Many romantics believe love conquers all, but can love also create legends? Possibly, especially if passionate partners also share a passion for the writing life. Here are 10 inspiring couples who wrote extraordinary books as literary soulmates while romancing each other—shaping not only their partners’ hearts but the most influential literary works of all time.
Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss
Authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss married in 2004 and were together for ten years. During the early years of this celebrated New York couple’s relationship, reviewers noted the similarities in the story lines of their second novels—Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Krauss’ The History of Love. Although the couple denies comparisons, both books do nostalgically address World War II and a child’s loss of his father. Krauss reflected on their relationship and parallels of their lives as literary soulmates: “First, it has to do with why we love each other, long before we ever get to the fact that we’re writers or write about similar things. I think we come from such a similar place. His grandmother survived the Holocaust. I think we intuited a lot of the same things in the silences of our childhood.”
Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt
Paul Auster, author of The New York Trilogy married another acclaimed novelist, Siri Hustvedt, author of The Blazing World, in 1982, after they met at a poetry reading the previous year. Both penned these and other important novels during their marriage. Among them was Auster’s Leviathan, in which he used the narrator, Iris, from Hustvedt’s earlier novel, The Blindfold. Reflecting on meeting his wife the first time, Auster playfully said, “Siri likes to say it was love at first sight, but it wasn’t for me. For me, it took about, oh, I don’t know, 10 minutes.”
John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion
Novelists John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion married in 1964 after a long courtship starting in the late 1950s. They wrote and travelled together throughout their relationship, constantly collaborating as literary soulmates. They edited one another’s best work, including Dunne’s highly acclaimed, The Studio and Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In Didion’s autobiography, The Year of Magical Thinking, after Dunne’s death, she recalls her life with the famous author and the heartache involved in losing him and their only child. “We imagined we knew everything the other thought,” she writes, “even when we did not necessarily want to know…”
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky
The first meeting between beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lifetime love, Peter Orlovsky, in 1954, is a story of life imitating art. Ginsberg was in an old Victorian apartment in San Francisco when his host, the artist, showed him a nearly life-size painting, Nude with Onions. Ginsberg was immediately struck by the beauty of the boy in the painting. The model and young Adonis, Orlovsky, happened to be in the next room. He became not only Ginsberg’s life partner, but also the muse of his poetry; Ginsberg would publish the work that would define his generation—Howl and Other Poems—just two years after they moved in together
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Modernist writer Gertrude Stein announces the impossibility of its own existence; clearly one cannot write another’s “autobiography,” and yet this nonsensical task is exactly what Stein sets out to do. The novel playfully and arrogantly features the character of Gertrude Stein as one of the three “geniuses” whom Alice has met. At the same time, The Autobiography is absolutely affectionate in the way it pays tribute to the lovers’ lives among Parisian artists in the 1930s. The two frequently hosted other Modernist writers and painters, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and many, many others.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir
Renowned French philosopher and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit and many other literary works while in a life-long open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, beginning in 1929. De Beauvoir is the accomplished author and feminist most famously known for her book, The Second Sex as well as The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although they never married, the writers were in a committed relationship for over 50 years. Beauvoir wrote of her companion as her soulmate, “We were two of a kind, and our relationship would endure as long as we did: but it could not make up entirely for the fleeting riches to be had from encounters with different people.” Still, they read and edited the other’s work with the same respect and love they had for each other.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
In 1928, Virginia Woolf famously based her novel Orlando on her lover (and fellow writer) Vita Sackville-West, whose son declared the work “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” Less well known as a writer, Sackville-West curiously wrote a match-sized book for the Queen Mary’s dollhouse several years before the publication of Woolf’s novel; the tiny artifact has only recently been published as a life-sized book. The story was one of 200 “volumes” housed in the dolls’ house and featured a “sprite,” a mischievous time traveler, who donned the fashions of various historical epochs. In Woolf’s novel, Orlando likewise moves fluidly through time, shifting easily between genders and among costumes. So while literary history believes Sackville-West to be the basis for Woolf’s novel, Orlando likely has a source in the dollhouse book.
Jack London and Charmian Kittredge
Jack London was a prolific writer, penning numerous classics, including White Fang, that were based on his real-life adventures as a seafarer and gold prospector in Alaska during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His mistress turned wife, Charmian Kittredge, was his typist and editor. She helped London meet his deadlines by organizing his work after his morning ritual of typing 1,000 words per day. We know much about London from her daily diary entries. Kittredge was not only his inspiration but constant companion on sailing adventures across the Pacific Ocean. She also accompanied him on his travels by train on lecture and book tours throughout the United States, in the early 1900s. They had a true passion for each other. London enjoyed her spirit for adventure and lust for life that matched his own. In a love letter to her, he proclaimed those sentiments: “But You, You, who are so much more, who know life and have looked it squarely in the face, who are open-eyed and worldly wise, and mature in thought and knowledge.” In another letter he expressed, “Dear, sweet Love, you are mine, I am yours.”
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barret Browning
Victorian poets Robert Browning, author of My Last Duchess, and Elizabeth Barret Browning were married in secret, in 1846. Their dedication to each other and their craft were shared in countless letters and noted by close friends. They produced significant work during their passionate relationship as literary soulmates that included Barret Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Sonnet XXIX. Her most famous Sonnet 43, in Sonnets from the Portuguese, was written for her husband with the famous opening verse, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Peter Abelard and Heloise d’Argenteuil
Peter Abelard was a medieval scholar from the eleventh and twelfth centuries who wrote numerous works on philosophy and theology. The love affair between him and his student Heloise d’Argenteuil—an intelligent writer, scholar and feminist—had serious consequences for them both. Although they were married in secret and had a son together, they were ultimately forced apart by Heloise’s uncle who had Abelard castrated for not fulfilling his marital obligations to his niece. After the couple separated, she became a nun and he a monk in separate monasteries. They continued their love affair through correspondence—in The Letters of Abelard and Heloise—expressing their deep feelings for each other and regrets. Despite her dedication to the church, Heloise could not deny her longing for Abelard as expressed in one of her letters: “In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet—they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep.”