Georges Simenon in America

One of the world’s most-read French-language authors, the Belgian creator of Inspector Maigret was born 120 years ago this month. Following the end of World War II, he spent ten years in North America – living in Quebec, New York, Florida, Arizona, and Connecticut – and published 48 novels.
Georges Simenon, 1966. © Sergio Del Grande/Mondadori/Getty Images

The reasons for Georges Simenon’s departure to America are unclear. He was denounced as a Jew during the Occupation, but after the Liberation he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. He was placed in administrative detention in the town of Les Sables-d’Olonne, in the Vendée département, from the summer of 1944 until April 1945. Writers from the Purge Commission accused him of negotiating film rights for his books with Continental, a Nazi-managed film studio, and the royalties from Maigret were placed in escrow until 1949. Simenon hoped leaving for the United States, in October 1945, would increase his sales, and enable him to reclaim assets which had been frozen during the war. While the U.S.A. can be seen in his work as early as 1929 in the novel Destinées, 13 of the 48 novels Simenon wrote during his time in America are set in the United States.

Depicting the American Way of Life

Simenon’s last feature article was published in the France-Soir newspaper in 1946, and later republished as a book called Des phoques aux cocotiers et aux serpents à sonnette : L’Amérique en auto. He then drove all the way down U.S. Route 1 from Maine to Florida in a Chevrolet, searching for “l’Amérique de Monsieur Tout-le-Monde” (“Everyman’s America”), to quote the France-Soir headline.

L’Amérique en auto presented his conversion to the American way of life, portraying his wife as the embodiment of the old world and introducing him as the link to the world of tomorrow. Simenon found a warm welcome in America, writing that “in this country, one really senses a great effort to inspire cheer and joie de vivre. The rooms are cheerful; the beds, for instance, are decorated with handmade bedspreads made of leftover pieces of fabric that are patched together in a most pleasing mosaic.”

But he did not give in to blind admiration. “In New York, it is not just the poverty that is dreadful; the mediocrity is equally if not more so,” he wrote. “One has to see these infinite, blackish cubes of brick, with, on the outside, the hideous iron staircases used as fire escapes. No attention has been paid to architecture, believe you me. Windows are unadorned square holes, and doors are still other holes. Everything is functional. The houses we have on the Rue Lamarck or in the Voltaire neighborhood [in Paris] are elegant masterpieces by comparison. Worst of all, there are thousands and thousands of these brick cubes, stretching as far as the eye can see, without the slightest hint of an oasis or the merest glimmer of hope, other than the fact the country is rich and enterprising enough to suddenly tear everything down and rebuild to achieve cheer and joie de vivre, as happens in the countryside and in small towns.”

Simenon made a point of staying close to the people, “because America, regardless of what Europeans think, is not so much the anonymous crowds of New York and a few other big cities, nor is it a few actors and billionaires, nor is it the noisy politics of Tammany Hall or the cold cynicism of gangsters. America, I am starting firmly to believe, is a country of good people, often decent people, who have come from far and wide to live in peace, who hold on to this peace at all cost, and who carefully preserve their traditions.”

Though he cautioned against generalization, Simenon gave into it towards the end of the article: “Here, I believe, is the American concept. Healthy, strong bodies. Technical knowledge. Some primary truths, to which never a second thought shall be given, and unlimited confidence in man’s fate, in the fate of the American […]. What’s more you are free […] to rebel if you wish, if you have a strong enough heart and mind. And you shall be applauded, with no hard feelings, if you become a Hemingway, a Steinbeck, a Dos Passos, or a Caldwell. You are inferior to no one.”

The American Mistress

Simenon was in New York a few months later when he met Denyse Ouimet, a 25-year-old Canadian woman looking for a job. The two soon became lovers. His marriage to Régine “Tigy” Renchon was on the rocks, but they stayed together. From then on, all three of them lived together, as Denyse moved into the family home under the official title of “secretary.” The lovers’ New York adventures inspired the novel Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1946), and the book is “for Denyse, so she never thinks about it again.”

“She smoked like American women – the same gestures, the same pouting lips you saw on magazine covers and in movies,” Simenon writes. “She struck the same poses, too, shrugging her fur coat off her shoulders to reveal her black silk dress, crossing her long legs in their sheer stockings.” The novelist emphasized the forced proximity induced by the urban experience of anonymity: “There was no one on the street, where trash cans added a note of vulgar intimacy. A man opposite, on the same floor, was shaving in front of a mirror hanging on his window. They made eye contact for a second.”

Ouimet and Simenon had their first child in 1949. Simenon divorced Tigy in 1950, and on the same day in Reno, Nevada, he married his “secretary,” who also managed press relations, publishing contracts, and accounting.

Georges Simenon and his Canadian wife Denyse at their home in Lakeville, Connecticut, 1953. © Henri Dauman

Maigret in New York

The American media views Simenon first and foremost as an author of detective novels, with a fine writing style appealing to a general readership. The inspector’s adventures were first translated in the United States in 1932, and legend has it that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his security detail all of the Maigret novels to read.

Published in 1947, Maigret in New York was the first of the novels to take place in the United States, following the inspector’s investigations in a never-ending journey through the city’s criminal underworld. The city impressed Simenon. “Contrary to most of the French people I met, I am truly passionate about New York.” Maigret ventured outside the upscale neighborhoods: “Soon, along the endless, rectilinear streets, we saw nothing but people of color milling around. We were passing through Harlem, with its identical houses, those blocks of dark brick that were further defaced by the iron fire-escape stairways zigzagging across their facades. We would cross a bridge, and much later, pass by warehouses or factories – it was hard to make them out in the darkness. And there, in the Bronx, were still other desolate avenues, sometimes featuring the yellow, red or purple lights of a neighborhood movie theater, or the display windows of a department store cluttered with wax mannequins striking static poses.”

