“Louveciennes has always known how to hide its secrets behind thick walls…”
–Le Figaro, March 12th, 1996
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Also, read about Barbara Sapp’s efforts in trying to save Anaïs’s home.
Unlike other celebrated artists’ homes of the first half of the Twentieth Century opened for the public, the former home of Anaïs Nin changed ownership under private sale in June in Louveciennes, France.
The obstacles toward the preservation of the home and grounds began with a local French attitude holding true that Anaïs Nin was not a French writer, but a “Romanciere Americaine” as carved in the marble plaque nailed to the gate of the homesite of her 1930’s “Laboratory of the Soul.” Indeed, Nin was born French, of Danish mother and Spanish father, in the west Parisian suburb of Neuilly in 1903, later to become a naturalized US citizen, seeking refuge on the eve of the First World War. That her now famous Journal was largely written in her adoptive language of English, existing only in translation in France, her works are considered to be books taken “from the American.” Furthermore, another local opinion circulates that since the house was only rented by Nin for six years, not owned, that amount of time is not significant to classify the building and its grounds. Still others have said that the house is an eyesore, without any true architectural distinction. There is perhaps also a hint of prudery surrounding the idea of establishing an historic site dedicated to the life and works of a woman whose free spirit and libertine nature have been spotlighted by the recent publication of her uncensored diaries.
The town of Louveciennes holds precedence over the restoration of its Chateau of Madame DuBarry, the palatial love nest of the Aristocratic courtesan bought privately by a Japanese investor who then proceeded to strip the interior of its elegant parquet floors, gilded cornices and mouldings, chandeliers, mirrors, mantle pieces and marquetry for auction and exportation. This exploitation of a classified national treasure shocked Louveciennes to seek legal action to seize public possession of the Chateau with intervention at the level of the Ministry of Culture, and undoubtedly deepened feelings of zenophobic caution towards foreign investment in local property.
Although Anaïs Nin was to take up other residences during her Paris years, including the renting of the Villa Seurat for Henry Miller and a houseboat on the Seine with her Latin lover Gonzalo More, the house at 2 bis rue Montbuisson in the hamlet of Louveciennes was all that remained untouched by time of a circle of collaborating artists and writers to later epitomize a Paris past. The house is lovingly recalled throughout Nin’s Journals, and could be considered the crucible of her formative years as an artist. “It is above all Anaïs Nin’s most important home in France,” confirms Beatrice Commenge, French translator of the authoress’ Unexpurgated Diaries. It was Anaïs’ wish that her true story be told uncensored after the death of her first husband in 1985.
The latest of several attempts to acquire and restore for the public the seventeenth century cottage near Versailles folded when the French Government made no motion to classify the building an Historic Site. The house and grounds where Nin truly launched her literary career along with the companionship and encouragement of friend, lover and mentor, Henry Miller, and other such artistic colleagues like writer Lawrence Durrell, photographer Brassai, and actor Antonin Artaud, as well as her husband Hugh Parker Guiler, (later New York cinematographer and engraver Ian Hugo), passed through the hands of a local Architect who was granted zoning permission by the town hall of Louveciennes to divide the property into three lots for resale and development. Among them, the house proper which was rented by Nin and then husband Hugo Guiler was arranged for private sale to the son of a French Patrimony official.
Ironically there was to be a Poetry Festival this Spring in Louveciennes, the mention of Nin’s name on the lips of local admirers and quiet keepers of the flame, of which there are many fond Louveciennois eager to see this little piece of history remembered. Indeed the town has been home to the famous and talented over the past century, from Impressionist painter August Renoir to cinema goddess Brigitte Bardot.
A gentleman to whom the Nin home has been an interest, if not a proverbial and political thorn in the side, Pierre Lequiller, Mayor of Louveciennes, was able to guarantee to the literary community only that the exterior of the building be maintained by the new owners. The previous owners allowed the property to fall into a sad state of decay over the last twenty years, the slate and copper roof all but caving in, vandalized with broken windows and over turned furniture, moss and ivy almost blushingly trying to cover the building’s abandoned nakedness. The house, on the outskirts of a leafy and secluded Parisian suburb, became a Mecca for Nin followers over the years. Those content not merely to just look at the house from behind its forbidding rusted gate often found rabbit holes or footholds the length of the property’s enclosure and peered with curiosity into its windows, or even found means of entering the building, some proof remaining of the past visits of squatters and new age travellers scattered about the interior; snuffed out candles with their wax drips on the floor boards and empty wine bottles rolling around underfoot.
Once inside, however, the sad feeling of neglect gave way to an archaeologist’s sense of joy! Traces of the colours on the walls chosen and painted by Anaïs’ own hands; flaming rust orange in the sitting room, peach and aquamarine upstairs, grey in the office room where she used to type furiously.
