In the summer of 1994, I had spent a few glorious days in Paris, browsing the bouqinistes and loitering in the parks, but couldn’t wait to rid myself of the crowded (with tourists, devoid of Parisians) streets, the summer stench, the never-ending construction, and escape to the luxurious calm of Louveciennes, of which I could now claim myself as a sort of honorary habitué, this my third visit. I boarded with my friends Henri and Thérèse, whom I had met during my first visit a couple years previously on my quest to find Anaïs Nin’s house. In the time between, I had learned that the Nin house was still owned by the people who’d turned Anaïs herself away when she appeared at the gate in 1970 with a German film crew that was documenting her return to France after she’d won acclaim and status upon the publication of her Diaries, in which the Louveciennes house was the setting for many of her now famous exploits. She wrote:
In Louveciennes we ran into trouble. I went to visit the owner of what was once my house. She now lives next door… I summoned all the charm I could and asked permission to enter, to film the house and the garden. I reminded her I had lived there for years. It was locked and neglected. The iron gate was rusty and corroded. The old lady became furious, said she would never allow us in, that this was the new way places are burglarized by so-called television groups. So we had to stay outside, photographing me at the gate, and what we could see of the house. The shutters of the old lady’s house were closed. Suddenly they opened and the old lady, as in a puppet show, sprang out and said if we did not leave immediately she would inform the mayor. (Diary 7 143)
I was to find out, more than twenty years later, that the house was owned by the same people, whose name, I was told, was Auzépy. The same old woman still lived in the house next door in the summer of 1993 when I revisited: I was holding my camera between the bars of the gate and snapping pictures when she appeared (perhaps at the very same window) and yelled: “Je vais appeler le police!” I edged away, and then slowly retraced my steps to the gate and noticed that she was examining me through the window, scowling. Jacques, the author of Louveciennes Mon Village, and town historian, said that the Auzépys refused to sell the house and yet did not have the money to restore it. There was a growing sentiment amongst the Louveciennois to tear the place down, so sorry was its condition.
How I longed to see the inside of this incredible house; how I wondered what remnants, if any, of Anaïs’s life were to be found—the paint on the walls, those exotic colors she used to mirror her essence in her homes, the study where she wrote with Miller looking over her shoulder… This now seemed increasingly impossible.
During my 1994 visit, I had decided to call on a local novelist who lived only a few doors down from the Nin house…I had read in ANAIS: An International Journal (Vol. 7, 1989) that someone on a mission similar to mine had befriended him and together they paid a visit to the Nin house. Somehow they were able to get into the garden and snoop around. Perhaps he would be able to help me accomplish a similar feat. So, on a sunny afternoon, Jacques and I knocked on Pierre’s door. Pierre’s wife, a lovely elderly woman, opened the door and allowed us in. We met Pierre, who was in poor health, suffering from a weak heart. He was dressed in pajamas in the middle of the day, his hair askew under a nightcap, 3 days’ of stubble on his sunken face, his appearance contradicting his elegant Englishman’s English, which hinted at his supreme intelligence and worldliness. Pierre admitted he knew little about the status of the Nin house, that he wasn’t even sure who owned it. He began to get worked up and then wondered aloud if we might not simply appear at the gate and sound the bell. I realized he was a bit delusional, for even I knew the house had been empty for decades. But there was no stopping him. His wife pleaded with him, we pleaded with him, but he pulled on a pair of knee-high green rubber boots over his pajamas and put on a robe. He opened the front door and beckoned Jacques and me to follow him.
It was high noon in Louveciennes. This unlikely triumvirate strode down the middle of the narrow street as in some sort of surreal cowboy movie—Jacques, neatly dressed with a sweater tied about his neck, giving the impression of a cape, I, wearing jeans, a t-shirt and shades, and Pierre, looking like a tragic medieval character lost in time. People driving by stared. I can only wonder what they thought. We arrived at the Nin house, and Pierre stood at the pedestrian gate, trying to find the bell. Jacques went to the larger gate (which was different than the original, a cheaply made blue metal monstrosity) and realized it was not locked. He gave it a good push and it swung open. We entered the courtyard and could see the decay firsthand. Everything was choked in weeds. The house was locked tight and the shutters were closed, except for one window on the north wing of the house. There appeared to be old furniture piled up, blocking the view inside. Even though we’d managed to get into the courtyard, there was still no way to see the interior of the house. There was old garden furniture, rusted, strewn about (I would only realize much later that this same furniture appears in photos taken at the house during the Nin years), trash and broken bottles. I had been informed the house had become a hangout for drug users, but there didn’t seem any way to get in, so I never could validate this story.
We left, dejected. Jacques was saddened and declared the situation a “shame.” Pierre was very calm, very quiet. I was raging inside, very unsatisfied and feeling more frustrated than ever. The only positive development was that no old lady appeared at the window to shoo us away.
On the plane home, I couldn’t know then that events in my life would prevent me from returning to Louveciennes for nearly a decade, and during that time I could only follow the status of the Nin house from afar. A sort of “movement” to “save the house” was spearheaded by a young American woman in 1996. Ironically, this was in response to the fact that the Auzépys actually were selling the place to a private individual, who was planning on restoring it into a livable condition, dividing the garden up into smaller lots upon which apartments were to be built, and living in the original house himself. The “movement” managed to ruffle feathers in Louveciennes: a small group, including the American woman, appeared at City Hall and demanded the sale be blocked. A petition had been drafted and was presented. Instead of having the intended effect of making the powers that be realize the historical value of the house (which, according to the American’s plan, was to be turned into a writers’ retreat and museum, though no funding existed), they angered the officials, who were finally, after more than twenty-five years, on the verge of getting an owner in the house who had the money to fix it up. The fact Anaïs Nin had once lived there had little to do with the decision to allow the sale, which did go through—what the American didn’t realize, perhaps, is that the house was being saved.
Postscript: Before I published Anaïs Nin: A Book of Mirrors later in 1996, Noel Riley Fitch, Nin’s first biographer, offered to write a story of her “invasion” of the Nin house (“A Dramatic Encounter at Louveciennes, 1990”). She snuck in with her camera and was able to snap some incredible photographs before being chased out by the owner, who was upstairs at the time. These photos would have to be a substitute for my own lack of success of getting inside. They would also provide me with a certain degree of perspective that allowed me to be even more grateful that someone, for whatever reason, was finally giving Anaïs Nin’s “laboratory of the soul” the attention it needed.
To read more about Louveciennes, get Britt Arenander’s Anais Nin’s Lost World: Paris in Words and Pictures, 1924-1939, which has descriptions and an interactive map that includes the house on rue de Montbuisson.
To see a sample or to purchase Anaïs Nin’s Lost World, click here.
To view a sample interactive map drawn from the book, click here.