WENDY LEITH and EMILY FAIRBAIRN
MAIGRET creator Georges Simenon loved writing, but his real passion was women – if he’d carved notches on his bedpost the whole thing would have collapsed. Somehow, as well as churning out 393 novels during a highly successful 53-year career, the Belgian author also found the time to make 10,000 sexual conquests.
And still he moaned: “I literally suffered from knowing that there were millions of women in the world I would never know.” Yet far from being a dashing Casanova type the bespectacled, pipe-smoking Simenon appeared remarkably normal — not unlike his famous fictional French detective, Jules Maigret.
That dour, distant character was brought back to the screen in last night’s ITV drama, Maigret Sets A Trap, with Rowan Atkinson in the lead role. The big-budget production will be followed later this year by another must-see episode, Maigret’s Dead Man. Talking of the challenges of the role, Mr Bean star Rowan, 61, said: “The problem with Maigret is that he hasn’t got a limp, he hasn’t got a lisp, he has no particular love of opera or any of those other things that people tend to attach to fictional detectives.
“The character is a very ordinary man and, generally speaking, I haven’t played many ordinary men. “I’ve played more characterised people, people who are slightly odd or eccentric.” A pity then, that Rowan is not also starring in a biopic of Simenon.
The author, who died aged 86 in 1989, might have appeared unremarkable, but within lurked a true eccentric — one whose life would become mired with suicide and Nazi controversy. Even when it came to his work, he did things to excess.
Simenon claimed to be able to write a novel in 11 days. He used to embark on ritualistic writing binges in his lucky shirt. His productivity was legendary. When Alfred Hitchcock telephoned and Simenon’s secretary refused to disturb her boss because he had just begun a novel, the film director told her: “That’s all right, I’ll wait.’’
Yet once he finished writing his books, of which more than 850million have been sold, Simenon never read them again. If he was a whiz on the typewriter, Simenon was even more prolific in the bedroom. Insisting that “sex is the only possible form of communication with women”, he had no time to waste on seduction and smooth talk. Often he did not even bother undressing for sex, but merely unzipped his trousers.
His biographer Patrick Marnham, who wrote The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret in 1994, said: “Most people work every day and enjoy sex periodically. Simenon had sex every day and every few months engaged in an orgy of work.” Raised a Catholic, altar boy Simenon was just 13 when he lost his virginity to a girl of 16 — an experience that set him on a path of debauchery.
Recalling that summer’s day in the woods, he described how the girl asked him to pick her a bouquet of holly. He said: “I scrambled up the tree in my shorts and got scratched all over. I was covered with blood, but I had some beautiful branches of holly.
“‘Oh, you’re all bloody,’ she said. ‘Lie down.’ “She went to the river with her handkerchief and began to caress me all over as she wiped off the blood. “Then she got on top of me. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I couldn’t be a Christian after that. “That night I went past her bedroom and it started again.
“We spent the whole vacation like that.” It fired a lifelong passion for sex. He was unfaithful throughout both his marriages and had affairs with famous women, including American entertainer Josephine Baker, the Jazz Cleopatra. Many encounters were with prostitutes, but he wrote: “A call girl is worthy of just as much respect as a princess, and I certainly think of myself as a feminist.”
As for his 10,000 tally, he said: “All those women were not necessarily seduced by me. I never sought records or anything. “A journalist came up with that figure by multiplication, figuring on two or three women a week, and I suppose it’s about right. I am insatiable for contact with women.” His inability to keep his trousers zipped was unfortunate for his wives.
The first was Regine Renchon, known as Tigy, a painter he met when he was 20. Afraid of being tied down by motherhood, she left it until 16 years into the marriage to have their son, Marc. By then Simenon had been having a ten-year affair with their housekeeper.
In 1945, five years before he divorced Tigy, he met Denyse Ouimet. She became his secretary, then his lover and later his second wife and the mother of his children, Marie-Jo, Pierre and Johnny. Sadly, Denyse turned to alcohol. They never divorced but Simenon set up home with Teresa, another housekeeper.
As well as being a bed-hopper, Simenon also had a wanderlust. He moved house 33 times and lived all over Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and Africa. At times he kept animals, including a white stallion that he would ride to the local market. Two wolves were also part of his menagerie until one of them ate the family cat and was banished to the zoo.
Although he loved to describe himself as “humble”, Simenon had delusions of grandeur and was convinced he deserved the Nobel Prize for literature. When he learned his rival Albert Camus had won it instead, he got drunk and hit his wife. Controversy surrounds his allegiances during the Second World War. He allowed a Nazi-run company to turn four of his books into movies and signed a sworn statement confirming he was an Aryan.
Scandal also followed Simenon into his twilight years. In 1978, his daughter Marie-Jo committed suicide in Paris at the age of 25. She had always had an unhealthy fixation on her father. When she was eight she asked him to buy her a wedding ring. She wore it as a symbol of her devotion to him, having it enlarged throughout her life.
She once stormed into the bedroom which he shared with Teresa, pointed at the bed and demanded: “Why not me?” However tragic the distractions, he stuck to a specific writing routine — one which he first used when he invented Maigret in 1929 and stood by until his death. Entering a trance-like state, he would complain of nausea and food cravings. Next, he wrote the names and descriptions of his characters on a large envelope.
Then he would clean 12 of his 300 pipes and fill them with plugs of tobacco. His typewriter would get a fresh ribbon, he would sharpen 48 pencils and lay them on his desk, with a coffee pot and a cup. The next day he would get up at dawn and put on his “lucky shirt”, a checked Abercrombie & Fitch sports top. which he would wear for the whole of the novel’s creation.
Then the words would pour out of him at a rate of more than 90 a minute. At 10.30am sharp he would stop writing, rise from his desk and vomit copiously. By this time his shirt would be soaked in sweat, and it would be laundered and pressed, ready for action again the following day.
It is amazing that through such an intense and unusual process, Simenon was able to produce a detective who was the ultimate everyman. As Roman Atkinson said of Maigret: “He’s just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job in a very interesting time.”
It is a charge that could never be laid at Simenon’s door.