The Love Stories of 10 Intellectual Power Couples

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Unmarried, radical, and leaders of a postwar philosophical movement, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir defined the power couple for a new generation. The early feminist author of The Second Sex and the French existentialist philosopher were partners in work and wisdom, even though they often kept very separate lives. Our friends at Open Culture introduced us to a video that shows footage of the prominent twentieth-century thinkers in a 1968 documentary filmed at Sartre’s Montparnasse apartment. It’s a rare and intimate glimpse into their private lives. The website also quotes Louis Menand in The New Yorker, in an excerpt that defines the essence of Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship: “They were a powerful couple, with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables… but who maintained a kind of soul marriage.” With romantic intrigue on the brain, we surveyed history for other famous power couples that embodied the same shared sophistication, cultured appeal, and keen intellect.

Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet

“She was a great man whose only fault was being a woman,” Voltaire once wrote of his long-time companion, the French mathematician, physicist, and writer, Émilie du Châtelet. The Château de Cirey became their private kingdom — Châtelet was married and lived there with her husband, but it was an open relationship by all accounts. There, the lovers collected a library of over 21,000 books and spent their time discussing, debating, and studying metaphysics, philosophy, “natural sciences” — particularly where Isaac Newton was concerned — history, morality, and religion. Their intellectual breaththoughs during the Enlightenment included a collaboration on Elements of the Philosophy of Newton. Voltaire wrote in the introduction about Émilie’s contributions. It was a means to introduce Newton’s principles to the masses and inspired Émilie to later translate and analyze Newton’s Principia, published by Voltaire after her death. When she passed, Voltaire wrote to a friend: “It is not a mistress I have lost but half of myself, a soul for which my soul seems to have been made.”

Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter and respected biographer and historian Lady Antonia met during an after party celebrating the opening of one of Pinter’s plays. Both were married at the time, but a passionate love quickly blossomed and prompted scandalous headlines in the British press, sensationalizing their religious differences and “abandoned” children. Pinter and Fraser were friends with the who’s who of artists and intellectuals of the time and often acted as a sounding board for the other’s work. Their literary love lasted 33 years. After Pinter’s death, Antonia wrote a memoir that detailed their relationship, Must You Go? . It was the question Pinter asked his future wife the evening they first met.

Photo credit: Massachusetts Historical Society

John Adams and Abigail Adams

Through over 1,200 letters, we can piece together the love and conversations that the second president of the United States and his wife and key advisor, Abigail Adams, had. The politically minded couple shared a profound respect for one another, engaging in discussions about government, women’s rights, religion, and other intellectual pursuits. “Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” the First Lady wrote in one missive. “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

Pierre Curie and Marie Curie

Scientific revolutionaries Pierre and Marie Curie started out as research lab partners. During their pioneering studies they discovered Polonium, Radium, and an affinity for… bicycles! (It was how they spent their honeymoon.) Marie arrived in Paris to study math and physics, spending her days at lectures. After earning her degrees she intended on returning to Poland, but met Pierre. Their magnetism in and out of the lab led to a Nobel Prize in Physics, and Marie helped establish leading medical research centers, the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw.

Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

“When Stieglitz first discovered O’Keeffe in 1916, he had been fascinated with women’s art for a long time,” National Gallery of Art photography curator Sarah Greenough once shared in an interview about the famed gallerist and American artist. “He had an understanding of women that had been clouded by the literature of [German writer] Goethe or [British socialist philosopher] Edward Carpenter and others who saw women as fundamentally less cerebral and intellectual than men and more emotional and intuitive. Stieglitz felt that a woman’s art would be more subjective and an expression of pure emotion.” Stieglitz found that in O’Keeffe, but also an intellectual match. Their letters describe two of the most influential figures in the early 20th-century art world and express the views of two dedicated, passionate people.

Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt

The controversial, baffling love affair between the German philosopher, who joined the Nazi party during the height of his prominence, and his Jewish student, who later became a noted political theorist and coined the overused term “the banality of evil,” has been the subject of much debate. People have been left wondering if their personal history as a couple and individuals has affected the validity of their cultural and philosophical contributions, and the answers don’t seem any clearer even in the 21st century.

Peter Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil

The relationship between French medieval scholars Héloïse d’Argenteuil and Peter Abelard is fraught with tragedy and fascination. Héloïse’s knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts, and her egalitarian viewpoints were certainly progressive for the 12th century. This drew the interest of philosopher and theologian Abelard, and the two began an illicit affair. Héloïse’s uncle disapproved of the relationship, castrated Abelard — banishing him to a monastic life — and forced Héloïse to become a nun. Their letters are legendary and shine a light on intellectual medieval life where religious and philosophical meditations were questioned and debated.

Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb

What do two socialist economists, writers, and political/social reformers in love do? They form a groundbreaking gradualist and reformist society, establish the London School of Economics, and dine with the leading thinkers of their day.

Mary Leakey and Louis Leakey

The intellectual partnership between the famed archaeologists quickly became a romantic one, which cost Louis his research grants at Cambridge University (he was married at the time). It obviously didn’t quell the couple’s contributions to the field of human evolution, but what would you expect from a progressive, well traveled, profoundly talented woman and her driven, persistent partner who established a dynastic legacy in palaeoanthropological study?

Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin

The relationship between British social advocate Mary Wollstonecraft and English political philosopher William Godwin was radical in every sense of the word. Both wrote texts against marriage and how that played into the loss of a woman’s identity and rights, but they eventually got hitched after having a child together — the author Mary Shelley. Sadly, the birth caused Wollstonecraft’s death. Godwin had been enamored with Mary before they met. After reading her sociological and personal travel narrative, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, he wrote: “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.”