Honoring Hélène de Beauvoir by Gloria F. Orenstein

I hope these lines written by Gloria .F. Orenstein, one of Hélène de Beauvoir’s dear friends, will make you feel to know Hélène de Beauvoir even more:


My Existentialist Meeting with Helene de Beauvoir and

How it Transformed my Life


Gloria F. Orenstein,

Prof. of Comparative Literature

Univ. of

Southern Calilfornia

Los Angeles, CA.


It was during the year 1974—75 that I first met Helene de Beauvoir, and our astounding encounter transformed my life. At the time I was an Adjunct Prof. of English at Douglass College of Rutgers University where I taught a Senior Seminar on Women and Art. I was also a divorced mother of two teen-aged daughters. I knew that my job with only a one year contract would probably not be extended, and I was in a period of extreme anxiety over all the problems that my situation posed, both financial, and also intellectual and social.

One day I took my students to tour the art galleries in New York, and I discovered that Helene de Beauvoir was being included in a group show near

Greenwich Village. At the gallery they informed me that Helene was in town, but that she had stepped out, and we had missed her. We returned a half hour later, but we missed her again. I took down the phone number of her hotel, and when I got home, I called her, and left a message. I was hoping I might get to meet her in person. When she returned my call, I was elated, and I mentioned that I was teaching THE SECOND SEX in my course on Women and Art. Helene was so happy to hear this, that she immediately, invited me to meet her at the hotel for tea. She greeted me with great warmth, and asked me to tell her all about my life.

I was in a moment of crisis. I hesitated to tell her about all the problems I faced that year, but she insisted on hearing everything…. from the story of my divorce to my need for a permanent teaching job. It was also possibly significant that my two daughters, the older with dark hair, the younger a blonde, seemed to remind her of Simone and herself in their youth. An immediate affection and friendship developed between us. Then, suddenly, she spoke the words that were to transform my life. After reciting the litany of my problems, and expecting a sigh of commiseration, I was surprised when Helene said: “Gloria, Congratulations on choosing your new life! You can now create your future in freedom! This is a wonderful moment for you, and I wish you the greatest of success.!” I was speechless. At once I realized that she had completely turned my story around—from one of a deepening crisis to one of existential liberation, and I was also well prepared to “hear” this version and to receive its meaning with the resonance of my academic understand of Existentialism. I decided, on the spot, to take her up on this suggestion—to go forth and create my life in freedom and with all the optimism I had experienced as I listened to her speak. I was already involved in creating The Woman’s Salon for Literature in N.Y., and at that moment I realized that I could reframe my life story, and see it as a time of transformation and liberation. It was an Existentialist, feminist CLICK!

Over the years our friendship grew. I visited Helene in Goxwiller and I created my salon in NY. In 1978—79 , when I was directing the Rutgers Junior Year in France, I also created a salon in Paris, known as Le Lieu Dit, held chez Yolaine de Villemaire ,( known as Ygrecque), the first feminist writer published by Les Editions des Femmes. Le Lieu Dit was located near the Pantheon, and by day the “local”, her apartment, was a salon de the. In the evening it became a feminist salon in the arts. On weekends when we did not have a salon, I would go to visit Helene in Goxwiller, and I spent the Christmas and New Years vacation with her in Trebbiano. Eventually Helene traveled to

New York, and visited my salon on the occasion of the production of the Quebecoise text, LES VACHES DE NUIT by Jovette Marchessault, recited by Pot Pelletier. In the eighties I was on a spiritual quest for The Cretan Goddess, and I later was to learn that some of Helene’s art about the Cretan Goddess had even been inspired by my ongoing search for the Goddess of the Minoan civilization. Over the years we had several other occasions to meet and honor Helene’s work, such as a small conference at USC where I gave a paper on her work . Several years later, as “le hazard objectif” reigned in my life ever since I had written about the Women of Surrealism, the younger generation had a unique surprise in store for me for my younger daughter, Claudia, married a Prof. of Philosophy, whose field of specialization was Existentialism.

Eventually the couple visited Helene in Goxwiller, which was like a dream come true for my son-in-law. It is absolutely obvious to me that had I not met Helene de Beauvoir that day in New York, my life would have taken a different turn, and I would not have been released from my crisis and launched on the path I have followed ever since. . It was Helene de Beauvoir who liberated me to reinterpret my life in the light of Existentialism. I will always cherish this memory, and be grateful to her for her generoisity , her friendship, and for the integrity of her Exisitentialist vision.

October 15th, 2009


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