From the Vault of Art Shay: Nelson and Simone

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 2, 2011 7:37PM

On an autumn morning before most of you were born, my friend Nelson Algren — one of the two best novelists Chicago ever produced (the other: Saul Bellow) — asked me a strange favor.

"Just tried to get Frenchy into the Division Street Y to bathe," said Nelson, "but they turned us down just because she doesn't have a dick." I could hear Simone de Beauvoir saying the "Merde!" word and then playfully swatting Nelson on the head with his Sun-Times. I pictured him fending her off as he asked, "Could you borrow me a bathroom for her?"

Algren lived in a ten buck a month apartment at 1523 Wabansia (fated to be subsumed by the Expressway). It was mostly a kitchen Lewis Hine would be at home in, with a tiny bedroom - a bathless john - and a tiny bedroom in which great sexual momentum during fucking was gained by planting a leg or two on the pressing walls. It was on this
very bed that Nelson brought his exotic, soon to be fabulously known, taught and celebrated "Frenchy" - Simone de Beauvoir, the (so-so) novelist, recondite philosopher and author of The Second Sex to her first orgasm. Not bad for a hard bodied boxing jock of 40 and the lusty woman of 41 whose body he borrowed from her lifetime companion, Jean Paul Sartre - to whom she wrote twice a day with the details they had promised to regale each other.

For his part, Sartre would tell Simone of his petite affaires with high school and college girls, and his skills at bringing them to digital orgasm. Sometimes Simone would supply Sartre with young women that she herself had broken in after class. Algren's rejoinder when Simone told him the above? "So what, I like broads too. As I say, long ago in a city that no longer exists except in name".

Why am I telling you this in a disquisition in which I planned to discuss what has, alas, become my most famous picture? The one the press - foreign and domestic - will gleefully reproduce the moment I die: my dorsal nude grab-shot of Simone in a borrowed north side bathroom later that same day? A picture of which Le Monde said is "a stunning photograph that has caused much ink to be spilled since it was published Jan. 3 (2008) on the cover of Nouvel Observateur."

On the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir's birth, the magazine chose an image of the writer, nude seen from behind, in the middle of fixing her hair.A little known photo, aesthetic to be sure, but also highly salable. Certain feminists didn't appreciate seeing the author of The Second Sex reduced to a pin-up showing her buttocks. Numerous readers mailed tart comments to the weekly while debate raged on the blogs. One of the main criticisms in the French, German and Italian press: the magazine photoshopped Madame's legs. Editor Michel Labro defended this saying, "Let's not get carried away, we didn't give her a face lift!" He said they'd just slimmed her legs for the cover.

There were pickets, and the Galerie Loeb, exhibiting my pictures at the time, hired an armed guard against demonstrating moralists, Feminists, or anti-Americans. No combat. alas, but Claude "Shoah" Lanzmann, who lived with Simone for seven years (he succeeded her as editor of Les Temps Moderne), saw the picture at the Galerie, told me he was thrilled to see it, that he had seen "thees view" many times, but "I'd nevair thought to use my Leica." Then he asked me for a print , and I sent him two, one of which he sent back playfully autographed "with friendship and conspiracy."

So The New Yorker magazine then did a lead article entitled "Love and Politics" written by one Adam Gopnik, who had sometimes reported on French affaires. He began, "Earlier this month, France was disrupted by the image of a woman both sexually alive and politically relevant - defiant and proud and threatening."

"How could Frenchy's ass be threatening?" I wondered. Gopnik lasciviously Gopniked along: "And while that was going on, the President of the country was canoodling with a former model." A gorgeous, sometimes, nude model from Italy who would become the President's wife shortly. A nude picture of her while she was dating Mick Jagger, sold in '09 at a Christie's auction in London to a Chinese buyer for $91,000. My nude of Simone sold at the Louvre a month ago for a mere $2000.

"The picture in question was a photograph, published on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur," Adam persists, "the center-left newsweekly, of Simone de Beauvoir, philosopher and feminist seen tout ensemble, and from the rear. It's quite a photograph. (It's quite a rear.) The picture was taken in 1950, by, of all people, an American - the photographer Art Shay - in, of all places, Chicago, where Beauvoir was canoodling bilingually with Nelson Algren."

More dirty Gopnikery: Henry Miller canoodled bilingually with Anais Nin in Clichy. Carla Bruni-Sarkosy's nude "has been around several blocks - with Mick and also with Donald Trump. (Maybe he was merely researching for a new hairstyle?)

Adam uses the occasion of my famous picture to lift his laptop's figleaf on the likes of Bill Clinton, and that sofa-jumper Tom Cruise with Oprah.Tony Blair weighs in with Princess Di and some earlier bling bling French Presidents, including Mitterand, whom he reports would go "on long walks alone to old bookstores, and then make love to his mistress on his way home to his wife, patting his love children on the head." I mean, this guy is some kind of observer. Or maybe, as I consider him, a writer of New Yorker fiction.

Not for any of the above, but for his words below that have rankled me since they got by the New Yorker's fact checkers and in prevaricating, libeled poor-dead Nelson and Simone, and poor living me. Says the mind-reading Gopnik:

"The real motivation of the affair is the one thing in life stronger than feminine scorn: the never-to-be-underrated power of masculine sexual conceit, of the kind that leads Chicago writers who can't believe how they've lucked out with their French girlfriend to have her nude portrait taken in the bathroom..."

As poor Nelson might defend if he were still around: This masturbatory writer, Gopnik, just off the boat from New York, aside from calling Chicago the city "in of all places" and my photog friend Art Shay an "of all people" photographer, suggests to the sex-mad New Yorker readers of his cute little fiction story, that I hired my friend Art- the father of my godchild Harmon, to shoot a picture of Madame nude in the bathroom. For me. For my wall or wallet, or to show to my mother up in her flat at 2727 West Lawrence?

When GM was booming after WW2, they hired a hotshot adman - the best in the business - to come up with a new campaign to sell their cars. The president of GM, pretty wise himself, considered the illusory pitch, then turned the guy and the program down cold. When a writer I worked with on Fortune magazine asked him why, he replied, "When I shoot pool I like to keep at least one fucking foot on the ground."

And so should The New Yorker.

Recalling the joys and anguish of the Simone picture that will probably be featured in my obituaries as a stand-in for 50 years of front line photojournalism (JFK, Martin Luther King, Hemingway, Liz Taylor etc.), I thought of my favorite Algren quote, muttered to me in my 49 Pontiac, after he received a weepy call from Simone in Paris. She was distraught because he had reviewed - and mocked - her Goncourt prize-winning novel, The Mandarins, about their love affair, saying, "I think the lady has invaded her own privacy." Adding that he'd been in whorehouses all over the Far East, and even there they had the decency to pull down the blinds.

"Frenchy said," he went on, imitating her voice as poorly as he sometimes imitated her handwriting, "how could I be so cruel. Hadn't I enjoyed the affair, the sex, as much as she?" He paused. "I told her, 'Of course I had enjoyed the sex. But I wasn't reviewing the fucking; I was reviewing the fucking book!'"

I wonder what Adam Gopnik, of all people, would have done with that line, in of all places, The New Yorker.


If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.