Noel Riley Fitch delves into the private life of the prolific diarist, feminist
and sexual explorer
Anais Nin was a woman of many faces: femme fatale, the D.H. Lawrence of women
writers, lover of Henry and June, feminist heroine and cult figure on college
campuses in the ’60s and ’70s. Her reputation grew from her diaries — thousands
of pages documenting her life as a writer, artist and liberated woman in Paris,
New York and Los Angeles.
Just as she did for the general public, Nin wore different faces for her friends
and lovers. Even her own diaries are largely fictional, concealing her true self
behind illusions and lies.
It is the face of Nin as a young girl — degraded, rejected and abandoned by her
father — that holds the secret truths to her life, concludes Noel Riley Fitch,
whose biography of Nin was published in September.
In her meticulously researched book, Fitch, a lecturer in the Master’s of
Professional Writing Program, argues that Nin’s difficult childhood was the
source of her constant need for love and attention. In Anais: The Erotic Life of
Anais Nin, Fitch reveals for the first time how Nin’s relationship with her
father taught her to seek approval in a sexual way. She describes how the only
paternal affection Nin received came when, as a 10-year-old, she posed nude for
Anais is an exhaustive portrait of Nin’s passionate, tumultuous and sometimes
bitterly painful life, exposing the sexual life that Nin painstakingly omitted
from her published diaries. Published by Little, Brown and Co., the book is the
product of three-and-a-half years of work. In the course of her research, Fitch
conducted 300 interviews, including many with Nin’s lovers, and pored through
most of Nin’s original diaries as well as her erotic stories and works of
Nin is probably more famous for her bohemian lifestyle, her steamy affairs and
erotica than for her contributions to serious literature, according to Fitch. She
is not taken seriously by the literary establishment, and it is generally only
her diaries that are ever studied in classes.
“I don’t make the argument for her being a great fiction writer at all,” Fitch
Instead, Fitch believes that Nin’s significance lies in the 35,000 pages of her
diaries. “Her major contribution is 55 years of [keeping] a diary that is
introspective, that analyzes herself as a woman and as an artist, and [that
examines] the conflict between those two things and how to resolve it,” she said.
Nin’s is the lengthiest and most complete record of any developing artistic
consciousness, Fitch writes. “For this reason, she has been called by some the
‘most important psychologist of women.'” Feminist Kate Millett, author of Sexual
Politics, called the diary “the first real portrait of the artist as a woman.”
The author of Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris
in the Twenties and Thirties, Fitch decided to write a book about Nin before she
had even read the diaries. No biography existed, only studies of Nin’s diaries
and erotic fiction.
One particular attraction of Nin’s life for Fitch was where she had lived. Nin
resided in Paris, New York and Los Angeles; Fitch divides her time between Los
Angeles and Paris. She teaches “Writing the Nonfiction Book” at USC and
literature at the American University in Paris. She is married to Albert
Sonnenfeld, chairman of the Department of French and Italian. Fitch was
previously a visiting instructor in the English department at USC.
Much of the challenge for Fitch in writing the book lay in decoding Nin’s secrets
and pinning down the most accurate information about her life. Nin and her
editors had trimmed and rewritten her diaries to the point that they could no
longer be regarded as factually accurate. In her book, Fitch includes about 75
pages of footnotes to support her conclusions about Nin’s life.
Because Nin rewrote and edited so much of her diary, it is almost a work of
fiction. For example, she excised sexual content to protect her lovers and
husbands (she was a bigamist, with bi-coastal husbands for the last 25 years of
her life). She also concealed the significant hurt caused by her father, who had
beaten her, told her she was ugly and offered approval only when taking the nude
The father abandoned his family when Nin was still a child, and, Fitch believes,
Nin wrote her first diary entries as a letter imploring him to return. When she
was 30, a reunion with her father led to an incestuous involvement.
A practicing Catholic, Nin as a young woman feared sex and yet habitually flirted
with men to gain their admiration. Reading D.H. Lawrence awakened in her feelings
of sexuality that were first satisfied when she fell in love with Henry Miller in
Paris. Fitch describes Nin’s early lovers as father figures. Later, in Greenwich
Village, Nin abandoned such figures for gay men, whom she often took as lovers.
The published diaries omitted such details of Nin’s notorious sex life; in recent
years several books have come forth revealing what was left out. They include
Henry and June, published in 1986, which describes Nin’s simultaneous affairs
with Henry and June Miller; and Incest (1992), which covers the period in which
she had an affair with her father.
Fitch argues that these disjointed books do not give readers a full understanding
or appreciation of Nin. In Anais, her objective was to bring together all aspects
of her subject. She draws on material from the original diaries and studied
closely the early drafts of fictional works and poems in order to decipher the
people and events that had been central to Nin’s life.
“The first time Nin would write a story, it would be so specific that it was
obvious who everyone was,” Fitch said. “By the time it got published, it had
become more poetic, less specific, and the names were changed so there would be
no trace. When you read her pornography and erotica, you can see that a lot of it
has just been taken out of the diary and you realize that it, too, is based on
the same people.”
Many of the female characters in Nin’s stories are orphans who were abused by
their caretakers. “The fact is that she would bring up incidents that echo her
own abuse,” Fitch said.
Nin’s coquetry was the desperate yearning of an abused and abandoned girl, Fitch
Fitch’s book also documents Nin’s life in Silver Lake with husband Rupert Pole —
while she was still married to Hugo Guiler. She traces Nin’s rise to fame and her
battle with cancer, which led to her death in 1977. In her final years, Nin found
receptive audiences in lecture halls on college campuses. She had a special
appeal to feminists.
“She would talk in very Lawrencian language about following your own desires and
needs, living freely,” Fitch said. “Women still adore her. They say she changed
Anais: The Erotic Life of Anais Nin is available at the Pertusati University