Jean-Paul Sartre, the great existentialist philosopher, had one big problem: he looked like something hanging off the outside of Notre Dame.
This wouldn't have been so much of a problem except that he was also a self-confessed Don Juan. But then he had the misfortune to run into Albert Camus: another philosopher, another self-confessed serial seducer, but -- and this was the key point -- much, much better looking.
Camus was a movie star among French philosophers. He had Resistance chic, and wore the collar of his trench coat turned up like Humphrey Bogart. He was a man Vogue wanted to photograph, who never really had to try too hard. Whereas Sartre had to try very hard.
"Why are you going to so much trouble?" Camus, all laid-back cool, said to him one night when they were out drinking in some Left Bank bar and Sartre had been laboriously applying his chat-up routine.
"Have you had a proper look at this mug?" Sartre replied. So when they fell out it was always about more than a woman. But it was definitely about a woman, too. Her name was Wanda.
In the middle of World War Two, Sartre and Camus had their own private little war going. But Sartre's relationship with Wanda went right back to before the war, pre-Camus.
For years, Sartre had been obsessing over Wanda's older sister, Olga Kosakiewicz, one of Simone de Beauvoir's students. De Beauvoir seduced Olga to start with, then tried to pass her on to Sartre. But Olga wasn't really up for it. De Beauvoir was a lot better looking than Sartre, and taller, too.
So began Sartre's fixation on the first of the half-Russian Kosakiewicz sisters. Olga got into his plays; she got into his novels. But one thing he could never quite pull off was getting her into his bed. She resisted without ever entirely pushing him away.
None of which stopped him from changing course when her younger sister, Wanda, arrived in Paris in 1937 and seducing her instead. It was like a test of existential freedom: you had to be able to overcome such apparent drawbacks as (a) sub-Napoleonic stature; (b) one "lazy" eye; (c) poor complexion, thinning hair, inadequate hygiene, pipe-smoking, et cetera.
If he could bed Wanda, it would be proof that existentialism really worked after all. In practice, the affair with Wanda did not go smoothly. The first time he kissed her and tried to hold her down on her bed, she managed to get away and hurried to the bathroom to throw up.
On the other hand, she didn't keep on running. There was something about Sartre that drew her back. When, at a hotel in Aigues-Mortes in the south of France, after two solid years of wooing, she finally underwent her "de-virginisation" (Sartre's word), she said afterwards, speaking quite frankly, that she "hated" Sartre.
He told Wanda that he loved her. At the same time, he reassured de Beauvoir that he was faking it.
Back in occupied Paris, Sartre also gave her a small part in his play The Flies (1943). She performed well enough for her to be offered a part in No Exit (1944). Which is where it all started to go wrong. Because of Camus. The smooth matinee idol. Right under Sartre's nose. And Sartre had recklessly paired them in the same room together. Camus was always the "outsider", even before he wrote the great novel. Born in Algeria, he was the wild colonial boy who turned up on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, garlanded with literary laurels.
And then in 1943, sitting together in the Café de Flore, they got to talking about theatre and Camus mentioned all the plays he had directed in Algiers and Sartre invited him to direct No Exit. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Then Wanda was brought in for rehearsals. The bromance was over.
With Camus there was no need for all the elaborate intellectual foreplay. It was a classic coup de foudre, on Wanda's side at least. As for Camus, it is hard not to suspect that he enjoyed tormenting Sartre.
Did he know that she was Sartre's mistress when she became his girlfriend? He must have found out fairly soon. Camus was the new kid on the block, confronted by the great metropolitan circle of critics and publishers and philosophers around Sartre -- and yet he could score over the master with his ice-green eyes and don't-give-a-damn charm.
When they danced together right in front of Sartre, it was like a victory over the entire 700 pages of Being and Nothingness.
Wanda now had her own ménage-à-trois going.
Two philosophers at once (even if one of them induced nausea).
And then, another ship passing in the night, another actress, Maria Casares, caught Camus's eye, and he was off.
Sharing the same girlfriend was the closest Sartre and Camus ever came to getting into bed together.
This was Sartre at his least philosophical. He never really forgave Camus.
Their final, very public divorce in the Fifties was politics, philosophy and personality all rolled into one.
But at the end of 1944, Sartre wrote to the Beaver: "What did Wanda think she was doing, running after Camus? What did she want from him? Wasn't I so much better?"
Sartre was trying to be ironic but he was, in fact, totally serious.
He gladly took Wanda back again (amid countless other affairs).
But perhaps Camus had their close encounter in mind when he wrote: "It is necessary to fall in love -- the better to provide an alibi for all the despair we are going to feel anyway."