Adventures in Louveciennes: crashing Anaïs Nin’s gate.

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.

Room to left of entrance with pool table

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.


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One Hundred Biographers: The reaction to Deirdre Bair’s biography

When Noel Riley Fitch’s study of Nin (Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin) was published in 1993, the response of some in the Nin community was to swiftly brand it as “baseless” (in the sense Fitch did not have access to the Nin archive) and “sensationalistic” (in the sense it focused mainly on Nin’s love life). For the next two years, however, there were high hopes for the “official” biography, Deirdre Bair’s Anaïs Nin: A Biography, which was to be released in March of 1995. However, ominous rumblings arose even before its publication: Rupert Pole, in a letter to a friend, said the book was a “betrayal.” Gunther Stuhlmann said in a phone conversation that he had demanded his name be removed from the acknowledgements page. Once the book was published, the outcry grew, exacerbated by the response of the book reviewers, who often seemed more intent on reviewing Nin’s life rather than the biography itself.

 

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For example, Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer began his review with this statement: “Anaïs Nin lied and fornicated the way the rest of us breathe: regularly in order to live, and in deep gulps in order to flourish.” Nigella Lawson of The Times said: “An affair with Henry Miller—who matched [Nin] for self-centredness, grabbiness, and lack of talent…” Bruce Bawer of the New York Times said in response to Bair’s conclusion that “Nin was among the pioneers who explored three of the most important [concepts that brought sweeping societal change]: sex, the self and psychoanalysis” by retorting, “If Nin is remembered at all, it will not be as a pioneer but as a colorful peripheral character who embodied, in an extreme form, some of the more unfortunate distinguishing characteristics of our age: an obsession with fame; a zeal for self-advertisement; a tendency to confuse art and self-expression; a rejection of intellect in favor of feeling; a romantic glorification of neurosis, selfishness and irresponsibility.” The question begs to be asked: did the biography cause the responses, or did the pre-formed opinions of the reviewers and those in the Nin world skew their responses to the biography?

 

Within the Nin community, much was made of the fact Bair did not know Anaïs Nin personally and that she was “judgmental” in the treatment of her subject. Gunther Stuhlmann, in his introduction to Anaïs Nin: A Book of Mirrors (Sky Blue Press, 1996), addressed these issues in reaction to both Fitch’s and Bair’s books:

 

“In recent years a number of biographers, here and abroad, have tried to assemble their own images of Anaïs Nin. They seem to have been enthralled, most of all, by what they could glean of the erotic aspect of their moving target. With lipsmacking glee, or sour disapproval, they have turned their spotlights upon the supposedly “sensational” and “shocking” details of the private sexual life of the lady from Neuilly which, of course, fail to reveal a complete image of a complex personality, or to illuminate the nature of the impact her creations have had on a vast multi-generational audience.

 

“Biographers, especially when they have no personal knowledge of their subject, rely for their interpretations upon the sometimes dubious documentation of fragmented memory shards, the recollections of contemporaries often shaped by their own agendas, and most of all on the paper trail of the vanished person, the raw material of records and writings left behind.”

 

During the five years Deirdre Bair spent writing her biography of Anaïs Nin, she acknowledged that not having known Nin was a detriment. In her introduction, she says: “I had to settle for the verbal testimony of those who had known her…and I was astonished at the range of their responses, especially how, in so many cases, the mere mention of her name provoked vehemence and outrage… So a crucial issue became my trying to understand what there was about Anaïs Nin that made people react so strongly even though she had died more than a decade earlier.” So, were the “facts” again distorted by emotional responses to Nin? And how does one choose one response over the next as validation for factual information? And would knowing Anaïs Nin have helped in the end? To whom did she reveal her entire self during her lifetime?

 

In a recent interview, Bair said, “Any major event or happening or actions in Anaïs’s life began from what she wrote in her diaries at UCLA. If I wrote about something, it was because I fact-checked as thoroughly as I could. If she said she had an affair with somebody, if that person was still alive, I called them, I contacted them, I went to see them, and I asked, ‘Did you have an affair with Anaïs Nin?’ If I wrote about a possible incestuous relationship, it was because I checked every possible document, every possible person that I could. I think that was about as close to the truth as we were going to get.”

