Françoise Sagan: A Literary Escape to Key West

In April 1955, the French author of Bonjour Tristesse put her American tour on hold to spend two weeks in Tennessee Williams’ vacation home with Carson McCullers. Using this anecdote as a base, French novelist and journalist Brigitte Kernel wrote her fictional 2018 novel, Jours brûlants à Key West.
© Thomas McAvoy/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Françoise Sagan was just 19 when she traveled to the United States to promote Bonjour Tristesse. Described as a “charming little monster” by writer François Mauriac, her scandalous reputation preceded her. Some sharp-tongued critics even whispered that she was not the real author of her wildly popular debut novel, an account of a high-school student’s romantic affairs while on vacation on the French Riviera, and her complicity with her father “on subjects that were previously out of bounds between parents and children.” Welcomed to America like a Hollywood star, she gave half-hearted interviews in faltering English. When meeting crowds of eager readers, she mechanically signed the same mistranslated message in every book: “With all my sympathies.” She was bored senseless, but as fate would have it, she received a telegram from Tennessee Williams – a man she considered to be the greatest American poet since Walt Whitman. The playwright invited her to spend a few days at his home in Key West, where he was staying with his partner, actor Frank Merlo, and the novelist Carson McCullers. Françoise Sagan took the first plane to Miami and drove across Florida, “thinking about Key Largo and other detective movies.” Joined by her sister Suzanne and a friend, she stayed at the unremarkable Key Wester Hotel, not far from Tennessee Williams’ house.

Thirty years later, the novelist shared this story in Avec mon meilleur souvenir (1984), an autobiographical book featuring Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, and Rudolf Nureyev. One chapter is devoted to the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, with whom Sagan struck up a transatlantic friendship that lasted until his death in 1983. In a few beautifully written pages, she paints the portrait of a cheerful, tender, profoundly decent man, as celebrated by critics as he was despised by puritans. “Much like Sartre, Giacometti, and several other men I knew too little, he was quite incapable of doing harm, striking out, or being severe,” she wrote. For two weeks, the writer and her fellow travelers experienced a snapshot of life with Tennessee Williams, Frank Merlo, and Carson McCullers, a sad, childlike woman with “eyes as blue as puddles,” ravaged by alcohol and sickness at the age of 38 . “I saw these two men taking care of this woman,” Françoise Sagan wrote, clearly moved. “Putting her to bed, getting her up, dressing her, entertaining her, keeping her warm, loving her; in short, providing her with everything that friendship, understanding, and attention can give to someone who is too sensitive, who has seen too much and extracted too much from it, who has written perhaps too much to bear it, to suffer it even a moment longer.”

In New Selected Essays: Where I Live (2009), a posthumous collection of previously unpublished work, Tennessee Williams gives his own version of this short stay. Perhaps out of modesty, he notes that Françoise Sagan came to Key West to meet Carson McCullers, who was staying with him. “There was clarity and humor, not confusion and panic, in her young eyes,” he writes. “It was evening when I met her. I wondered if in the morning she would be at her typewriter banging out a new novel with panicky compulsion. Well, she wasn’t. In the morning, she was sun-bathing and swimming, and in the afternoon we went deep-sea fishing and in the evening, when it came again, she took the wheel of my sports car and drove it so fast, with such a gay smile, that I had to warn her of the highway patrolmen.”

© Léa Chassagne
© Léa Chassagne

Scorching Florida Days

What did the young French novelist and two of the greatest 20th-century American writers have to say to each other? No one will ever know. Sagan’s memories faded over time and were anything but expansive. The same goes for Tennessee Williams who only briefly shared his version in an article for Harper’s Bazaar in August 1956, in New Selected Essays and in Une vie (2011), the biography written about him by Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint. Using this void as inspiration, Brigitte Kernel, who knew Sagan, published a fictional novel, Jours brûlants à Key West, in 2018. Based on an imaginary conversation between a dying Frank Merlo, a man history forgot, and a French journalist, she recreated the atmosphere of those hot, gin-soaked days. Françoise Sagan annoys and fascinates Carson McCullers in equal measure. She is portrayed as a wild young thing whose mind works a mile a minute, desperate to understand the world around her but pathologically absent-minded and spendthrift. The young French author’s work was still in the making, and it is naturally enthralling to imagine the two great writers working face to face on their Hermes Baby typewriters – the same model Hemingway used.

After these few days that have become the stuff of legend, Françoise Sagan saw Tennessee Williams on several occasions. First in New York City three years later, when they took a car and visited Carson McCullers in Connecticut. The next time was in Rome the following year, along with William Faulkner and Anna Magnani, then again in New York, when Tennessee was devastated, having separated from Frank Merlo. In 1971, after accepting a commission from André Barsacq, director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, she decided to translate Sweet Bird of Youth into French, working tirelessly all summer to live up to the original. Ever the faithful friend and despite his financial troubles, Tennessee Williams came to Paris to attend the premiere. He was accompanied by actress Maria Britneva, who had become Baroness St. Just after marrying an English lord. As Sagan recounts in Avec mon meilleur souvenir, the playwright “laughed his head off” while watching his own play, before slipping away at the intermission to escape the Parisian elite and soak up the atmosphere of Montmartre. “I miss you, poet,” Sagan concludes, “and I fear that this sorrow will last for a long time to come.” Could she possibly have known, at the age of 19, that she was experiencing one of the defining moments of her life in Key West?

New Selected Essays: Where I Live
by Tennessee Williams, New Directions Publishing, 2009.

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.