The inventor and chronicler of Jules Maigret, one of the most impressive detectives in literature and as inveterate a pipe smoker as his creator, Georges Simenon owned more than 300 pipes and smoked them constantly. He was an impressively productive author. His works have been translated into 50 languages and his novels number almost 500. But his most famous character is the French police detective Maigret, who puzzled through the mysteries presented to him in a fog of pipe tobacco.
Simenon started his writing career in 1919 at age 15 when he became a newspaper reporter. At 17 he had his own column and had published his first book within a year. By the time he was 29, his enormous productivity had been noted. He said that he hadn't written very much: only 277 books by that time. He could write novels at a pace of two or three a month. It's said that the famous film director Alfred Hitchcock telephoned him one day and was told that Simenon was unavailable because he had just started a new novel. Well aware of the author's speed, Hitchcock said, "That's all right. I'll wait."
He could write novels at a pace of two or three a month.
Learning About his Characters
It was while working at the newspaper, Gazette de Liège in Belgium that Simenon became familiar with many of the types of people he would write about. He frequented bars in the run-down parts of the city and became familiar with politics, crime, police investigations, and prostitutes.
During the two years of his newspaper career, he wrote more than 800 articles, mostly under a pen name, and his first novel was written in June of 1919, also using a pseudonym. When his father died in 1922, Simenon and his future wife, Régine Renchon, known as "Tigy," moved from Belgium to Paris.
In Paris he became intimately familiar with the seedier side of the culture, hanging out in run-down hotels, bars, courthouses, and jails, drinking to excess, carousing with disreputable characters, and he even became acquainted with two individuals who would later become murderers who inspired characters in one of his novels, Les Trois Crimes de Mes Amis. His interests were in the working class rather than the elite.
In 1923, Simenon and Tigy were married, but that did not deter Simenon's pursuit of extramarital affairs, including with Joesphine Baker, a prominent entertainer and civil rights activist. One of his writing assignments called for a long ocean voyage, and he became interested in boating. He later traveled on his own boat along the French canals with Tigy and their housekeeper, Henriette Liberge. Liberge became a fixture in the family for decades to come, despite Tigy's jealousy. By that time, he was a widely published author and was experiencing considerable financial success.
Deirdre Bair, writing for The New York Times in 1997, reported that the marriage to Tigy was a necessary convenience for Simenon: "... privately, he told his mother that he married 'out of necessity. It was impossible for me to do otherwise without working myself to death.' And besides, housekeepers in Paris were outrageously expensive." Tigy worked as her husband's secretary and personal assistant, taking care of day-to-day necessities so that Simenon could write.
It was in 1930 when Simenon wrote his first story featuring police commissioner Maigret. It appeared in the magazine Detective and was followed by a novel the following year called The Strange Case of Peter the Lett. ("Lett" was a term for a Baltic ethnic group located primarily in Latvia.) The novel highlights Maigret's ability to solve a mystery with methodical perseverance, a quality that would define his investigative technique.
It was in 1930 when Simenon wrote his first story featuring police commissioner Maigret
Travel and Wartime Experience
Simenon would travel extensively, and he lived in more than 30 different locations during his lifetime. He seemed easily bored, often needing change. He and his family lived in Vendée, France, during WWII, and this period of his life introduced some controversy. Some consider him a collaborator with the Germans, while others view him as a mere opportunist. His crime was in negotiating with German film studios to produce his work during the war in cooperation with Vichy officials, and he became enormously wealthy, leaving France in 1945 to avoid an investigation. However, it was a temporary remedy, and in 1950 he was forbidden from publishing for five years, though the sentence was not made public.
Leaving the controversy behind him in France, Simenon moved to North America with Tigy and Liberge, living first in Canada and then moving around the U.S. They traveled extensively, driving across the country to visit corners from the east coast to the west. While in New York City, Simenon met Denyse Ouimet, 17 years his junior, and they started an affair. Tigy and Simenon divorced in 1949 and Denyse became his new wife the next year. According to the divorce agreement, Tigy was obligated to live close to Simenon, wherever he may be, so that he could have easy visitation for their son, Marc. Child support was contingent on that requirement. In Deirdre Bair's article, she writes that he "refused to support her and their son unless she participated in his peripatetic life by always living near him and Denyse, albeit in far more humble circumstances. People in Lakeville, Conn., where they eventually settled, were appalled."
