Beloved Chicago Man

In February 1947, philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir met novelist Nelson Algren in Chicago, on the recommendation of a mutual friend. Algren arranged for their initial meeting to happen in a West Madison Avenue dive bar frequented by prostitutes, drug addicts, and other sundry low-lifes, expecting the French intellectual to be shocked. On the contrary, de Beauvoir was completely charmed: “It is beautiful,” she said. And thus began a long and complicated transatlantic relationship, beautifully captured (from her side, anyway) in Beloved Chicago Man, a collection of de Beauvoir’s letters to Algren. (The title of the paperback edition is A Transatlantic Love Affair.)

In her first letter to Algren (who won the first National Book Award in 1950 for his novel The Man With the Golden Arm, if you didn’t know), written on a train to California after her visit, de Beauvoir closes with: “Anyway, good bye or farewell. I’ll sure not forget these two days in Chicago, I mean I’ll not forget you.” Hundreds of letters followed over the next 17 years. The course of their tempestuous love affair can perhaps be expressed via the dozens of different salutations de Beauvoir used in her missives. Here are some, in chronological order: Dear Nelson Algren. Dear friend. My precious, beloved Chicago man. Nelson, mon cher amour. Dearest beloved you. Dearest naughty you. Dearest lazy you. My own beast. My darling own beast. My own beastish beast. Sweetest you, sweetest of all monsters in the world. My nice faraway wrapped in the blizzard you. My poor dearest American dilemma. Dearest Division Street Dostoyevsky. Dearest man with the golden arm. And my favorite: My man with the golden brain.

—Jerome Ludwig