I Love You, Mon Amour

Ten Legendary French-American Couples

The following portraits are of artists, designers, writers, diplomats, and actors. Half are French, half are American. And all of them are in love! In celebration of Valentine’s Day, France-Amérique has taken a closer look at ten legendary French-American couples whose passionate or thwarted romances have gone down in 20th-century history.
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Simone de Beauvoir & Nelson Algren

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were one of the most legendary couples of the twentieth century. However, Simone’s greatest love was American. In 1947, the writer had begun working on her famed essay, The Second Sex, when she was invited to give a series of lectures in the United States. After New York, Connecticut, Washington, Virginia, and Ohio, she arrived in Chicago. While there, her friends recommended she meet Nelson Algren, who had just published his first short story collection.

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They met at the restaurant of the Palmer House hotel. The Parisian intellectual and the son of an illiterate mechanic had little in common, but they fell for each other immediately. They went to different bars, cabarets, and saloons in the city, and spent the night together. Thus started a passionate relationship. They exchanged some 300 letters between 1947 and 1964. Beauvoir nicknamed him “mon bien-aimé” and even “my beloved husband.” She continued her career in Paris, but reunited with her “crocodile adoré” during the summer. The lovers would find refuge in the cottage Algren had bought near the city of Gary, Indiana. The house overlooked the dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, and a neighbor remembers that the French philosopher enjoyed sunbathing naked in the garden!

Beauvoir recounted these carefree moments in her 1954 Goncourt-winning novel The Mandarins, while Algren dedicated his collection of essays Who Lost an American? to her in 1963. They separated the following year, but Beauvoir was buried with Algren’s ring more than twenty years later. On the shores of Lake Michigan, the cottage that saw their romance unfold is still there. The path that runs nearby is named the Nelson Algren & Simone de Beauvoir Trail in memory of the two lovers.

Louise Bourgeois & Robert Goldwater

“I married my mother when I married Robert.” This quote from artist Louise Bourgeois is very meaningful. She hated her father, but loved her mother, who was her “best friend.” In the family studio in Choisy-le-Roi, south of Paris, where her mother restored tapestries, Louise discovered her artistic side while designing the motifs to help with the weaving.

Bourgeois was running a gallery in Paris in 1937 when she met American art historian Robert Goldwater, who had come to France to write his thesis on Primitivism and modern painting. He had a dry sense of humor and was a feminist before his time. “In between talks about surrealism and the latest trends, we got married,” she said. The couple moved to New York, where Bourgeois took classes at the Art Students League. Goldwater introduced her to the American intelligentsia and exiled European intellectuals. In 1945, Bourgeois presented twelve paintings at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery, her first personal exhibit. Influenced by the work of Giacometti and Le Corbusier, she also took to wood sculpting on the roof of her apartment where she lived with her husband and their three children on the Lower East Side.

But Bourgeois resented being overshadowed by her husband, and used sculpture to externalize her unhappiness. In Portrait of Robert (1969), a bronze bust of her husband is engulfed in what appears to be tentacles or oversized penises. However, recognition was a long time coming. Louise Bourgeois was 82 when MoMA hosted her first retrospective in 1994. It was the very first of its kind for a female sculptor, the oldest figure of an avant-garde movement who would soon be venerated by a new generation of American artists.

Pierre Cartier & Elma Rumsey

The daughter of a rich industrialist from St. Louis and a relative of banker J.P. Morgan, Elma Rumsey was staying in Paris when she met the grandson of the Cartier jewelry house’s founder. It was love at first sight. The couple wed in 1908 and moved to New York, where the first Cartier store opened the following year.

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Pierre Cartier’s influence grew with Elma’s help, and he began selling brooches and necklaces to New York high-society women. William Vanderbilt’s wife purchased a diamond and pearl sash, and heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean acquired the renowned Hope diamond, a 44.5-carat gem that once belonged to Louis XIV. “Elma’s standing helped elevate Pierre above that of a foreigner shopkeeper looking to cash in on his adoptive country,” wrote Francesca Cartier Brickell in her book about her family history, The Cartiers (2019).

In 1917, the “Cartier Building” was inaugurated at 653 Fifth Avenue. The boutique was decorated according to the latest Paris fashions. Pierre and Elma returned to Paris during World War II to take care of the family jewelry store, and spent the rest of their lives in Switzerland. The Cartier “temple” was listed as a historical landmark in 1970, and was recently restored. Today, it is still home to the brand’s American headquarters.

Yves Montand & Marilyn Monroe

Two comets with very different flight paths collided in Hollywood in 1960. Yves Montand had started out as a singer on Broadway the previous year. By contrast, Marilyn Monroe, a 1950s American sex symbol whose marriage to playwright Arthur Miller was falling apart, was going from one mediocre production to the next. The musical film Let’s Make Love was supposed to relaunch her career.

