Myth #4: Anaïs Nin was fluent in three languages: French, Spanish, and English.
Fact: When Anaïs Nin’s father, Joaquín Nin, abandoned his family in Arachon, France, in 1913, she, her mother and her two younger brothers went to Barcelona and stayed with Joaquín’s parents. During the year or so they spent in Spain, Anaïs learned her Spanish. When the fatherless family arrived in New York in 1914, French was the spoken language at home. Although Anaïs’s mother, Rosa, was fluent in English (as well as Spanish and French), she had determined the family’s “mother tongue” was French. Her philosophy was that since her children would learn English soon enough in school and in their social interactions, and that Spanish would be spoken with their Cuban relatives, the only way to keep the French alive was to speak it exclusively at home. When Anaïs began her diary on the trip to America, it was in French.
Although her English was improving over the next few years, Nin continued her diary writing in French, partly because she longed to retain her identity, and partly because she intended the diary as a long “letter” to her estranged father, who did not know English. As her English grew, her French withered. Her father chastised her for her misuse of words and accent marks, leading Anaïs to close one of her letters with all the accent marks at the end: “Put them where they belong,” she told him. Sometimes Anaïs would transcribe letters to English-speaking friends into her diary, and it was clear that she was better able to express herself with English. She began reading the English-language classics, and by 1920 had switched her diary to English. Her English was by far a better vehicle for her self-expression, but was still a work-in-progress, and would be for years to come.
As Anaïs began to attempt to write fiction in English after returning to Paris in 1925, her young husband, Hugh Guiler, in the name of helping her, criticized her incorrect (as he saw it) use of words, or the use of words that were considered archaic or odd. Later on, Henry Miller would do much the same (see Myth #2).
Consider this passage Miller corrects from “Djuna” in The Winter of Artifice (sometime in the mid-1930s):
“Are you afriad to forget your name and who you are, and where you live? Have you not played with the idea of amnesia, which only meens a somanabulistic condition of the ideal self. The conscince goes to sleep and then the critical self too, and you can walk the streets and act as you please without calms.”
Miller blasts her misspellings, and when he criticizes her use of “calms” for “qualms” he says: “Look it up!!!” He adds: “Bad sentence structure” and “Watch all your ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ etc. Weakly used!” (See Benjamin Franklin V’s introduction to The Winter of Artifice: a facsimile of the original 1939 Paris edition.)
At times, Nin felt hopeless—she had Guiler and Miller criticizing her English, and she admitted to Miller that writing in French to her father was “like trying to create a river with twigs” (see “Prelude to a Symphony: letters between a father and daughter,” A Café in Space, Vol. 6). Her Spanish at this time was almost non-existent…her father occasionally wrote to her in Spanish, but Anaïs did not respond in kind.
As Nin developed artistically through these trials by fire, her writing became stronger, more economic, and possessed an exotically distinct quality. It is often described as “English written in the French style.” There is no question that Anaïs Nin became one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, and to this day one of the most oft-quoted…but during the transitions between her three languages, arguably caused by her constant resettling, she was fluent in none of them.
Shortly before Anaïs Nin’s birth on February 21, 1903, Joaquín Nin and his wife, Rosa, moved to the plush Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and took a flat at 7 rue du Général Henrion Bertier, a short walk from what is now avenue Charles de Gaulle, from where one can see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance to the east. Today, the neighborhood is overshadowed by the futuristic silhouette of La Défense and is choked with cars parked where there is no space, but at the turn of the 20th century it could have been the setting for a passage from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. There would have been well-dressed couples strolling on the trottoir, elegant carriages coming up and down the narrow street, the well-heeled horseriding in the nearby Bois du Bologne. For Joaquín Nin, whose musical career was just beginning, it was the perfect place for his upper-crust tastes. For Rosa, it was a source of strain because it was very expensive and it was her father supplying the funds.
The house (and its identical neighbor at no. 11) is listed by the Invetaire générale des monuments et des richesses artisitiques de la France, Département des Hauts-de-Seine. It was designed by the architect Gustave Gridaine (who designed other prominent buildings in the area) and completed in November 1895. According to the Invetaire, there is a basement, 4 rectangular stories, and a penthouse, and it is constructed of cut stone with a slate roof. There is an interior suspended staircase, spiral and windowed, and the décor is listed as “sculpture.”
