The first time Henry Miller made love to Anais Nin, he pounced on her with such ferocity that she felt she’d been ravished ‘by a cannibal’.
It was 1932 and the 20th century’s most notorious writers of erotica were together at her rented chateau outside Paris.
Nin’s husband was a rich banker, so she had paid for the impoverished Miller to travel from Dijon, where he was eking out a living as a teacher.
As they explored the grounds together, neither was in any doubt about what was to follow. But even a seasoned philanderer such as Nin was taken by surprise when Miller threw her to the ground and ‘attacked’ her. She was utterly smitten.
Nin, sexual free spirit and the former darling of the literary avant garde, is back in the news after the Duchess of Sussex revealed that the French-Cuban writer has been an important inspiration in her life.
In the September issue of Vogue which Meghan has guest-edited, she approvingly quotes the line: ‘I must be a mermaid…I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living’ — from Nin’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Four-Chambered Heart.
The duchess, who says she read the book ‘many moons ago’, explains: ‘For this issue, I imagined, why would we swim in the shallow end of the pool when we could go to the deep end? A metaphor for life, as well as for this issue. Let’s be braver. Let’s go a bit deeper.’
Dismissed by critics during her colourful lifetime as the purveyor of pretentious, self-indulgent drivel and over-heated erotic novels, Nin has since been rescued from obscurity by a new generation of feminists who revere her pioneering candour about men, women and sex — and her refusal to abide by gender conventions. She was certainly a force to contend with.
Nin, who died in 1977 aged 73, was once derided as a ‘monster of self-centredness whose artistic pretensions now seem grotesque’. Yet today her aphorisms are frequently quoted online by a growing legion of fans who are rediscovering her.
‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,’ is a particular favourite.
Sex, though, was the defining interest of her life. She wrote compulsively about it just as she spent much of her life indulging in it.
Nin was a wildly promiscuous woman whose bold sexual experimentation included bigamy, a menage a trois, incest with her own father and writing a book about sexual perversion so sordid — including paedophilia and necrophilia — that even today online retailer Amazon hides it in its ‘adult content dungeon’. She certainly hasn’t always been a fashionable name to drop into conversation.
Born in 1903 near Paris to a Spanish-Cuban father and French-Danish mother who split up when she was eight, the beautiful Nin earned a reputation for her untrammelled sex life long before anyone noticed her writing.
Aged 20, she married a wealthy banker, Hugo Guiler, whose financial support would help bankroll her literary efforts.
As she recorded in her diaries and in novels that were thinly disguised memoirs, Nin repaid his devotion by cheating on him relentlessly with the many men who became besotted with her.
Her first book, on the British novelist D.H. Lawrence, provided her with an entry into bohemian literary circles, leading her to Henry Miller, author of the semi-pornographic Tropic Of Cancer (which Nin helped edit) who became her lover.
But she cast her net wide and well beyond fellow writers.
She was fixated with Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and seduced two leading practitioners who agreed to analyse her.
She even briefly practised as a ‘shrink’ herself — a deeply unethical one — having sex with her patients on her couch and cheekily later complaining that she couldn’t help but want to ‘intercede’ in their problems.
Initially, her writing career was unsuccessful and she had to self-publish four of the nine works of fiction released during her lifetime. Only one of them, Under a Glass Bell, drew any praise from critics.
Her most sexually-explicit book, a collection of erotic short stories called Delta Of Venus, was published posthumously.
In fact it had never been intended for publication as she had written it to order, at a dollar a page, in the 1930s for a millionaire businessman in Paris. ‘More porn, less poetry,’ she accurately explained.
It was the affair with Miller that helped define her. It was in the early 1930s when Nin, then in her late 20s, met the impoverished, foul-mouthed and bullying author.
Regarding him as a genius, she agreed to finance his living and writing. She even paid for his prostitutes, once insisting to him: ‘Please don’t go to too cheap, too ordinary a woman.’
Miller in turn suggested to Nin that she and Hugo spice up their marriage by venturing into unconventional sexual territory. Nin called it ‘widening circles’. Hugo was eventually persuaded to accompany her to a bordello where they watched a sex show performed by two prostitutes.
