moment that her personal investment in the project wasn’t huge. At a time when text-based French critical theory reigned supreme in American universities, Bair was determined to demonstrate that biographical approaches to literature were equally valid. “She’s not a scholar; she’s only a biographer,” her university colleagues were heard to sneer when coming up with reasons why she shouldn’t get tenure. But Bair burned – still burns in fact – to demonstrate that the attention she paid to Beckett’s early life brought insights that no amount of textual close reading ever could. Even now she feels the need to keep reminding us that “I was the only one who recognised” that the figures in Beckett’s plays are based on real “Dublin characters and the actual places” of his youth.
Bair, who is 84, has always stayed silent about the shadow side of her great undertaking, the one that made her name and set her on a path as a prizewinning biographer. But with all the original players in the Beckett universe safely dead, and mindful perhaps of the current trend for veteran biographers to spill the beans in late-life memoir (Claire Tomalin and James Atlas have both recently published excellent “behind the scenes” accounts of their work), Bair finally feels free, with the help of her old diaries, to tell us what really lurked behind the impenetrable wall of her po-faced prose over 40 years ago. The result is deliciously indiscreet. We cringe as she spends the best part of a decade pouring expensive drinks down old soaks in Irish bars, courts twitchy Beckett nieces who stand between her and a stash of explosive letters, and rebuffs a whole string of actors, agents and publishers who assume that, since she’s in London/Paris/New York/Dublin without her husband she must have an “open marriage”. Meanwhile, in the background there’s rising chatter about how Sam has been heard smirking that the naive American with “stripes” in her hair (subtle highlights one assumes, rather than the full Sontag) will never actually manage to get the job done. Which, it is becoming clear, is exactly the reason he agreed to her let her try in the first place.
She explains that by the time she had recovered from the misogyny of her Beckett years, she had developed not only a thick skin but a dawning feminist consciousness. Who better, then, as a subject for her next biography than Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal The Second Sex and, rumour had it, currently casting around for someone to write her life? Their first meeting at De Beauvoir’s Montparnasse apartment did not go well. Aged 73, she was no longer a soignée café philosophe. Instead here was a “lumpy, grumpy, frumpy and dumpy” woman in a grubby red dressing gown, whose face was inclined to go puce whenever she was angry, which was often. Worst of all, they had to communicate in Franglais, a language not known for its nuance. “Deirdre” was quite beyond De Beauvoir, who instead substituted a guttural “Darred”. Other things, though, appeared more promising. Far from forbidding notetaking, De Beauvoir made a fetish of it, insisting that Bair make both written and taped records of their conversations. All went well until it became clear that what drove De Beauvoir was not a passion for accuracy so much as the assumption that “Darred’s” job was merely to tidy up the punctuation and deliver her message, unedited, to posterity.
Still, it’s part of Bair’s new toughness that she vows she will no longer be bossed by her subjects. While she had never plucked up the courage to press Beckett on her archival discoveries of his early gay relationships, she is determined not to give up so easily with De Beauvoir. It’s not just that there had been stories about her seducing female pupils before handing them over to Sartre, it’s that the feminist thinker now appeared to be in a settled relationship with a younger woman, Sylvie le Bon. Before Bair can put the question, “We are not lesbian!” screams De Beauvoir. “Sure, we kiss on the lips, we hug, we touch each other’s breasts, but we don’t do anything ... down there! So you can’t call us lesbians!” It is at this point, Bair tells us ruefully, that her newfound courage crumbles. In Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, which appeared in 1990, four years after its subject’s death, she reverts to discreet 20th-century biographese and merely murmurs in an endnote that De Beauvoir had always enjoyed “a complex sexual identity”.
• Parisian Lives is published by Atlantic.
Deirdre Bair, Beckett and de Beauvoir Biographer, Dies at 84
She was an unknown writer with no experience in biographies when she wrote to the elusive Samuel Beckett. To her surprise, he wrote back.
Deirdre Bair, who as an unknown writer a half-century ago scored a coup by getting the reclusive Samuel Beckett to agree to let her write his biography, then secured the same permission from another towering literary figure, Simone de Beauvoir, died on Friday at her home in New Haven, Conn. She was 84.
