Marguerite Yourcenar (8 June 1903 – 17 December 1987) was a Belgian-born French novelist and essayist. Winner of the Prix Femina and the Erasmus Prize, she was the first woman elected to the Académie française, in 1980, and the seventeenth person to occupy Seat 3.
Yourcenar was born Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour in Brussels, Belgium, to Michel Cleenewerck de Crayencour, of French bourgeois descent, and a Belgian mother, Fernande de Cartier de Marchienne, of Belgian nobility, who died ten days after her birth. She grew up in the home of her paternal grandmother.
Yourcenar's first novel, Alexis, was published in 1929. She translated Virginia Woolf's The Waves over a 10-month period in 1937.
In 1939 Yourcenar's intimate companion at the time, the literary scholar and Kansas City native Grace Frick, invited the writer to the United States to escape the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Yourcenar lectured in comparative literature in New York City and Sarah Lawrence College. Yourcenar was bisexual; she and Frick became lovers in 1937 and remained together until Frick's death in 1979. After ten years spent in Hartford, Connecticut, they bought a house in Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, where they lived for decades.
In 1951, she published, in France, the novel Mémoires d'Hadrien, which she had been writing with pauses for a decade. The novel was an immediate success and met with great critical acclaim. In this novel, Yourcenar recreated the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world, the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who writes a long letter to Marcus Aurelius, the son and heir of Antoninus Pius, his successor and adoptive son. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing both his triumphs and his failures, his love for Antinous, and his philosophy. The novel has become a modern classic.
In 1980, Yourcenar was the first female member elected to the Académie française. An anecdote tells of how the bathroom labels were then changed in this male-dominated institution: "Messieurs | Marguerite Yourcenar" (Gents / Marguerite Yourcenar). One of the most respected writers in the French language, she published many novels, essays, and poems, as well as three volumes of memoirs.
Yourcenar's house on Mount Desert Island, Petite Plaisance, is now a museum dedicated to her memory. She is buried across the sound in Somesville, Maine.