Françoise Sagan (1935-2004) grew up in the small town of Cajarc to bourgeois parents who also kept an apartment in Paris. She was an independent thinker and avid reader as a young girl.
Over the course of her long, eventful career, Sagan published 20 novels, three volumes of short stories, nine plays, two biographies, seven screenplays, and several collections of non-fiction pieces on the places, things and people she loved. Yet, the impact made by her novel Bonjour Tristesse (1954), so powerful and profound that it sent a shockwave across French society, makes it easily her best-known work. Bonjour Tristesse was written when Sagen was 17-years old.
Otto Preminger‘s film version of Bonjour Tristesse was released in 1958. It stars David Niven and Deborah Kerr, with the 19-year-old Jean Seberg as Cécile, all of them acting away up a storm, yet the result is devoid of the novel’s emotional impact. I wonder what young Louis Malle or François Truffaut might have done with it.
In April 1957, Sagan survived near-fatal crash in her new Aston Martin. This was the first sign that her life would be especially complicated and difficult. She was in a coma for months. Soon after her recovery Sagan married the first of her two husbands, an editor 20-years her senior. The marriage lasted two years. The second marriage, to an American artist, lasted less than a year, but produced a son.
Sagen had several significant love affairs with both men and women, including a 10-year relationship with fashion stylist Peggy Roche, a fashion stylist. François Mitterrand, then president, was a frequent guest at the couple’s Paris apartment.
Whisky, cocaine and gambling brought her personal and professional decline, but it was heroin that spelled the end. For a brief time, things were better, and in 1984 she published Avec Mon Meilleur Souvenir, her collection of evocative profiles and essays.
Roche’s death from cancer in 1991 ended a period of genuine contentment. After a series of disastrous television interviews, Sagan shut herself away in her country house, the same house where she had first hosted her crazy parties in the 1960s.
Soon, all her money had gone. Her friends knew that she was destroying herself, but Sagan refused all visitors. Their attempts to reach her by telephone were deflected by a housekeeper.
She died of a pulmonary embolism in September 2004, at 69-years-old. When she went, Sagan left debts of at least one million dollars.
Born Françoise Quoirez, she chose “Sagan” as her pen name because she liked the sound of it and also liked the reference to the Prince and Princesse de Sagan, 19th century Parisians, who were the basis of some of Marcel Proust’s characters.
She wrote her own obituary:
“Appeared in 1954 with a slender novel, Bonjour Tristesse, which created a scandal worldwide. Her death, after a life and a body of work that were equally pleasant and botched, was a scandal only for herself.”
Sagan drove fast and lived fast; she left behind her personal philosophy, summed up in the last line of her essay Speeding:
“Well, that is everything that I believe to be true — speed is neither signal, nor proof, nor provocation, nor challenge; it is a surge of happiness.”