 

Explaining the issue of incest further, Bair says:

 

“The way I dealt with that was to photocopy those pages in the diary. I am a member of a group called the New York Institute for the Humanities, an NYU-affiliated body of public intellectuals, as we are called. Among them were some distinguished psychoanalysts and writers in that field—Jessica Benjamin, Muriel Dimen, Virginia Goldner, Sue Shapiro, and many of them specialize in the abuse of women. So I said to them, ‘I’m going to convene a special seminar.’ There were six analysts in total in the room. I said, ‘I’m going to pass out these photocopied pages from this diary that Anaïs Nin wrote, and at the end of the evening you have to give them back to me, and you have to swear secrecy to not tell anyone about this because I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t know if I’m going to write it.’ So these six highly respected, important authorities in the field, they all turned to me and said, ‘It’s as if she is in my consulting room and that she’s one of my patients. This is the story that I hear.’ They called it adult onset incest. They said that often, when a parent and a child have been separated at a very young age, when they come together as adults, they see the reflection of themselves in the other and a love affair results. Shortly thereafter, a woman named Kathryn Harrison wrote just such a memoir, about her incestuous affair with her own father…it was word for word what Anaïs wrote in the diary. At that point, I knew I had to write it.

 

“So I said to Joaquin (Nin-Culmell), ‘I’m very, very worried. You have become a dear friend of mine, and I’m going to have to write this, and I’m afraid it’s going to end our friendship.’ And he thought very carefully for a long while. And he said, ‘Well, you’ve told me every terrible thing I’ve long suspected about my sister, but I know that you’re going to write it in such a way that you will still allow me to love her.’ And I burst into tears.”

 

Contrary to the reaction of Pole, Stuhlmann, and others in the inner Nin circle, both Joaquín Nin-Culmell and Gayle Nin Rosenkrantz (Nin’s brother and niece and her closest living relatives at the time) found the Bair biography to be sensitive and fair. Gayle said recently, “The problem with some is that they will say, ‘If I understand Anaïs Nin and you disagree with me, then you don’t understand her.’ Deirdre Bair didn’t paint a gallant, romantic picture of Anaïs, but overall I thought she did a very professional and sympathetic job. Perhaps Rupert felt upset because the book did not whitewash Anaïs’s life and did not sanctify his role in it.”

 

The entire interview will be published in A Cafe in Space, Vol. 7

One Hundred Biographers: The Genesis of Anaïs Nin: A Biography

By the early 1990s, it was apparent that Evelyn Hinz, the so-called “official” biographer of Anaïs Nin, was never going to get around to writing a biography. Rupert Pole, Gunther Stuhlmann, and many Nin scholars were growing impatient, especially since scholars did not have free access to the unpublished portions of the Nin archive and therefore there were great chasms in the understanding of Nin’s life. By 1990, all of the early diaries had been published, as well as the first “unexpurgated” diary, Henry and June, which covered the years 1931 and 1932. However, even Henry and June was a frustrating endeavor for scholars, since the book was not indexed and left out many details of Nin’s life. That’s not a criticism of the book, for the intent was for it to read well, like a novel…indeed, it read well enough for Philip Kaufman to use it as a basis for the screenplay of the movie Henry and June, which was released in the fall of 1990 to critical acclaim.

 

Around this time, Deirdre Bair, who was finishing the manuscript for her biography on Simone de Beauvoir, was alerted to the lack of a Nin biography through her agent. This planted a seed in her head, and soon she became intrigued by a woman “who wrote reams and reams, hundreds of thousands of words, but they were only about her, about her personal life,” as opposed to Beauvoir, who wrote only about her public life. When Bair read the entire diary series, she “was seeing tremendous holes in…shall we call it the truth? There were tremendous questions, unresolved questions that needed to be resolved. In Diary 1, for example, she’s enjoying this marvelous life and I’m wondering who is paying for this; where is the money coming from? What’s the background of her career? What’s her financial status? There are all these questions Anaïs never answered. But then she didn’t really have to—this was autobiography, this was memoir, and this is what she wanted the reader to know. But a biography is a different animal altogether, and so as a biographer it was my job to fill in the holes.”

 

She called John Ferrone (who edited the erotica and Henry and June, among other famous titles at Harcourt) and Gunther Stuhlmann, the Nin estate’s literary agent. She met with Stuhlmann, who, she says, welcomed her with open arms, and then she traveled to Los Angeles and met Rupert Pole, who took her on a tour of the Silver Lake house and the archives at UCLA. He told Bair that Hinz’s status was unchanged (i.e. she was no longer considered as a candidate for the biography), but that another biographer, Noel Riley Fitch, had approached him as well. Bair made it clear that there could only be one official biographer—Pole and Stuhlmann consequently granted her exclusive access to the archives until the book was published.

