Jean Paul Sartre

Sartre was one of those intolerable geniuses who was born great (I prefer mine to suffer for greatness). He was, until his death in 1980, a truly public figure known the world over. If you think philosophers wear berets and smoke pipes, Sartre is the reason. Less well known, however, is that he drank liters of booze and smoked two packs a day—and he nursed an impressive amphetamine habit. I sometimes wonder if I’m not a great genius because I don’t drink, smoke, and do enough speed.

Sartre went to the very best schools in France and did well, except for the time he failed the most important exam in the country, the exam that makes and breaks careers: the Agrégration. He said he failed it because he gave original answers while the graders were looking for rote ones. He took the exam again the next year and passed. In fact, he placed first in the country and proposed to the woman who had come second, Simone de Beauvoir. She turned him down. (They did go on to have a famous and decades-long love affair.)

Very few philosophers ever enter the public mind, but Sartre did. He was an icon of France, of philosophy, and of an engaged intellectual. He was also a man of principle: when he was offered the Nobel Prize (and $400,000!), he turned it down, believing that it was too bourgeois. He probably didn’t need the money, though. One of his plays, Nausea, sold more than a million copies in his lifetime—and doesn’t it say something wonderful about the French that they would buy a million copies of an existentialist play?

Despite the booze, smokes, women, and drugs, Sartre lived a long, productive life. He died, at 74, in Paris, the city in which he was born and in which he lived almost his entire life.