Simone deBeavior, Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren


She arrived in Chicago on a slushy cold February day in 1947. A friend had told her to look up a writer named Algren. And in the tour of the underbelly, mean streets, dive bars in the Polish neighborhood of the city, and the walk back through the bitter wind to his tiny warm apartment on Wabansia Street where the steam radiators clanked and the hot water took a minute or two to get going; they fell in love.

Rooted in Paris, as deeply as Algren was rooted in Chicago, their love lived off transatlantic letters, no emails, texts or tweets, and the stolen days and weeks of vacation times together over almost 20 years. The “feminist,” such a grossly dismissive label for Simone deBeauvoir, a person who it could be argued, did as much as any human being for changing the way the world viewed ½ its population; was buried with Nelson Algren’s ring on her finger.

But, like Chicago was home to Algren, Paris was home to deBeauvoir.

Her home was also with “The Philosopher” Jean Paul Sartre.

I remember once slogging through Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”—a book the size of about 5 phone books—and asking my philosophy professor, “So, what all this says is we’re all a bunch of little red rubber balls that spend our lives bouncing off each other, right?” (College students get temporary passes on being dismissive) And my professor’s answer was, “Well, there’s a bunch of other stuff in there too but, yeah that’s the gist of it.” Pouring out a philosophical vein of gold that encompassed a philosophy and a literary canon, Paris was home to Sartre. Home to Sartre was also deBeauvoir.

Sartre and deBeauvoir called what was between them, “open.”

Algren’s letters to deBeauvoir have never been made public. Her letters were published. Collected in “A Transatlantic Love Affair. Letters to Nelson Algren.”

In this collection of over 300 letters, this woman, a giant on the stage of intellectual history writes them a home together.” DeBeauvoir writes;

“I should like to have you here, in the little garden in front of the blue and yellow inn. I see you sitting near me, smiling to me. How much I love this smile! Did you think, two weeks ago, you should so nicely smile in a French little garden, in a French loving heart? Here you are my beloved one, smiling to me and loving me while the cuckoo is singing nearby. And I smile and love you in the French garden and in Chicago too; I am in our Chicago home as well as you are in France with me. We have not parted and we’ll never part. I am your wife forever.”

Sartre and deBeauvoir stayed rooted, stayed at home in Paris, their whole lives.

Algren, the writer, did not. His relationship with Chicago was complex. And in 1975 Algren left Chicago forever and moved to Paterson New Jersey. He died on Long Island.

Why did Algren leave his home? What’s the real reason that “the writer” came to such a different end than the “philosopher and the feminist?”

The answer is on the privately shot video below where you see another genius, Studs Terkel, going to work. There is a lot of laughing, joking around, Algren is a story teller and that comes through.

But when you watch Terkel, you see that he takes the art of listening to almost dizzying heights. You see no notes in this “interview.” You see the timing of the questions as if it were all being choreographed by some mystical Swiss Watch. The two were life long friends. And that comes through here.

You see Studs make it look easy. This is what Studs did. Whether it was in the living room of a friends house, like here, walking down a street and stopping a stranger, or for a book. This is what he did. He made it look easy.

So finally, at the end of this conversation that is, when you consider what is revealed from a guy who really doesn’t like to reveal much, a remarkably short conversation, you see and you hear Algren’s truth.

You see him come clean about where one can find his books. In the libraries of Tokyo. But not in Chicago.

Studs Terkel giving a master’s class.

On how to take care of a writer.

On what happens when we don’t.

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