Her daughter, Katney Bair, said the cause was heart failure.
Ms. Bair called herself “an accidental biographer, one who had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it.”
She came to that decision serendipitously. Having received a fellowship to do graduate study at Columbia University, she needed a research subject. After making too-slow progress on a medieval-studies topic, she decided to turn to a 20th-century author instead. She wrote the names of some possibilities on index cards.
“Without thinking about which name might present the best opportunity for original research,” she said years later, “or even which I liked the most, I shuffled them into alphabetical order. There were no A’s, and Beckett came first, before Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster. Beckett it shall be, I said to myself, and that was how my life in biography began.”
She dived into a study of his novels (“Molloy,” “Malone Dies”) and plays (“Waiting for Godot,” “Happy Days”). “Reading Beckett’s work made me want answers to a lot of questions,” she said, “all of which were based on the life from which the work sprang.”
Deciding to attempt a biography, she wrote to Beckett in Paris from her home in Connecticut in July 1971.
“The mail between New Haven and Paris was probably never again as swift as it was during that exchange,” she said. “A week to the day after I mailed my letter, I received his reply.”
To her shock, Beckett was amenable. “Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal,” he wrote.
“If you come to Paris,” he added, “I will see you.”
Years of interviews and research followed before “Samuel Beckett: A Biography” appeared in 1978. The paperback release won a National Book Award in 1981.
Her biography of Simone de Beauvoir (author of “The Second Sex,” among other books) was also years in the making and written with its subject’s cooperation. It was published in 1990.
“To Ms. Bair’s credit,” Herbert Mitgang wrote in a review in The New York Times, “her book isn’t just a love letter but a fair-minded and often skeptical appraisal of de Beauvoir’s life. At the end, I found myself respecting but not always liking de Beauvoir and her circle because of the heavy cloak of arrogance they wove around themselves.”
The Times Book Review named it one of the best books of the year.
Ms. Bair later wrote biographies of the writer Anaïs Nin (1995), the psychiatrist Carl Jung (2003), the illustrator Saul Steinberg (2012) and the gangster Al Capone (2016), but her first two books remained her calling cards. People asked her about Beckett and de Beauvoir so often that she wrote a book about her experiences as their biographer: “Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me,” published last year.
“The original idea was to write something primarily for scholars and writers that would cover all my biographies,” Ms. Bair wrote in that book, “to concentrate on the decisions I made when dealing with structure and content, or how I worked in foreign archives and languages, or how I dealt with reluctant heirs and troublesome estates. Each time I suggested this possible project, even to fellow biographers or academics, the response was always, ‘That’s all very nice, but please just tell us what Beckett and de Beauvoir were really like.’”
Deirdre Bartolotta was born on June 21, 1935, in Pittsburgh to Vincent and Helen (Kruki) Bartolotta. She grew up in nearby Monongahela. In “One Extraordinary Street,” a documentary video about the unusual number of prominent people who grew up on or near Park Avenue there, she spoke of being an enthusiastic reader as a girl, so much so that by fifth grade she had become bored with books for young readers.
She tried to check out adult fare from the local library, but the librarian would not let her, prompting her to complain to her father.
“He went down to the library, and he said, ‘You let my daughter read anything she wants,’” she said in the film. “So the next week I came home with ‘Forever Amber,’ which was that generation’s dirty book.”
She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1957 with a degree in English and set her sights on a career in journalism. While her husband, Lavon Bair, whom she had married during her senior year, was serving with the Sixth Fleet, she followed him around the globe and worked as a stringer for Newsweek.
When they settled in New Haven, she was a reporter for The New Haven Register, raising their two young children and supporting her husband while he was in graduate school. In 1968 it was her turn to go to graduate school; she applied for a writing fellowship, but rather than take it at nearby Yale University, she chose an institution two hours away.
“I thought, ‘I’d better go to Columbia, because what if I fail?’” she said in a recent talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “‘I can always say commuting got to be too much for me.’”
She did not fail; she earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia in 1972. By then she had already had her first meeting with Beckett. His first words to her, she wrote in “Parisian Lives,” were, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.”
