This is the first in a series of memories about visits to Louveciennes, the fabled village outside Paris where Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugh Guiler rented a home that became the site of many of Nin’s awakenings and the setting for the first of her published Diaries.
Feb. 1992: Cathedral bells. Dimanche. Sunday in Paris. I opened the curtains and looked up at the steel gray clouds. No one in the street. It was like an empty stage. The sky looked ill-boding. I was planning on going to Louveciennes in the afternoon to find the mythical “laboratory of the soul,” the house where Anaïs Nin met Henry Miller, the place where her first real adventure in life and art began. It seemed like an impossible journey—first, I didn’t know anything about the French rail system, didn’t have a map, and didn’t even know if the house still stood. But somehow I felt hope as I opened the window and let the dank air flow in. I remembered reading in Anaïs’s diary that one took the train from Gare St-Lazare and that the trip took a half hour, but that was in 1931. Yes, this was a gamble in regards to the very little time I had left in Paris, and I knew I could’ve visited Versailles or Fountainbleau, etc., and that would’ve been worthwhile, but this, this could touch the soul. So I hoped the rain could wait.
By the time I got to Gare St-Lazare, it was nearly noon and I was famished. I peered into the window of a bistro where I saw an old woman shoveling in some veal and pasta. I ordered the veau Milanese and washed it down with wine. Absolutely perfect. The combination of hunger, fatigue, and its remedy, along with the anticipation of the excursion, had awakened my sensory receptacles. I crossed Place Gabriel Péri, full and rested, and headed toward the huge train station. Inside this prodigious cavern was a menagerie of schedules, maps, people, confusion. As I stood gaping, a little man asked me if I needed help. I admitted my ineptness, and he guided me to a fire-engine red mechanical ticket dispenser. “Ou allez-vous?” he asked. “Louveciennes.” He pushed a button. “Allez-retour?” “Oui.” “Première ou deuxième classe?” “Deuxième.” “Voilà, monsieur. Onze francs.” I put the coins in the machine and it spit out the ticket. Two bucks round trip. So easy. I gave the man ten francs, which I thought he expected. Everyone was happy.
Now, what train? I looked toward the quais, and there were more trains than I could count. I had no idea! Remember, I had come not only from the birthplace of the train, but also from its graveyard. But the man, who’d turned to leave, came running back and escorted me to the correct train, imploring me to hurry because it was about to leave. As I boarded, he was still there, smiling and waving at me. The signal sounded and the door closed. We began to inch out of the station. This was real.
The train made the same stops it must have made whenever Anaïs or Henry took the trip to Louvciennes…St-Cloud, Bougival… After exactly a half hour, we pulled into the Louveciennes station, which was very old, quaint, beautifully clean. I noted on the schedule that a train left for Paris every half hour until late at night, so if things went poorly I could leave at any time. It was good to know that I had a safety valve, but, in a way, I would have preferred to be stuck there, having no choice but to make the best of it.
I stood on the street. Deserted. Deafening silence. A gray Sunday afternoon in a little village. I looked at a large map of the village in front of the station. Nothing to help me. So, I decided to walk toward the city center and find someone who might know something, but I truly had no idea where I was going. I took a deep breath and started, heading west from the station.
After a moment, I encountered an elderly couple walking toward the station, on what appeared to be a little Sunday promenade. Seizing the opportunity, I stopped them and asked, in the best French I could muster, if they knew where Anaïs’s house was. Neither one of them had ever heard of her. I was astonished. My heart sank. How was it possible they had never heard of such a famous resident? They bade me good luck and turned to leave. But then the gentleman said, “There is a book about the history of Louveciennes. I have some business at the train station. When I return, we’ll consult the author.” Suddenly my soul soared. I stood and chatted with his wife while he was gone, trying to explain why I’d made this pilgrimage. She had beautiful dark brown eyes and was bundled up on this cold, damp day. Explaining the life and work of Anaïs Nin to a louveciennois was, for me, the task of a disciple, but not a task at all, instead a unique pleasure.
When her husband returned—tall, erect, nattily dressed with a sweater, shirt and tie under his overcoat and silver hair under his cap, clear blue eyes behind his spectacles—we walked to his neighbor’s house, the author of the book on Louveciennes. The couple introduced themselves as Henri and Thérèse. I felt something happening at this moment. It was Louveciennes opening her arms to receive me, as if she knew my intentions. I was here out of my love for what had been written, for the feelings that were aroused in me across an ocean of water and time. It was as though she respected those who came and treated them with kindness and gentleness.
The owner of the house appeared, and Henri asked about the Nin house. I noticed he made a point of telling him that an American wanted to see it. The author, Jacques, said to him, “Oh yes, yes. It is at 2 bis rue de Monbuisson, but it is in a terrible state. The owners have run out of money to restore it, so it lies crumbling.” Then Jacques turned to me and asked if I minded if he gave me directions in French. Of course, I said no, but then, with a sly smile, he asked in perfect English, “Would it be better in English?” We all laughed. He invited us in and he gave me a copy of his book, opening it to the page with photos of the Nin house. Then I realized why Anaïs Nin was not well-known: the book was full of those who’d called Louveciennes home: Renoir, Sisley, Charles Munch, Madame du Barry, Brigitte Bardot, etc., etc. She was lost in a crowd of French legends. Jacques said, “I hope you will take a different piece of France home with you.”
Henri suggested that we drive to Anaïs’s house. When he asked if I’d like to have something to drink first, I declined: I wanted to see the house before I awoke from this dream. Henri unlocked his garage and pulled out his car. He said, “Do you see? I have a Ford!” I’m not sure what impressed me the most—the fact he had an American car in this land of Renault and Peugeot, or how proud he seemed of it. He gushed about its power, pep, solidity, etc. Then I found out he had been in a German prison camp during World War II and was liberated by Eisenhower’s forces. No wonder he had a passion for all things American.