Supposedly at Marilyn’s behest, the studios successively turned down Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, and Rock Hudson before offering the male lead to Yves Montand. The Frenchman didn’t speak a word of English, and had to learn his lines phonetically by heart. The cast moved into a Beverly Hills hotel during filming; Marilyn lived in a bungalow with her husband while Yves and his wife, actress Simone Signoret, moved in next door. The two couples became friends. But Miller’s trip to Ireland to join director John Huston and work on the screenplay for the movie The Misfits put an end to the Californian idyll. Signoret left shortly afterwards for Rome, where she was filming Hungry for Love. Yves and Marilyn were left to their own devices.

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The two lovers went out in public in Hollywood and New York, and the news made the front pages. Photos showed the actress with a slightly rounded stomach, and she was quickly thought to be pregnant. This affair put an end to the Millers’ marriage, but Signoret was far more pragmatic. “If Marilyn is in love with my husband, it proves she has good taste,” she said. Let’s Make Love was released on September 8, 1960, and while it wasn’t as successful as expected, it remains famous for being “the movie whose title Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand took a little too seriously.”

Juliette Gréco & Miles Davis

Miles Davis could well have sung, “I have two loves, Paris and Juliette Gréco.” In postwar Paris, the French singer, the muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the American musician, the up-and-coming “Picasso of jazz,” enjoyed a passionate love affair – tragically cut short by the racism in U.S. society at the time.

Juliette Greco-Miles-Davis​
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Gréco was 22 when she set eyes on the trumpetist. In May 1949, the International Jazz Festival was reborn in Paris and the biggest American names in bebop had made a special effort to attend. This was the first time Davis had left the United States, and played the Pleyel concert hall with pianist Tadd Dameron’s quintet. “I saw him from the side; he was an Egyptian god,” said Gréco, who was watching him from backstage. “I had never seen such a beautiful man, and I haven’t seen one since.” The lovers lived together at the La Louisiane hotel in the sixth arrondissement. Accompanied by Gréco, Davis met Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, and Picasso. The pair would stroll along the Seine, hand in hand, stopping for a kiss. An unthinkable idyll in the United States, where interracial relationships were forbidden.

Davis enjoyed a new freedom in France. “I had never felt that way in my life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “It was the freedom of being in France and being treated like a human being.” A number of African American musicians settled in Paris, but Davis decided to return home. When Sartre asked him why he refused to ask Gréco to marry him, he replied: “Because I love her.” “He knew that black and white didn’t go together,” she said years later. “He knew I would be unhappy, and that I would be treated like a common whore in America.”

Romain Gary & Jean Seberg

Romain Gary was the French consul in Los Angeles in 1959, and was charmed by his guest’s wife, American actress Jean Seberg, the iconic lead in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Breathless. The diplomat, a former aviator for the Free French Forces and a Goncourt-winning novelist, was captivated by the young woman. They were both married and twenty years apart, but became one of the most gossip-provoking couples of the 1960s.

They spent their vacations in Majorca, dined with the Kennedys at the White House, and celebrated their wedding in a small Corsican village away from prying eyes. Gary abandoned his career at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to devote his life to writing. Living between France and the United States, he followed his young wife as she continued filming movies and kept a jealous eye on her. As a civil rights activist, Seberg opened Gary’s eyes to the condition of Black Americans and supported the Black Panthers. Due to her involvement, she was wiretapped by the FBI, false rumors were spread about her, and their relationship slowly fell apart. This period is the subject of the 2019 movie Seberg, with Kristen Stewart in the role of the persecuted, suicidal actress, and Yvan Attal as the possessive writer.

Gary took revenge through writing, portraying his wife as a frigid, unfaithful nymphomaniac in his 1968 movie Birds in Peru. Their divorce was announced two years later. In 1979, Seberg’s lifeless body was discovered in Paris. A combination of alcohol and barbiturates led investigators to conclude a suicide. Gary joined her fourteen months later. Alongside the revolver with which he took his life, he left a note beginning with the sentence: “Nothing to do with Jean Seberg.”

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Niki de Saint Phalle & Harry Mathews

They created their greatest works after their separation in 1960. Niki de Saint Phalle developed the Tirs, performances involving the artist shooting at a canvas, and her Nanas, a series of curvaceously multicolored women, while Harry Mathews published his first surrealist novels and translated Georges Perec, who invited him to join the experimental literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, “workshop of potential literature”).

Niki and Harry were teenagers when they met in the summer of 1944 while their families were on vacation in the Berkshires, a popular destination among the New York elite. They bumped into each other again on a train several years later. “We were both artistically inclined, oversensitive, overtly rebellious romantics,” said Harry. They married less than a year later – Niki was 18, Harry was 19 – and moved to France with their first child. In Paris, Niki studied theater and dabbled in painting while Harry wrote poetry. The young couple had a second child together and enjoyed a bohemian life across Europe.