The family moved back to France in 1955 and eventually settled in Switzerland. In 1961, he became romantically involved with the family's housekeeper, Teresa, and Denyse and he separated in 1964. Teresa and Simenon remained together for the rest of Simenon's life.
He underwent surgery for a brain tumor in 1984 and recovered well, but his health continued to deteriorate until his death in 1989, leaving a legacy of hundreds of books, 150 novellas, dozens of pulp novels written under pen names, and a vast number of articles. His productivity was astonishing. He could write a novel in 11 days, he bragged. He wrote 60-80 pages a day and churned out books like others write greeting cards. His most memorable character, however, is Jules Maigret.
a legacy of hundreds of books, 150 novellas, dozens of pulp novels written under pen names, and a vast number of articles
Maigret is featured in 84 novels and 18 short stories. He is large, with broad shoulders, and his pipe is a constant companion. He does not use his first name and even his wife refers to him as Maigret. A medical student before joining law enforcement, he had practiced predicting the future health and ultimate death of patients. He had done similarly in his youth when he tried to extrapolate the eventual professions of his fellow students. These tendencies often help him in figuring out how various crimes are committed.
Maigret needs little sleep and has excellent eyesight. He loves food, is a gourmet, and is also claustrophobic. And he loves pipe smoking. He is rarely without one and is perturbed when he finds himself in places where he cannot smoke. A rack of 15 pipes is kept at his office, and he often smokes while his hands are thrust deeply into his pockets.
Maigret's pipe is ubiquitous throughout his stories. For a complete understanding of his use of Maigret's pipes and an analysis of how he employs them, Murielle Wenger has put together a comprehensive study, "Maigret's Pipe: Instrument for Reflection and the Apprehension of the World." She lists all of the mentions of pipes throughout the Maigret canon.
As for Simenon himself, he smoked Dunhills and Charatans, among others, and kept racks of pipes on the walls of his offices. He built an affection for Granger tobacco while living in the U.S., and a tin of Royal Yacht is seen on his desk in at least one photo.
Simenon wrote a letter about his pipes in 1951, and it was reproduced by Tom Dunn of The Pipe Smoker's Ephemeris. Part of it is online at the forum Pipe Smoker's Den (scroll to message number 53, posted by MLC). In that letter, Simeon explains why he always has two pipes, one small and one large, in the same brand and shape: "It is that my wife gives me, each time, the same pipe in the large and small size both. The large one is for the house, the small one to carry around."
In that same post, Simenon explains his preference for Bruyere pipes, "Which does not preclude my smoking occasionally pipes of clay, wild cherry tree and even corncob. Though all the briar comes from France and North Africa, the English buy the best of the stock and, up to now, are the only ones to know how to turn out a perfectly balanced pipe. Neither in France nor in the U.S. has a perfectly balanced pipe been as yet produced. For a long time, Dunhill was the best in the field. They now go in for women's handbags, painted neckties, etc., and pipes have been pushed into the background. I think that the best pipe, at present, is made by Charatan, in London."
"Though all the briar comes from France and North Africa, the English buy the best of the stock and, up to now, are the only ones to know how to turn out a perfectly balanced pipe"
In addition, he owned at least one Ropp pipe, as related in Pierre Assouline's 1997 book, Simenon: "Nielsen had no idea how much to offer the novelist for this piece, and when he left it up to the writer, Simenon refused any honorarium. Nielsen responded with a gesture Simenon would always remember, sending him a Ropp pipe and some Prince Albert tobacco, both rarities in those years."
Simenon owned at least one Ropp pipe
Simenon was clearly a pipe man, and a talented one, with a few character flaws to make him human. Certainly, his invention of Jules Maigret will continue to resonate with his fellow pipe smokers well into the distant future. Maigret has been called the French Sherlock Holmes, but there are differences. Maigret is more of an attentive everyman, rather than an intense genius, and he smokes his pipes more realistically. That realism is borne from Simenon's own familiarity with pipes. Were he alive today, we would probably see him at pipe shows. He was a true and experienced pipe smoker.