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Three writers in a barbershop

Part 2 of 3

James Thurber’s friend Ralph Ingersoll lived in a house at the end of Cleaveland Street in Lakeville, but all that changed in 1948 when, following the death of his second wife, he married Mary Hill Doolittle, recently divorced from a teacher at The Hotchkiss School. She was uncomfortable living in the same town as her ex-husband, so Ingersoll sold Shadow Rock Farm, the house that he had lived in since his New Yorker years, and moved to Pennsylvania. The buyer of the house and 50 acres was Georges Simenon.

Born in 1903, Simenon was in his late 40s when he moved to Lakeville in 1950. Accompanying him were his young French-Canadian wife Denyse, her secretary, the cook Boule, and his younger son Johnny. Nearby on Salmon Kill Road, he installed his first wife Tigy, along with his teenage son Marc. In 1953, Denyse would have a daughter, Marie-Jo, born at the Sharon Hospital. At the time, Simenon was the most successful and translated contemporary French-speaking author in the world. Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre trailed behind.

Simenon was an incredibly prolific author, writing more than 400 books and articles in his lifetime. Of these, 75 were mysteries about the pipe-smoking Paris detective Inspector Maigret, later featured in many films and television series. He also wrote his more serious roman-romans or “novel-novels.” These were more difficult for Simenon to write, although he published 117 of them. 

Simenon settled easily into life in Lakeville. He wrote every day and regularly went alone or with Denyse to New York to see friends. In Lakeville, he would walk or drive to the post office each day, then wander across the street to a variety store called Hugo’s, owned by Ed Paavola, where he would have a coffee. The shop is now a liquor store. While living here, Simenon wrote 26 novels, an astonishing output, though one he topped in 1928 when he penned 40 novels under 10 pseudonyms. He reportedly once wrote a novel while enclosed in a glass cage in the middle of a large Paris department store, a tale the writer encouraged.

By one account, his books had sold more than 800 million copies worldwide at the time of his death in 1989, and he had been translated into more than 50 languages. Despite his international acclaim, the Maigret books were only modest successes in the U.S. His sales with his New York publisher Doubleday were fewer than10,000 copies per title, and none made the best seller lists. In 2014, Penguin Editions began reissuing all 75 Maigret novels.

After five years in Lakeville, Simenon became somewhat disenchanted with the town, and homesick for Europe. And Lakeville had cooled to the celebrity author. Many in the town did not like it that Simenon had required that his ex-wife Tigy live nearby in a modest house. Also, there were the rumors of his sexual escapades. One of the more persistent of these was that when Marc, who was at The Hotchkiss School, turned 16, he escorted him to New York City and introduced him to a prostitute. But first Simenon reportedly sampled the wares. In his 1981 autobiography Intimate Memoirs, Simenon tells of an incident in a small hotel in France in 1957, when the 18-year-old Marc returned the favor. Pointing out an attractive woman to his father, “Do you like her, Dad? I’ve spent a part of the evening with her and she’s really worth it.” Simenon followed up.

New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, who lived in nearby Norfolk, spent five days in 1953 with Simenon before writing a 15-page profile for the magazine. Simenon was expansive but did ask that Gill not mention his ex-wife’s proximity, explaining that Denyse would be more upset to find that he may have been having sexual relations with Tigy than bedding the cook Boule. “If one has a place in the country and one has servants, what can one expect,” Simenon explained to Gill. “One must take care of their needs.” Gill remarked, somewhat unnecessarily, that there was a “sexual” aura in the house. 

Part 3 next time.

Jim Charlton is a writer and editor who lives in Lakeville and New York City.