However, Niki suffered from psychological troubles and spent six weeks in a psychiatric ward in Nice. During her free time, she took walks in the garden, collected branches and leaves, and made her first collages. “My mental breakdown was good in the long run, because I left the clinic a painter,” she wrote in her book Harry and Me: The Family Years (2006). She presented her first paintings in Switzerland in 1956.

Marguerite Yourcenar & Grace Frick

In May 1979, French journalist Jacques Chancel arrived on Mount Desert Island in Maine. This is where Marguerite Yourcenar, a writer and the Académie Française’s soon-to-be first female member, had lived in a small, white, clapboard house since 1950. “You live with a friend, a young woman, a lady,” ventured the journalist. “An American, who is my translator and who has translated three of my books,” replied the writer.

The two women began living together in 1937 after meeting in Paris. Yourcenar was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a father of French descent, and had already published three novels. Grace Frick, an Ohio native, was finishing her degree at Yale and was working on her thesis. She was immediately enchanted by the writer and her “luminous blue eyes.” In 1939, the two women moved to New York and then to Connecticut, where Frick taught at a local university and Yourcenar immersed herself in American literature. But depression and distraught by the war ravaging Europe, she stopped writing. Frick supported her throughout this painful time, described by Yourcenar’s biographers as her “American night.”

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With the help of a small inheritance, the couple bought a house in Maine and named their little haven “Petite Plaisance.” There, they were able to escape self-righteous academic committees and senator McCarthy’s inquisitions, which targeted both communism and homosexuality. In her new home, Yourcenar completed her two masterpieces, Memoirs of Hadrian and The Abyss. Frick was her publisher, and introduced her works to an Anglophone readership. For thirty years, wrote the New Yorker, “Frick would be her companion, her translator, her household manager, and her shield against the world – possibly the most complete literary wife in the annals of art.”

Marcel Duchamp & Alexina Sattler

The daughter of an Ohio ophthalmologist, Alexina Sattler studied sculpture in Paris where she met Marcel Duchamp in 1923. She was 17, he was 36, and his readymade sculptures had made him famous in France and the United States.

Sattler ended up marrying Pierre Matisse, the youngest son of painter Henri Matisse, and moved to New York with him where they had three children. She represented Constantin Brâncuși and Juan Miró for some time, and managed her husband’s gallery when he returned to France to fight in World War II. They divorced in 1949. Several years later, Sattler met with Duchamp while on a trip to New Jersey. They shared a passion for chess, and married on January 16, 1954. As a sort of wedding present, the artist offered his wife a small sculpture he named Wedge of Chastity, a brown metal block lodged in a pink plastic mold. “We still have it on our table,” he said. “We usually take it with us, like a wedding ring.”

Sattler supported Duchamp throughout his career. When he holed himself up in his Greenwich Village studio to work on his last readymade, Etant donnés, she was his only confidante – the public thought he had given up art. She was also his assistant and recorded his memories, even asking Man Ray, one of Duchamp’s old friends, to photograph him on his deathbed on October 2, 1968. Sattler then donated his work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and worked on the Duchamp archives in Villiers-sous-Grez, near Paris, where she lived until her death in 1995.

Jo Bouillon & Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker is above all remembered for her sensual dancing and the banana skirt she wore on stage at the Folies Bergères in 1925. However, these images overshadow her real struggles and achievements. Baker was an American icon of the Parisian cabaret scene. But she was also the head of a utopian family she cared for with her fourth husband, French bandleader Jo Bouillon.

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Baker was unable to have children. During World War II, she worked as an Allied spy in North Africa and had one of many miscarriages. She was forced to have a hysterectomy. Bouillon, who she met after the war and married in 1947, helped her back on stage. In 1951, she was back in the United States, where she brought down the house on Broadway and began a national tour. The artist used her popularity to make her voice heard. She refused to perform in segregated venues and frequented the most beautiful hotels and finest restaurants where Black people were forbidden at the time. To prove that cultures can coexist, Baker and Bouillon adopted twelve children of different nationalities. Their “Rainbow Tribe” moved into the Milandes, a medieval castle the couple purchased in the Périgord region. Jari was Finnish and Stellina Moroccan; Koffi was from Ivory Coast and Luis from Colombia.

The family estate was later transformed into a theme park open to the public. But the utopia was short-lived. Baker was often absent, and performed more and more shows to pay for the dilapidated château’s upkeep. She had several lovers and the children were often left to their own devices. The couple separated in 1957. Jean-Claude Baker, a French child and the thirteenth member of the tribe, was never legally adopted. However, he cherished the memory of his adoptive parents at his Manhattan restaurant until his death in 2015.

Article published in the February 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.