This Day In Literary History
On February 21st, 1903, the legendary French writer Anaïs Nin was born. She was born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.
Her father, Joaquin Nin, was a Cuban pianist and composer. Her mother, Rosa Culmell, was a classically trained singer of French and Danish descent. She had two younger brothers, Thorvald and Joaquin.
When Anaïs was a young girl, her family traveled throughout Europe. They lived for a time in Spain and in America, then moved back to her mother's French homeland. There, they lived in an apartment rented from an American friend who had gone away for the summer.
Anaïs, then in her teens, stumbled across the man's collection of French erotic paperbacks and read them all. By then, she had already determined to become a writer, and had begun keeping the diaries for which she would become most famous.
At sixteen, she completed her primary education and became an artist's model. She had begun learning English while her family was living in America; soon she became fluent in English, though French would remain her native language.
In March of 1923, at the age of twenty, Anaïs married her boyfriend, Hugh Parker Guiler, a banker who years later would reinvent himself as an experimental filmmaker named Ian Hugo. The couple settled in Paris and would maintain an open marriage.
While her husband was preoccupied with his banking career, Anaïs took up writing and flamenco dancing. Her first book, published in 1932, was an acclaimed work of non-fiction titled D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. She wrote it in just over two weeks.
At the time of its publication, literary critics had begun turning their backs on Lawrence, the legendary English writer best known for his classic and controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. Anaïs' masterful, scholarly study of Lawrence's works was an eyebrow raiser - no woman had dared praise his controversial writings before.
At the time she wrote her book, Anaïs Nin was living the bohemian life in Paris. She met the legendary American writer Henry Miller, then a down-and-out expatriate trying to start his own career as a novelist. She let him read her diaries, and they were a revelation to him.
Her writing had the poetry and passion that his lacked. With Anaïs serving as his muse, Miller wrote his classic debut novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934), which made his name as a writer. Meanwhile, Anaïs worked on her own fiction.
While they tried to keep their writing careers going, Anaïs and Henry struggled to make ends meet, as France had also fallen victim to the Great Depression. They and their writer friends soon discovered they could make $1 per page writing pornographic literature for an anonymous private collector.
At first, they did it more for their own amusement than for the money, but soon it became an important source of income during the hard times of the Depression. $1 per page back then is equivalent to $15 per page in today's money.
Believe it or not, for Henry Miller, writing decent erotica in those days was a struggle. Anaïs Nin, however, was brilliant at it. Her erotica, told from a woman's perspective, was dazzling, poetic, sensual, and even philosophical at times, while also surprisingly graphic.
She explored all the known sexual taboos, including male and female homosexuality, sadomasochism, and incest. Though she retained her original manuscripts for these stories, she never intended to have them published.
Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller became close friends and ultimately lovers. When Miller's wife June arrived in Paris, the relationship would become something of a ménage à trois. Anaïs came to love June and found herself attracted to the woman, she preferred sex with men.
In 1936, Anaïs published her first novella, House Of Incest, which would prove to be one of her most famous works of fiction. The Nin family had feared that it was going to be an expose of a recent incestuous affair between Anaïs and her father.
Instead, it was a novella filled with surrealist prose poetry, metaphors, and psychological symbolism, based on a series of dreams she had. Anaïs would later chronicle the actual incestuous affair in her famous diaries.
Shockingly, one of her therapists had encouraged her to seduce, then abandon her father as an act of revenge for his abandonment of her when she was a young girl. The therapist believed that this would leave Anaïs feeling empowered. It didn't.
In the summer of 1939, with the winds of war brewing, Anaïs and her husband left Paris and moved to New York City. She would remain in America for pretty much the rest of her life. In 1947, she met Rupert Pole, an ex-actor sixteen years her junior, in an elevator while on her way to a party. They began dating, then ran off together.
The couple married in Arizona before moving to California. While Anaïs would live with Rupert until her death in 1977, she annulled their marriage in 1966 for tax reasons - and because she had never formally divorced her first husband.
Anaïs continued to write fiction and maintain her diaries. In 1958, she began publishing Cities of the Interior, her classic "continuous novel" which appeared in a series of five volumes. The most famous volumes were the third, The Four-Chambered Heart, and the fourth, A Spy in the House of Love.
While living in California, Anaïs struck up friendships with experimental filmmakers and appeared in a few films. Her most famous film role was of the goddess Astarte in Kenneth Anger's classic film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956). She also appeared in Maya Deren's classic experimental film, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946).
Over the years, Anaïs' famous diaries would be published in a series of eleven volumes. They would also appear as collections of excerpts, the most famous of which was Henry and June: From a Journal of Love (1986).
Henry and June: From a Journal of Love contained excerpts from Anaïs' diaries chronicling her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife, June. This memorable volume would be adapted by director Philip Kaufman as the highly acclaimed and controversial 1990 feature film Henry & June.
Starring Fred Ward as Henry Miller, Uma Thurman as June, and, in a bravura performance, Maria de Medeiros as Anaïs Nin, it was the first movie to be rated NC-17, which had replaced the X rating.
Bowing to pressure groups, most theaters banned NC-17 rated pictures as they had X-rated films, and Henry & June played on only a few hundred screens nationwide. It earned most of its profits in videotape sales and rentals, which were unaffected by the NC-17 rating.
Still, film critics, most famously the legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, decried the film's rating as undeserved and protested the NC-17 rating in general as unnecessary and continuing the X rating's tradition of imposing censorship on filmmakers.
(Since most theaters, especially shopping mall multiplexes, refused to play X or NC-17 rated movies, filmmakers were forced to cut their pictures to obtain a lower rating in order to get a wider distribution and hopefully make a profit.)
By 1976, Anaïs was losing her battle with cancer when a publisher approached her about releasing a volume of her famous erotic short stories, which everyone knew about but nobody had seen - except for the anonymous patron who had paid her to write them.
She still didn't want to publish them, but her ex-husbands Hugh Parker Guiler and Rupert Pole, both of whom she still loved, had fallen into poverty. She figured that the money could be used to help them out. She died in January of 1977 at the age of 73. Six months later, Delta of Venus was published.
As the publisher had expected, the short story collection became a huge hit, though Anaïs Nin had considered the stories an embarrassment because they were more caricature than serious writing and had been penned for a private patron's money rather than written for publication.
Nevertheless, they provided a memorable exhibition of Nin's talent for erotic literature. They also added to her legacy as a feminist icon. With the success of Delta of Venus, a second erotic short story collection, Little Birds, was published in 1979.
Quote Of The Day
"If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it." - Anaïs Nin
Today's video features Anaïs Nin reading from her famous diaries. Enjoy!