Soon after, Nin embarked on an affair with the equally lascivious Miller. After that first sexual encounter in the garden, she recorded how in trysts he would treat her like a prostitute, asking her to whip him or crawl on her hands and knees. ‘It is like a forest fire, to be with him,’ she confessed.
The arrival in Paris of his second wife, June — herself bisexual — provided fresh opportunities for exploration.
Nin became obsessed with Mrs Miller and they clearly had a sexual dalliance. In her diaries, she mused about the attractions of sapphism and how the ‘passivity’ of the woman’s role in sex with men ‘suffocates me’.
Speaking of Miller, she went on: ‘Rather than wait for his pleasure, I would like to take it, to run wild.
‘Is it that which pushes me into lesbianism? It terrifies me. Do women act thus?’
When this menage a trois was portrayed in the 1990 film Henry & June — in which Uma Thurman played June — it won a U.S. film classification usually reserved for hardcore pornography.
Nin would embark on an even more shocking affair when she was 30. Her father, pianist Joaquin Nin, reappeared in her life after a 20-year absence and they embarked on a sexual relationship.
She never expressed anything other than delight over the shocking liaison, which perfectly illustrated Nin’s complete inability to feel guilt.
Father and daughter spent two weeks indulging themselves in ‘a non-stop orgiastic frenzy’, she confessed in her diary. When the affair ended, Nin wrote defiantly: ‘If I am perverse, monstrous, tant pis [too bad]! I am what I am!’
Her obsession with defying convention also extended to bigamy.
When she was 44, she met Rupert Pole, a handsome actor, in a lift as they went up to a millionaire’s Manhattan party in 1947.
They started an affair after she told Pole — who was 16 years younger than her and about to become a forest ranger — that she was divorced, even though she was still married to Hugo Guiler.
For years, Nin was able to keep up a precarious trans-America balancing act (she called it her ‘bicoastal trapeze’), alternating between Pole’s spartan log cabin in the wilds of Arizona, and Guiler’s luxurious flat in New York — fobbing off each man that she occasionally needed to get away for work or relaxation.
When Pole once rang her in New York, she managed to persuade Guiler he was a crazy fan pestering her. She carried around a huge purse big enough to contain the two chequebooks and two sets of prescription pills, either made out to ‘Anais Guiler’ or ‘Anais Pole’.
She also kept a ‘lie box’, an aide memoire as to what falsehoods she had told each man.
It never occurred to Nin to consider something as tediously conventional as divorce: she married Pole bigamously in 1955, choosing for the ceremony a remote desert village in Arizona, where she hoped marriage records would be hard to find.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Nin finally achieved literary fame — infamy might be nearer the mark — when the first volume of her diaries was published. She’d begun writing them at 11 and they ran to 35,000 pages.
Even after being heavily censored, they remained jaw-droppingly candid about her sexual history and her many lovers — an international array of celebrities including Miller and fellow writers Edmund Wilson and Antonin Artaud, and Freud’s colleague, the famous psychiatrist Otto Rank — and of course her father.
Nin sometimes slept with three different men in a day.
A friend recounted how they once stopped their car at a petrol station and Nin was surprisingly friendly to all the attendants and mechanics. ‘Oh yes,’ she explained. ‘I sleep with all the men here.’
The diaries sealed her notoriety and turned her into a feminist heroine.
Their popularity persuaded her to quietly annul her marriage to Pole, fearing that the financial success that followed the first volume of her newly published diaries might alert the U.S. taxman to the fact that two men were claiming spousal allowances for her.
However, they continued to live together until her death. And for all that time, she remained married to Guiler.
‘I was jealous, yes,’ said Pole, who died in 2006. ‘But I played the same games as Hugo, pretending to believe her.
‘In a way, I did not care. I was not interested in conventional women, or in conventional marriage.’
Nin never had children, although in 1942 she aborted a child at six months. She later admitted she was never sure whether the child was her father’s or Miller’s.
When Miller brought the manuscript of his latest novel into her hospital room after the termination, she declared: ‘Here is a birth which is of greater interest to me.’
Fans may venerate Nin now as a pioneer for modern feminism — but she didn’t always sound like one.
‘Nature connived me to be man’s woman,’ she said in her diary. ‘Not a mother to children, but to men.’