They talked for two hours, the first of many interviews. Beckett, she wrote, told her near the end of that first session: “I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.”
In the 1980s she was back in Paris interviewing de Beauvoir, who, she said, could be mercurial, especially if Ms. Bair’s questions ventured into areas that de Beauvoir didn’t want scrutinized. Once, when they had been working together for three years, de Beauvoir abruptly stopped the interview and told her to leave.
“She literally shoved me out the door of her apartment,” Ms. Bair said in the Philadelphia talk. “And then I thought: ‘Well, now what do I do? I’ve invested three years in this book.’ Well, I simply went back for the next appointment that we had scheduled as if nothing had happened, and she treated me exactly as if nothing had happened. And that’s how we worked.”
In addition to her other biographies, Ms. Bair wrote “Calling It Quits: Late-Life Divorce and Starting Over” (2007), examining the phenomenon of couples who divorced after decades of marriage. Although she did not dwell on it in the book, her own marriage had ended after 43 years.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Bair is survived by a son, Vonn Scott Bair; a sister, Linda Rankin; a brother, Vince Bartolotta; and a granddaughter.
Ms. Bair told The Times Union of Albany in 1995 that the only response to her biography she received from Beckett, who died in 1989, was a brief note: “Dear Mrs. Bair: Seems a very handsome looking book.”
De Beauvoir died in 1986, before Ms. Bair’s biography was published. In the book, the author recalled what turned out to be her final meeting with de Beauvoir. Their other sessions had always ended with a handshake.
“This time,” she wrote, “tiny woman that she was, she reached up out and half embraced me, tall woman that I am, by placing her hands around my upper arms and giving me a brisk shake.”
Wed, Apr 22, 2020, 13:50
Deirdre Bair, who as an unknown writer half a century ago scored a coup by getting the reclusive Samuel Beckett to agree to let her write his biography, then secured the same permission from another towering literary figure, Simone de Beauvoir, has died at the age of 84.
Her daughter, Katney Bair, said the cause was heart failure. The American writer, who died on Friday, called herself “an accidental biographer, one who had never read a biography before she decided that Samuel Beckett needed one and she was the person to write it”.
She came to that decision somewhat serendipitously. Having received a fellowship to do graduate study at Columbia University, in New York, she needed a research subject. After making too-slow progress on a medieval-studies topic, she decided to turn to a 20th-century author instead. She wrote the names of some possibilities on index cards.
“Without thinking about which name might present the best opportunity for original research,” she said years later, “or even which I liked the most, I shuffled them into alphabetical order. There were no As, and Beckett came first, before Joseph Conrad and EM Forster. Beckett it shall be, I said to myself, and that was how my life in biography began.”
She dove into a study of his novels (Molloy, Malone Dies) and plays (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days), and, she said, “reading Beckett’s work made me want answers to a lot of questions, all of which were based on the life from which the work sprang.” Eventually she decided to attempt a biography and, from her home in Connecticut, wrote to Beckett in Paris in July 1971.
“The mail between New Haven and Paris was probably never again as swift as it was during that exchange,” she said. “A week to the day after I mailed my letter, I received his reply.” To her shock, Beckett said, “Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal,” adding that “if you come to Paris I will see you.”
Years of interviews and other research followed before Samuel Beckett: A Biography appeared, in 1978. The paperback release won a US National Book Award in 1981.
Bair’s biography of Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex, among other books) was also years in the making and written with its subject’s co-operation. It was published in 1990. “To Ms Bair’s credit,” Herbert Mitgang wrote in a review in the New York Times, “her book isn’t just a love letter but a fair-minded and often skeptical appraisal of Beauvoir’s life. At the end, I found myself respecting but not always liking Beauvoir and her circle because of the heavy cloak of arrogance they wove around themselves.”
Bair later wrote biographies of the writer Anaïs Nin (1995), the psychiatrist Carl Jung (2003), the illustrator Saul Steinberg (2012) and the gangster Al Capone (2016), but her first two books remained her calling cards. People asked her about Beckett and Beauvoir so often that she wrote a book about her experiences as their biographer: Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me, published last year.