It seems a miracle that much of the interior remained so preserved, but a frequent rental attitude between tenant and landlord is to spare all unnecessary expense on the other party, and so it would seem that not even a pot of paint was wasted in the last half century! Although the house was emptied of her possessions during the transfer to the next tenants in 1936 (Letter from Anaïs Nin to Michael Fraenkel, 1936), many fixtures and heavy pieces of furniture remained; Solid oaken cabinets lining the walls of the Master bedroom, her white porcelain brass lions’ footed bathtub, a well worn spiral staircase and many ancient fireplaces and woodburning stoves. Oddly, the last tennants to leave in the late 1970’s left piles of personal objects strewn about the house as if some exodus was made post-haste; toothpaste and razors still in the bathroom, spices on the rack in the kitchen, clothes and linens, bicycles and baby carriage, books and magazines in teetering stacks, paintings on the walls and a motley collection of windblown umbrellas stuffed in a stand near the door. The wrought iron lawn furniture that appears in Louveciennes photos of the Nin, Miller, Durrell “Three Musketeers of Montparnasse” troika rusts overturned in the backyard.
Many interested in Nin and preserving this house for posterity as a Paris Writers’ Museum or Artists Workshop tried to establish contact in the last ten years with the former owners, a who were not at that time ready to sell, waiting for an upsurge in the depression in the French Real Estate Market. Film maker Philip Kaufman, director and producer of the 1990 “Henry & June” and his crew approached the owners to inquire after the possibility of acquiring and restoring the actual home for the production. Blinded by Hollywood and the prospect of instant wealth, the owners demanded an outrageous sum, and the film, a budget production that solidified the then-just launching careers of Maria de Madeiros and Uma Thurman, was forced to look for an affordable prototype.
Other sites in Europe have had more success obtaining Historic Classification. Great Britain enjoys a fastidiously organized National Heritage Association, and a standardization of blue plaques denoting historic sites. The Sussex Farmhouse site of Bloomsbury fame, former cottage retreat of Virginia Woolf’s sister, painter Vanessa Bell and her lifelong companion Duncan Grant, recently was saved in a like fashion. A rented property in disrepair, once the scene of the exploits of early Twentieth Century literati, was acquired on a Trust, restored and established as an ongoing writer’s workshop and living museum. Finding the funding to launch and maintain such grand scale projects remains the struggle of the Arts in this day and age.
To many academics, artists and writers, as well as the adoring readers of Nin’s life and works, the house represents the last vestiges of a true literary salon, what Nin liked to call her “Laboratory of the Soul.” Not only in Paris in the Crazy Years was she a Mother of the Arts, but established herself for the next forty years on both coasts in artistic circles after her second flight to America fleeing the repression of the European rise of Fascism on the eve of World War Two. The new owners have not been eager to communicate with Nin circles and wish to consider their acquisition a private affair.
Although resistance toward the division and private sale of the property was voiced by an Association formed in Paris for the Preservation of the Home of Anaïs Nin, and backed by countless petitioning signatures postmarked from around the globe, as well as a brilliant but brief flury of international media attention, the sale of the 3,000 meter square property could only be interrupted for a higher bid and penalty fee over the near one million dollar asking price. Curiously, the most fuss made concerning the sale of the property and rezoning of the garden lot for construction was by French Environmentalists, outraged that the only free rooted palmtree in the Ile-de-France, growing in Anaïs Nin’s garden, would be at risk. A cry of, “Cut down the lindens, but don’t touch the Palm!” was heard at a town meeting in March.
Sadly, many closest to Anaïs Nin, including her surviving husband, Rupert Pole, and life-long editor, Gunther Stuhlmann, have been ever pessimistic about the acquisition of the property. Even Anaïs herself was denied entry to the grounds on a visit pilgrimage to the site in the seventies. Indeed, for the Anglophone community dedicated to Nin’s life and work, information surrounding the status of the building has been difficult to obtain, and shrouded in hearsay. The barriers being many, least of all language ; A crooked and shrewd real estate agent withholding any solid facts from the public, a French pre-sales agreement binding the owner under local legislation to sell only to the signed party should they exercise their option, fait accompli, an owning family disputing even amongst itself the right to possession and divvying of the profits, neighbours, locals and French politicians split in opinion of what should become of the property, and of course, Louveciennes being an exclusive west Parisian suburb of wealth and influence steeped in tradition and French aristocratic history, an impenetrable bastion of the blue-blooded Old Guard not too accommodating to the enquiries of outsiders and the Press, even be they French. The notably right-wing Le Figaro began its March 12th 1996 feature article detailing the circumstances surrounding the sale of the house with the words, “Louveciennes has always known how to hide its secrets behind thick walls….”
Long-since resigned to the difficulty and distance concerning Louveciennes, Rupert Pole continues to dedicate his life to the editing and publication of the Unexpurgated Diaries of Anaïs Nin. The Silver Lake, Los Angeles home that Rupert and Anaïs built together will be left to the Nin estate as a tribute to the writer. Rupert built the home according to Anaïs’ wishes for, “a house of air and glass surrounded by water.” And it was there, reflected in a crystal pool, a Redwood, stone and window-walled Lloyd Wright style home terraced on a hillside in the California pines, far from the glitz and trappings of 1930’s Paris, that she brought life full circle, surrounded by the friends and fruits of her creative efforts.
“I know the history of Louveciennes ended at a certain time. Looking back on it, it was the right time. Even though it’s painful and you are not necessarily aware when you’re finished with a certain experience….” — Anaïs Nin, “A Woman Speaks”, 1976, The Swallow Press
Warmest thanks to all those in support of the Association for the Preservation of the Home of Anaïs Nin.
She is smiling down on us….
Barbara Ann Sapp
Email BARBARA SAPP at: firstname.lastname@example.org