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The disturbing exploits of a renowned romance

Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, By Hazel Rowley, HarperCollins, 416 pp., illus., $26.95

Hazel Rowley has written a very good book about two dreadful people. ''Tête-à-Tête" is an in-depth, unflinching account of that existential ''it" couple, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Chronicling one of the more controversial romances of the last century takes a bit of authorial sang-froid. Not only have countless other writers mused about Sartre and de Beauvoir's long, strange affair, but the subjects themselves were compulsively explaining themselves in essays and letters. As Rowley notes in the preface, ''To them, the notion of privacy was a relic of bourgeois hypocrisy. [They wanted to] plumb the depths of experience . . . and communicate unvarnished truths to their readers."

Communicate they did, though how much truth was involved is still debatable. In addition to her most enduring work, ''The Second Sex," Simone de Beauvoir published memoirs, autobiographical novels, and travel books. Sartre, who won but refused the Nobel Prize, wrote numerous novels, essays, plays, biographies, and his autobiography, ''Words."

''Tête-à-Tête" is not a dual biography or a critique of their writings, but purely ''the story of a relationship." Rowley's aim is to give both sides of this affair equal weight, and she succeeds.

The story moves steadily from Sartre and de Beauvoir's meeting at university via mutual friends through their publishing fame in the 1940s, the Cold War of the 1950s and '60s, and the politics of the 1960s and '70s. The two talked over every event personal and global and pondered their place in the world.

Rowley chooses a plain narrative style, and it's a smart choice to let the often-outlandish romantic exploits stand unadorned. Theirs was known as the premier relationship for intellectual equality, one that seemed able to contain the opposing forces of loyalty and romantic freedom (no jealousy allowed). Today, Sartre's legendary creed of personal freedom sounds like an expedient excuse to step out on de Beauvoir.

To her credit, Rowley consistently keeps their romance in context, setting it against the buttoned-up 1950s and the let's-try-anything 1960s and '70s. For many who were young adults during those times, this open-romance model seemed a refreshing and daring ideal. As an undergrad, Rowley had been inspired by both of these writers. ''Tête-à-Tête" shows that she is still fascinated by the innovative couple, but she doesn't let that cushion the more jagged edges of this tale.

It's old news that de Beauvoir was sanguine in public and shattered in private over Sartre's affairs. Yet it's disturbing to read some of Rowley's new accounts of how de Beauvoir would procure women for Sartre, or have an affair with the same woman as Sartre, all in the guise of sharing experiences. The two would often target young, psychologically fragile women for their liaisons.

Although Sartre and de Beauvoir were masters of oral and written persuasion, ''Tête-à-Tête" makes the case that actions do speak louder than words. Strip away the gilded pronouncements of personal freedom and honesty, and you're left with sexual predators in philosophers' clothing.

''Tête-à-Tête" provides a valuable cultural history by reaching well beyond Sartre's and de Beauvoir's cumbersome reputations. Ironically, what might be most remembered about these prolific writers may not be their words, but their deeds.

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