Bair said that Beauvoir could be mercurial, especially if the biographer’s questions ventured into areas she didn’t want scrutinised. Once, when they had been working together for three years, Beauvoir abruptly stopped the interview and told her to leave.
“She literally shoved me out the door of her apartment,” Bair said. “And then I thought, Well, now what do I do? I’ve invested three years in this book. Well, I simply went back for the next appointment that we had scheduled as if nothing had happened, and she treated me exactly as if nothing had happened. And that’s how we worked.”
Bair said in 1995 that the only response to her biography she received from Beckett, who died in 1989, was a brief note: “Dear Mrs Bair: Seems a very handsome looking book.”
Beauvoir died in 1986, before that biography was published. In the book, Bair recalled what turned out to be her final meeting with Beauvoir. Their other sessions had always ended with a handshake. “This time,” she wrote, “tiny woman that she was, she reached up out and half embraced me, tall woman that I am, by placing her hands around my upper arms and giving me a brisk shake.”
By Alan Riding
A DISGRACEFUL AFFAIR Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, & Bianca Lamblin.
By Bianca Lamblin. Translated by Julie Plovnick.Illustrated. 184 pp. Boston: Northeastern University Press. $24.95.
Many of the myths that surrounded Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in their lifetimes were demolished when their private letters and journals were published after their deaths. Even Beauvoir's legions of feminist admirers could no longer view them as role models for new forms of free love. By their own accounts, Sartre and Beauvoir were often selfish, callous and cruel, not least to third parties caught in their web. Why they chose to speak from the grave in this way will never be known. But one of their "victims" was still alive to answer them.
Bianca Bienenfeld, a redheaded Polish-born Jew who came to France with her parents as a baby in 1922, was just 16 when she became hopelessly infatuated with Beauvoir, her 29-year-old high school teacher. Beauvoir duly seduced her and, the following year, introduced her to Sartre, then 33, who also took her to bed. By 1939, now studying under Sartre at the Sorbonne, Bianca was convinced that she was the key figure in an idealized love triangle. In 1940 she was dropped, first by Sartre, then by Beauvoir. Bianca was devastated. In 1941, she married Bernard Lamblin, a fellow student at the Sorbonne, and they spent much of World War II avoiding capture by the Nazis, because she was Jewish and, later, because they both played a small part in the Resistance.
Mrs. Lamblin suffered frequent bouts of depression and never truly recovered from her rejection by Sartre and her obsession with Beauvoir. After the war, she sought out Beauvoir and, again friends though no longer lovers, they lunched once a month until Beauvoir died in 1986, six years after Sartre.
Discreet to the point of being secretive about their relationship, Mrs. Lamblin had never dreamed of writing her memoirs about the famous couple. Then, in 1990, Beauvoir's adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon, published Beauvoir's war journal and letters to Sartre. Although Bianca Bienenfeld had been given the pseudonym of Louise Védrine in the published accounts, Mrs. Lamblin felt profoundly betrayed by the contemptuous and dismissive way that her "friend" had referred to her 50 years earlier. "Nauseated and disgusted when I discovered the true personality of the woman I had loved all my life," she decided to break her silence.
Published in France in 1993 as "Mémoires d'Une Jeune Fille Dérangée," a play on Beauvoir's own "Memoires d'Une Jeune Fille Rangée" ("Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter"), "A Disgraceful Affair" is Mrs. Lamblin's painful attempt to purge herself of a specter that continues to haunt her. Smoothly translated by Julie Plovnick, the book has just three chapters, the first about "the threesome," the second about the war years and the third about Mrs. Lamblin's postwar contacts with Beauvoir. Mrs. Lamblin insists that she is not out to seek revenge. Still, Sartre and Beauvoir end up looking pretty shoddy.
In hindsight, Mrs. Lamblin believes that Beauvoir introduced her and other young women to Sartre in order to satisfy his "need for romantic conquests" and to sustain their partnership at a time when his own sexual interest in Beauvoir had evaporated. She also cannot forget that while Sartre and Beauvoir could not have ignored the dangers she faced as a Jew in occupied France, "they never worried about my fate or tried to get news of me" from the end of 1940 until the liberation in 1944.