 

Bair visited Joaquín Nin-Culmell, Nin’s youngest brother, in San Francisco and learned of his vehement disagreements with Pole and Stuhlmann about the manner in which his sister’s work was being handled. Bair concluded that she was not about to get in the middle of what was an ongoing war within the Nin camp, and, while gathering information from both sides, made it a point to not share information from one with the other.

 

The work commenced, a massive collection of data from numerous sources. About the process, she says, “I joke and I say that a biographer can’t say it was a nice day until you check the weather reports for three weeks before and after in twenty-five different newspapers. I did this to a degree I don’t think I did with any of my other books. I knew what a controversial topic she was.”

 

Coming soon: Deirdre Bair answers her critics

An interview with Deirdre Bair will appear in A Cafe in Space, Vol. 7

One Hundred Biographers: Why does a diarist need even one?

Anaïs Nin wrote, “There was once a woman who had one hundred faces. She showed one face to each person, and so it took one hundred men to write her biography.

 

During her lifetime, Anaïs Nin dodged questions that aimed to pin her down, to reveal the details of her life (or lives lived simultaneously). She was vehement about keeping things private, as strange as it sounds considering her life was the source of material for nearly all of her writing. But what was it that she actually presented in her books? She began chronicling her life with her fiction, which was, as she put it, a “distillation” of events that were recorded in her diary (and the diary was often a distillation in itself). Characters were largely based on herself and those in her circle, such as Henry Miller (Hans in “Djuna” from The Winter of Artifice and Jay in later fiction), June Miller (Johanna in “Djuna” and Sabina in The House of Incest and later fiction), Gonzalo More (Rango in “Hilda and Rango” from Little Birds). Yet she often denied her characters were based on real people, caught in a strange predicament: writing out her life but trying to keep it secret. She was often quoted as saying that her motivation for secrecy was to protect the innocent, those who would be hurt should the nature of her many relationships (especially sexual) be exposed.

 

The publication of Nin’s diaries was a discombobulated process from the very start. First, they had to be “cleaned” of any direct references to her love life, names had to be changed, and entire passages had to be removed if they referred to someone who did not wish to appear in the diary (her husband, Hugh Guiler, for example). The result, then, is not what is popularly perceived as a true “diary.” When one sees the term “diary,” one is conditioned to think “facts,” “dates,” “chronological events,” and “names.” Gunther Stuhlmann, in the introduction to Diary 1 (1931-1934), which was published in 1966 when Nin was 63 years old, expertly states what this “diary” actually is—a “psychological” truth. Apparently, too few people read the introduction and therefore tried to impose a literal truth on writing that was often not. After the 7 volumes of the Diary (which covered the years 1931 to 1974) came the problem of releasing what had been cut out, and what came before it. The childhood and young adult diaries (1914-1931) were released in a more complete form—the editing was not radical; in fact it was marginal. But beginning with the Miller years, Nin’s life had turned about face and became highly sensual, sexual, and consequently deceptive. Suddenly there were numerous affairs (including one with her estranged father), lies to her husband and her lovers, a late-term abortion, betrayals to those who loved her. So a new set of diaries, the so-called Journal of Love series, was released, beginning with Henry and June, after the death of Guiler in 1985.

 

These “unexpurgated” diaries, especially the second, Incest, caused open rebellion among many of those who’d befriended Nin, or who admired her, because they all felt betrayed—they thought they knew the woman with “one hundred faces.” In 1994, at the Nin conference at Long Island University, Joaquín Nin-Culmell famously walked up to the “friends” table and exclaimed: “You did not know my sister!” in rebuttal to what he considered their “delusion.” A few years later, I had lunch with a group of women who’d known Nin (albeit marginally), and none of them could bring themselves to believe that their beloved Anaïs, the kind and generous woman they knew, was capable of the deeds which appeared in Incest (the father relationship, the abortion). There were those who felt that these events were exploited (if not fabricated) by Rupert Pole (Nin’s California husband and executor) and Gunther Stuhlmann to make a quick buck. In short, after the first two volumes of the Journal of Love were released, there were many bitter and disillusioned people walking around, and the need for someone to sort out the actual facts of Anaïs Nin’s life was apparent. But was it possible? Since then, two biographies (Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin, by Noel Riley Fitch [1993], and Anaïs Nin: A Biography, by Dierdre Bair [1995]) have been published, but do either give us the whole picture?

 

An interview with Deirdre Bair will appear in its entirety in A Cafe in Space, Vol. 7.