The family didn’t spend much time in Neuilly; they traveled back to Havana in 1904 where Joaquín took Cuban citizenship and shortly thereafter performed in Paris for the first time as a Cuban. Rosa was by then pregnant with their second child, Thorvald, who was born in 1905 in Havana. Rosa’s father, Thorvald Culmell, was dying and sought to tighten the spending. So, after returning to France, the Nin family moved from Neuilly to a less expensive house in St-Cloud, outside of Paris. For an article on Neuilly, see A Cafe in Space, Vol. 1.
To read more about Neuilly, 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.
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.
When Rosa Culmell, 30, met Joaquín Nin, 22, in Havana, Cuba, she was swept off her feet by his beauty, talent, charm, and eloquent manners. He had a habit of dazzling women by playing piano for customers in music stores, and Rosa, although defiantly single and of the elite class, was caught in his spell. Joaquín, who was penniless and living off his meager earnings and his Cuban relatives, felt Rosa was the perfect vehicle for his success in living the life of a dandy and in his professional career. Rosa, though not the most beautiful of her single sisters, was the most mature and forthright, not to mention she had a professional-quality singing voice. Joaquín and Rosa married April 8, 1902 in Havana, and soon left for Paris with enough money for a grand piano and a monthly stipend, thanks to Rosa’s father, Thorvald Culmell.
Once in Paris, the couple soon discovered their immense differences: she was honest, loving, and giving. He was selfish, arrogant, and wanted nothing but the best for himself. She provided the money, but he made the decisions. Their relationship became a series of monumental battles followed by passionate reconciliations, according to Anaïs Nin biographer Dierdre Bair.
Rosa became pregnant almost immediately after the marriage, perhaps the result of one of their clashes. Although Rosa had won a battle to live in St-Germain-des-Prés, which was relatively inexpensive, shortly before their first child, Anaïs, was born, Joaquín precipitated the move to Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris’s most luxurious suburb, setting an ominous pattern for the rest of their marriage.
We are posting events leading up to Anaïs Nin’s birth, February 21st, 1903.
Thanks to Gayle Nin Rosenkrantz (Anaïs Nin’s niece and daughter of Thorvald Nin, Anaïs’s younger brother) and some of her Danish cousins, we can sort out some of the rather complicated details of Anaïs Nin’s Danish and French ancestry. Some of this information is anecdotal, but much of it is documented and runs counter to Nin biographer Deirdre Bair’s account.
This we know for sure: Thorvald Culmell (1847-1906) was a Danish immigrant who settled in Cuba during the 19thcentury, where he married Anaïs Vaurigaud November 12, 1870 and fathered nine children. Rosa, Anaïs Nin’s mother, was the eldest Culmell child, born in 1871.
Anaïs Culmell (nee Vaurigaud y Bourdin), Anaïs Nin’s grandmother, was the youngest child of Pierre Vaurigaud, a Cuban-born engineer whose journal was translated by Gayle into English. Anaïs was born November 27, 1853 in Havana. It is said she never set foot on the soil of any other country. While Bair claims Pierre was the son of Napoleonic general and his Creole wife, in fact the Napoleonic general was Bernard Bourdin, Pierre Vaurigaud’s father-in-law, and the Creole was Pierre’s wife (Anaïs Bourdin y Flack, baptized Catherine Rose, perhaps because Anaïs was not considered a Christian name), who was born in New Orleans. Family history says that Pierre’s parents were descendants of French planters who’d fled what is now Haiti after the slave rebellion around 1800. Anaïs Culmell (Vaurigaud) died in Havana in the 1920s. Thorvald Nin happened to be in Cuba at the time and acted as one of the pallbearers.
Thorvald Culmell, Anaïs Nin’s grandfather, was actually born Thorvald Christensen, one of two brothers who emigrated from Denmark to make their mark in the Americas. Some correspondence from the Danish side of the family indicates that a third brother, Carl Lauritz (1832-1899), settled in Australia. The other brother who came to the Americas was Peter Emilius (1834-1914). Peter Emilius used the name Charles Culmell or Charles Culmell Christensen in the United States some years before Thorvald came to Cuba. Peter Emilius amassed quite a fortune, and family legend says part of it came from blockade running during the U.S. Civil War.
While Thorvald stayed in Cuba and became a wealthy businessman, Peter Emilius moved to Texas and raised a family. Most likely around 1867, he returned to Denmark after his wife Ella (born Edwards) died in an epidemic. He then married his housekeeper, Sophia, and had two daughters with her. The center figure in the photo above is possibly Sophia, as one of the Danish cousins sees a resemblance from an earlier photo taken of her.
According to Deirdre Bair, Anaïs Culmell left Thorvald after having relations with other men, moved into her own house, and although still married, lived her life independently, foreshadowing certain aspects of Anaïs Nin’s lifestyle.