But what most prompted Mrs. Lamblin to tell her side of the story was the belated discovery of the meanness, vengefulness and pettiness revealed by Sartre and Beauvoir in their letters to each other. In one letter, Beauvoir applauds Sartre's break with Bianca and says of the rejected woman, "She's prophesying doom like a Cassandra (what's new?) and hesitating between the concentration camp and suicide." Until Beauvoir's death, Mrs. Lamblin still believed in her "uprightness." Then she read the letters. "My eyes were finally opened," she writes. "In the end, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir did me only wrong."
NOTA: Bianca Bienenfeld nasceu em 29-4-1921 e faleceu em 5-11-2011.
|The Washington Post|
April 23, 2020 at 5:28 p.m. GMT+1
Deirdre Bair, an acclaimed biographer whose career flourished after she boldly wrote a letter to reclusive playwright Samuel Beckett, who invited her to Paris to interview him, died April 17 at her home in New Haven, Conn. She was 84.
She had a heart ailment, said her daughter, Katney Bair.
Ms. Bair, who was completing her graduate studies in the early 1970s, called herself “an accidental biographer” and chose Beckett as a subject only because his name came early in the alphabet. Considered by many to be the greatest playwright of the 20th century, the Irish-born Beckett lived in Paris and was best known for his 1952 play “Waiting for Godot.”
Evasive and dismissive toward reporters, Beckett responded to Ms. Bair, writing, “My life is dull and without interest.” But he added, “If you come to Paris, I will see you.”
She did just that, first meeting Beckett in 1971, two years after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. His first words, Ms. Bair later recalled, were, “So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.”
At the time, she was a 36-year-old faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania who had never written a book. Beckett gave her his blessing, in a backhanded way.
“I will neither help nor hinder you,” he said. “My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.”
At one of their meetings at a Paris cafe, Ms. Bair pulled out a notebook, prompting Beckett to jump out of his seat.
“No pencils. No paper,” he said, according to Ms. Bair’s 2019 memoir, “Parisian Lives.” “We are just having conversations. Just two friends talking. Don’t even think of a tape recorder.”
Thereafter, she rushed back from her interviews to write out Beckett’s comments as quickly as she could.
“I was ecstatic to think that all lights were green and all roads were open,” Ms. Bair wrote. “It wasn’t too long after that I came to understand why he cooperated so blithely: He did not take me seriously.”
Beckett’s condescension wasn’t the only obstacle she faced. One male scholar said she would be doing “a great favor” if she would turn over her research to him to use in his book.
Ms. Bair’s agent wouldn’t return her calls, her first publisher went bankrupt and the second rejected her manuscript. When she traveled to Europe for research, she left a freezer full of food — and 15 homemade apple pies — at home for her husband and two children.
Her biography, which was published in 1978, was considered the most thorough study written on Beckett, who died in 1989. After the paperback edition appeared, it won the National Book Award, but the praise for Ms. Bair’s book was sometimes marked by incredulity.
“Out of nowhere,” Newsweek critic Jack Kroll wrote, “this unknown English teacher at the University of Pennsylvania has produced what has to be the one indispensable book on Beckett.”
At least one journalist asked if Ms. Bair had slept with Beckett to gain access. Literary scholar Richard Ellmann, who had written a biography of Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce, mused in the New York Review of Books, “And what did she do to get Beckett to let her write his biography?”
“I felt I had done something terrible,” she told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2005. “I couldn’t take it. I left New York and went to California. I walked along the beach and cried. For a month.
“Then one day I said to myself . . . ‘You wrote a good book, you hold up your head and you go back to New York and you be proud of it.’ ”
For her next book, Ms. Bair returned to Paris for interviews with Simone de Beauvoir, the author of “The Second Sex,” one of the key treatises underlying the feminist movement.
“She was largely responsible for creating the current feminist revolution that changed the lives of half the human race in most parts of the world,” Ms. Bair wrote in her biography of de Beauvoir, who had been at the center of French intellectual life since the 1930s and was the longtime partner of philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre.