Instead of settling for cushioned salons, the French detective opted for a shabby hotel, the Berwick, which “had reconciled him with America, perhaps because of its smell of humanity, and he now pictured all the living beings hidden in the air cavities of these brick cubes, all the scenes taking place behind the blinds.”

Simenon subsequently tried out different genres, producing a John Ford-style western, La Jument perdue (1948), written in Tucson, Arizona, and a novel set in the desert, The Bottom of the Bottle (1949). Simenon explained that “it is the first novel I conceived in English, and I even had a hard time, afterwards, producing the dialogue in proper French.” The book was adapted for cinema by Henry Hathaway in 1955, starring actors Joseph Cotten and Van Johnson. The story follows a feud in Arizona between two brothers. Simenon based this family dispute on his personal antagonism towards his own brother Christian. A colonialist in the Belgian Congo, a collaborator, and a wartime executioner of hostages, his brother died in an ambush in Hanoi in November 1947.

Maigret in Court

In Maigret at the Coroner’s (1949), Simenon attacked the Southern judicial apparatus. As Simenon explained to a journalist in 1965: “In the United States, the trial is an action. The entire investigation takes place in public and, at the slightest opportunity, everything can change. That’s why, in America, great criminal lawyers are amazing actors: They stage their trials like plays, with fake exits, plot twists, etc. And the whole thing is incredibly violent, as absolutely anything goes […]. It’s the American justice system that has the most flaws in it. If I were guilty, I would want to be tried in America… If I were innocent, I would want to be tried in England.”

In his novel he criticized the lack of compassion for the victim Bessy, a waitress at a drive-in, married at 14, divorced at 17, an intermittent prostitute, who spends the night with military cadets and ends up being hit by a train. The novel gave Simenon the chance to describe a rich, conformist society: “These people had everything. In any little town, the cars were as numerous and as luxurious as on the Champs-Elysées. Everyone wore new clothes, new shoes. The crowd was well-scrubbed and looked prosperous… They had everything, there was no doubt about it. And yet five twenty-year-old fellows were brought to the coroner’s because they had spent the night with a girl who had later been ripped apart by a train.”

Some scenes give the impression of being in an Edward Hopper painting: “There were twenty of them there at the bar, drinking while gazing straight ahead at the rows of bottles and the calendar sporting a naked woman. There were naked women, or half-naked women, just about everywhere. On advertisements and promotional calendars, pictures of beautiful girls in bathing suits on every newspaper page and every movie screen. -But, by God, what happens when these fellows want a woman? […] -They get married!”

America through the Bottle

Quietly settled in Lakeville, Connecticut, Simenon spent two or three hours writing at dawn every day, refueling with coffee and Coca-Cola before tending to the garden, napping between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and looking after his three children. He delivered six novels a year, two of them investigations by the famous Inspector Maigret. His publishers couldn’t keep up. Simenon kept repeating that he was not “intelligent enough to write slowly.” In his simple writing style, he describes the frustrated middle classes thriving amid the middle-of-the-road conservatism of the 1950s.

In Simenon’s America, one drinks a lot to escape loneliness: “Public life is virtually absent in the United States. No café terraces where one is certain to meet friends. When one wants to see people, one organizes a party. A party means lots of cocktails and whisky, music, dancing and everything else, as much as one likes, in every corner and behind the curtains.” The errant couple in Three Bedrooms in Manhattan always has one for the road, Maigret is a regular in bars, Un nouveau dans la ville (1950) is set virtually exclusively in a bar, and one loses count of how many liters it takes to reach The Bottom of the Bottle (1949).

Teetotal for several years, Simenon published La mort de Belle in 1952 as his “first real American novel.” In an attempt to prepare for the work, he asked Gallimard to send him the novels of Chandler, McCoy, Hammett, O’Hara, Caldwell, Steinbeck, and Faulkner, which constitute a “school of daily life struggling with despair.” Ashby, the character at the center of this paranoid novel, drinks at home alone and is therefore suspected of being a killer, responsible for the murder of the young woman staying with him.

The writer Henry Miller, Simenon’s friend and an indictor of the “air-conditioned nightmare” that was the American experience, complimented Simenon on his novel: “You know your New England well! Nothing is wrongly drawn. What I notice in reading this book is that you convey an unglamorous image of this country, the real one. And all without saying a derogatory word. Well done. I shall never go East unless there is a death in the family. New England gives me the chills.”

And yet Simenon abandoned America to return home with his family one morning in March 1955. In a letter to his U.S. publisher Sven Nielsen, he wrote: “My reasons for leaving? The honest truth? Well, just between us, after ten years I was suddenly homesick. This has been bothering me for about three months.” Simenon admitted not having won his “American battle.” He abandoned his citizenship application, disgusted by Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt.

He settled in Mougins, in the South of France, and wrote The Rules of the Game, once again set in the United States, before moving to Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1989. The author continued to denounce anti-Americanism, writing: “No, Americans are not grown-up children that eat poorly, or rough-hewn cowboys who are more dedicated to sports than studies.” He predicts the advent of an American-style consumer society in Europe: “This is coming. I repeat… A mechanized world, people who spend their money before earning it, a false equality in the most capitalist of countries.” In De la cave au grenier (1975), he recalled that “in ten years, I traveled all over the United States […]. Nowhere did I find this fever and brutality in the extremes relished by our European journalists.”

Article published in the October 2015 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.