America Day by Day

Simone de Beauvoir falls in love with New York on her first visit to America in 1947, spending four months exploring the U.S. from coast to coast. This book was a revision of her diaries, translated by Carol Cosman. It’s always fascinating to travel back in time and get someone’s fresh perspective on the world you currently live in, with buried details that otherwise would go unremarked. Is it true that flophouses in New York had tramps sleep sitting on benches with their arms leaning on a rope and supporting their heads on their arms, then when their time is up, someone pulls the cord and they fall forward awake? Was it the custom in the 1940s that Valentine’s Day was a day when young girls gave gifts to their boyfriends but not vice versa, or did she get that wrong? She did, however, nail this: “There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting. Even private celebrations, especially birthdays, have the dignity of public ceremonies. It seems that the birth of every citizen is a national event. The other evening at a nightclub, the whole room began to sing, in chorus, ‘Happy Birthday’, while a portly gentleman, flushed and flattered, squeezed his wife’s fingers.”

In Chicago she stays at the Palmer hotel and an old woman guards the entrance to the hallway, pocketing Simone’s hotel room key for her. Arriving in LA, she’s whisked around by a friend of hers who bought a car a few days earlier just so they could get around. Some of the rich, idle characters she encounters get put in their place neatly: “The rest of the time he’s bored, like everyone in America with too much leisure time. He goes off in his big car to meet other people who are also bored, he takes them to other people’s homes, and when he’s managed to get a large enough group together, he thinks he’s really having a good time.”

Her visit to San Francisco is a bit flat since she knows no one here. But she hated Playland at the Beach, calling it “a sad little amusement park like Venice in Los Angeles.” And she mentions that a sign on the Bay Bridge has a $5 fine if you run out of gas on the bridge, and there’s a small device at the beginning of the bridge that discharges cars of any electricity accumulated. Weird!

Back in LA: “The entrance into Los Angeles is a long, burning agony… Above the valley the heat is almost always temperate and bearable, even in summer…. How harsh work must seem in this indolent climate… I understand why, in Hollywood, ambitions weaken, minds grow dull, and only the immediate seems real. The intense blue of this sky is at once too easy and too hard.”