“When I started the book, I thought it was a relationship between two equals,” Ms. Bair told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “As I wrote the book, I felt that I was like a balloon slowly deflating. The myth of the perfect couple turned out, in my mind, to be just that, a myth.”
Ms. Bair concluded that, despite de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking feminist views, her relationship with Sartre left her in a subservient role — to the point of procuring younger female lovers for him.
De Beauvoir’s deepest romantic feelings, Ms. Bair found, were for American novelist Nelson Algren, whose ring she never stopped wearing. In later years, de Beauvoir lived with a young female philosophy student, Sylvie Le Bon, eventually adopting her. She adamantly denied that they were in a lesbian relationship.
Ms. Bair’s biography appeared in 1990, four years after de Beauvoir died. Ms. Bair suspected that de Beauvoir would have been wounded by what she wrote, but as a serious biographer, she was bound to a higher standard.
“You have to tell a good story, and you have to be a skillful enough writer to do that,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “But you also have to tell the exact truth.”
Deirdre Bartolotta was born June 21, 1935, in Pittsburgh and grew up in the western Pennsylvania town of Monongahela. Her father was a small-business owner, her mother a homemaker.
Ms. Bair graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, was married the same year and began working as a freelance writer and later for Newsweek magazine. Her early experiences in journalism prepared her for the treatment she received while writing about Beckett.
“I was always dealing with unpleasant behavior from men who, if they were not actual gropers or wannabe bed partners, took delight in slyly bombarding me with sexual innuendo,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir.
She later studied comparative literature at Columbia University, receiving a master’s degree in 1968 and a doctorate in 1972.
After her books on Beckett and de Beauvoir, Ms. Bair published biographies of writer and sexual adventurer Anaïs Nin (1995), psychiatrist Carl Jung (2003), cartoonist Saul Steinberg (2012) and gangster Al Capone (2016) — for which Ms. Bair received the cooperation of Capone’s descendants, if she agreed not to identify them by name.
Her 2019 memoir, “Parisian Lives,” garnered glowing reviews and was hailed by critic Heller McAlpin in the Wall Street Journal as “at once a record of triumph over the skepticism and sexism she encountered on her path from journalist to academic and biographer and a valuable lesson in the art of biography.”
In 2007, Ms. Bair published “Calling It Quits,” about couples who divorce after long marriages. She was later divorced from her husband of more than 40 years, museum administrator Lavon H. Bair.
Survivors include two children, Katney Bair and Vonn Scott Bair; a sister; a brother; and a granddaughter.
Despite her success as a literary biographer, Ms. Bair did not have a successful academic career. After being turned down for tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, she quit the faculty and devoted herself to being a full-time researcher and writer.
“I never did know how to play academic politics,” she wrote in “Parisian Lives,” “and I realize how fortunate I have been to be free from them, and to have spent so many years doing work that I love.”
Halfway through her book, the American biographer Deirdre Bair confesses to a crime. For years she had tried to get her hands on Samuel Beckett’s personal letters to Thomas MacGreevy, sure that they held the key to why Beckett left Ireland in October 1937 and moved to France. At last she got her chance, when MacGreevy’s nieces reluctantly permitted her to read them under strict conditions. But as she sat typing in their home that wintry Sunday in Dublin, listening to the family having lunch in the next room, Bair knew that she did not have enough time, in the limited hours the sisters had allowed her, to transcribe all of the correspondence she needed. “I made the only dishonest decision of my professional life that afternoon,” she admits. She discreetly tucked away a selection of the correspondence into her handbag to take back to her hotel room.
“The biographer at work,” Janet Malcolm writes, “is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.” Malcolm’s book(reissued by Granta in 2020) insists that writers and readers of biography are equally guilty of “voyeurism and busybodyism”: they tiptoe down the corridor together and gaze through the keyhole. The apparatus of serious scholarship in a literary biography is simply a veneer that lends respectability to the snooping.
Deirdre Bair returned the stolen letters to the MacGreevy collection the following day, and no harm was done. Yet it’s a revealing admission, showing that, like the trained reporter she was, she was prepared to go to any lengths to get a scoop. And a scoop it certainly was. WhenA was published in 1978, it caused a sensation and put a lot of academic noses seriously out of joint. Beckett scholars queued up to write sneering reviews of it, pointing out its errors and gaps. Fair as some of these criticisms were, Deirdre Bair’s real crime was that she, an unknown woman, had written the book about Beckett that none of the professors and academics had dared to.
