Unmarried, radical, and leaders of a postwar philosophical movement, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir defined the power couple for a new generation. The early feminist author of The Second Sex and the French existentialist philosopher were partners in work and wisdom, even though they often kept very separate lives. Our friends at Open Culture introduced us to a video that shows footage of the prominent twentieth-century thinkers in a 1968 documentary filmed at Sartre’s Montparnasse apartment. It’s a rare and intimate glimpse into their private lives. The website also quotes Louis Menand in The New Yorker, in an excerpt that defines the essence of Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship: “They were a powerful couple, with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables… but who maintained a kind of soul marriage.” With romantic intrigue on the brain, we surveyed history for other famous power couples that embodied the same shared sophistication, cultured appeal, and keen intellect.
Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet
“She was a great man whose only fault was being a woman,” Voltaire once wrote of his long-time companion, the French mathematician, physicist, and writer, Émilie du Châtelet. The Château de Cirey became their private kingdom — Châtelet was married and lived there with her husband, but it was an open relationship by all accounts. There, the lovers collected a library of over 21,000 books and spent their time discussing, debating, and studying metaphysics, philosophy, “natural sciences” — particularly where Isaac Newton was concerned — history, morality, and religion. Their intellectual breaththoughs during the Enlightenment included a collaboration on Elements of the Philosophy of Newton. Voltaire wrote in the introduction about Émilie’s contributions. It was a means to introduce Newton’s principles to the masses and inspired Émilie to later translate and analyze Newton’s Principia, published by Voltaire after her death. When she passed, Voltaire wrote to a friend: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”