It is extraordinary, but apparently true, that in 1970 Deirdre Bair made the decision to connect her life to Samuel Beckett’s with no more forethought than that of choosing an item from a lunch menu. She had spent the previous ten years working as a newspaper reporter, supporting her husband through graduate school and bringing up two young children. When she got the chance to spend a year studying literature at Columbia University she seized it, thinking it would help with her career as a journalist. She picked Beckett as a subject for her dissertation simply because his name came first in the neatly organised alphabetical index cards of writers that she had made. Her academic adviser warned her that if she wrote about the Irish writer’s life, as she was planning, she would never get a PhD or a university position. “It’s not scholarship; it’s only biography,” he told her.
But Bair “knew the tingle that came from identifying a good story” and decided to write to Beckett himself, asking his permission to write his biography. He replied a week later, telling her his life was “dull and without interest” and that “the professors know more about it than I do”. Then he scrawled, almost as an afterthought, one extraordinary and unpunctuated sentence. “Any biographical information I possess is at your disposal if you come to Paris I will see you.” In this way her life in biography – and her troubles ‑ began.
As Bair made plans to visit Paris in November 1971, things looked promising: a generous travel grant, a keen literary agent and the prospect of a publisher. Of course that didn’t last. A New York friend of Beckett’s, the writer John Kobler, insisted on giving her two enormous bottles of Bushmills whiskey to bring to Beckett. As she later discovered, Beckett didn’t even like Bushmills, and she had struggled to fit them into her suitcase and carry them to Paris for no good reason. The unwanted gift was symbolic of the misunderstandings and hazards that would attach themselves to Deirdre Bair, and drag her down, over the next seven years.
“I will neither help nor hinder you,” Beckett told her when they first met. “My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.” What Deirdre Bair hadn’t expected was that Beckett’s friends and enemies would be sometimes hard to tell apart, and over the seven years it took her to research and write the book, her subject himself was elusive. For all his open-handed generosity ‑ spending time with her, giving her introductions to his circle, allowing her to ask any questions she wished ‑ Beckett often mysteriously disappeared from Paris, leaving no forwarding address, during the very week that she had travelled from America to see him. When he did show up, he set strict rules. No tape-recording, no taking notes. Bair had to compile her questions on her index cards beforehand, memorise them carefully and then, after their meetings, dash back to her hotel room to scribble her notes. “Whenever he felt that I was getting too close to something he was reluctant to make known,” she recalls, “he could become clipped in his speech, cutting in his comments and dismissive of my work.”
She suspected that Beckett did not take her seriously. She was told by his friend Con Leventhal, who was greatly amused by it, that Beckett had referred to her as “the woman with striped hair”, alluding to her fashionable blonde highlights. She was reminded of the casual sexism of her newspaper reporter days where instead of news features, “girl reporters” were expected to write about “recipes and clothes, bridge clubs and social circles”. Bair had refused to give in, either then or in her new profession of biographer. Her persistence paid off with Beckett. “My word is my bond,” he told her, and she believed him. She had a reporter’s hunch that he was also curious to see what posterity would make of him while he was still around to see it.
Deirdre Bair’s experiences with most of Beckett’s friends were less than happy. She witnessed their “snide backbiting” as they argued among themselves about who was in his inner circle. She bought endless Scotch whiskeys for George Reavey in New York in exchange for biographical tidbits (“a nightmare that lasted throughout the seven years to write the book”). The poet John Montague arrived at her Connecticut home uninvited, with his wife and small child, and expected to stay for weeks. There is a sense on almost every page ofof the biographer settling scores and airing long-suppressed grievances. “I was the only one who recognized such things as his portrayals of some famous Dublin characters,” she notes of her reading of Beckett’s works, but her recollections of research trips to Dublin are not pleasant. “I spent many exhausting evenings sitting on a bar stool, trying to move out of the reach of one after another drunken Irish poet, actor, playwright, journalist or professor,” she recalls. It’s a pity that the generosity and kindness of Seamus and Marie Heaney and others towards her is described only in passing.
burns with Bair’s righteous rage at the sexist attitudes that dogged her at every turn during this period, and for years afterwards. When the biography was published in 1978, the discomfort that American male critics felt about a female writer taking on a serious literary subject was apparent. Richard Ellmann wondered in why Beckett allowed this unknown woman to write about him. “The question is quite as interesting as any problem propounded by the book, and answers may be guessed at.” His implication is as plain as that of the journalist who asked “How many times did you have to sleep with Beckett to get this scoop?” English reviewers were more fair, mixing their praise for Bair’s achievement with legitimate criticisms of the book. Strangely, Bair doesn’t mention Irish critics at all, but Brian Fallon in wrote (of the 1981 reprint): “The best sections are probably those dealing with Beckett’s life in France, his work for the Resistance (for which he was decorated) and the circumstances in which ‘Godot’ was written and produced, ending decades of obscurity and struggle. Ms Bair’s grasp of Irish literary life in the 1930s and 1940s is a good deal less impressive, and there is a smattering of irritating slips and blunders. For instance, O’Casey is credited with writing a play called ‘The Dreams of Father Ned’, ‘Con’ Cremin’s christian name is given as Constantine instead of Cornelius, the myth that Joyce was banned in Ireland is repeated, etc.”
The experience of writing Beckett’s life, before and after publication, left Deirdre Bair battle-scarred and weary, but she recalls some bright moments. After seven years of work, just before her book went to press, she was told that she had to obtain Beckett’s permission for every individual quotation from his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Distressed, she wrote to him to explain the situation, and asked him to place his initials beside every quotation that she planned to use, a total of twenty-three single-spaced pages. A week later she had his reply. He had initialled every single quotation except the poem he wrote as a twelve-year-old schoolboy at the Portora Royal School, wryly explaining that “it shows better your diligence as a researcher than my development as a writer”. Bair was deeply moved that after all the obstacles and hostile responses that she had encountered along the way, Beckett himself was as good as his word. “I have met many honorable persons throughout my long professional life,” she writes, “but there was never one whose integrity equaled Samuel Beckett’s. His word was indeed his bond.”
The success ofwas Bair’s reward. The public queued up to buy it, and she received the National Book Award in 1981. One publisher offered her a contract to write about anyone she wanted, convinced she could “tackle anyone Irish or even Virginia Woolf”. Bair had sworn never to write another biography but found her next subject not far from her first. Her acclaimed was published in 1986, and since then she has written over half a dozen well-received biographies, of Carl Jung, Anaïs Nin, Saul Steinberg and Al Capone, and had a successful career as an academic. But, she tells us in the introduction to , after so many books and so many years, all anyone is interested in are the two Paris-based writers Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, who cordially detested each other. Wherever she goes, whoever she talks about, she is always asked about them, and it is always the same question. “What were they really like?”
So, almost fifty years after she first looked into Beckett’s pale blue “gull’s eyes” in a run-down hotel lobby in Paris, Deirdre Bair has answered the busybodies’ burning question, while also turning the spotlight on herself. In her introduction she describes it as a “curious hybrid of a book, a ‘bio-memoir’”, andis as much about herself as a biographer as her encounters with Beckett and de Beauvoir. Her biographical life is portrayed through the prism of her most famous subjects, so it’s deeply poignant that Deirdre Bair died in April 2020 at the age of eighty-four, not long after her book was shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for biography. wasn’t meant to be her final word ‑ she was working on her next project, a biography of TS Eliot, when she died. But as it is, her book poignantly closes the circle of her lifelong professional relationship with Beckett and de Beauvoir and puts on record her own troubling, transgressive pursuit of other people’s lives.
In the endis not about the rights and wrongs of biography, or the crimes that are committed in its name. It is about the price that one woman paid to achieve success in her chosen profession despite all the odds. After the difficulties she encountered writing about Samuel Beckett, Bair describes how the words of the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois gave her the courage to keep writing biography. “No woman has a place as an artist until she proves over and over that she won’t be eliminated.”
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