Biographer Noel Riley Fitch Visits the Paris Writers Group

by Mary Duncan

If you are sensitive to the naked truth, then beware. Naked is the proper word to describe Noel Riley Fitch’s comments about Sylvia Beach, Anais Nin and Julia Child. This month, Noel who was our special guest at PWG, shared some surprises she discovered while researching her biographical subjects. She spent ten years researching and writing each of her three biographies, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, The Erotic Life of Anais Nin and Appetite for Life.

Samuel Beckett was her most intimidating interview. She sat across from him and thought to herself, “Oh, my God, That’s Samuel Beckett. He had beautiful blue eyes and was very shy.” When she asked him about James Joyce, he smiled and opened up. Beckett even remembered Joyce’s phone number. Noel taped all of her interviews and recommends we do the same. Another interview about Sylvia Beach was not as successful.

While interviewing Janet Flanner, Noel realized that Janet’s memories were blurred. She only salvaged one quote from Janet. Sylvia Beach “did not stop to see if her hat was on straight….She knew by feeling.”

Noel also interviewed Jacques Benoit-Méchin who was a translator and collaborationist during the war. He barely escaped the death sentence. When she arrived at his home, she was greeted by a maid who escorted her into his beautiful study where he was wearing a morning coat. Instead of trying to hide his collaborationist activities, he had a large display of the 1936 Olympics on his walls. He had insisted on Noel bringing a translator. As they left, he pointedly spoke to them in fluent English.

The erotic aspects of Julia Child surprised her. Julia enjoyed sex more than Anais Nin. Paul, Julia’s husband, wrote about their enjoyment of sex. Her appetite for food and sex were linked. Julia came from an affluent family in Pasadena, California. Both Julia and her husband worked for the OSS which was the predecessor to the CIA. They were clearly in love and had a very successful marriage. Noel said, “the only thing dirty about Julia was her pots and pans.” In an interesting twist, it was Paul who introduced Julia to Henry Miller’s books.

Nin wrote about sex and then did it. Nin used writing as a form of seduction. Noel interviewed one of Nin’s lovers who was recommended by Mary Dearborn, who wrote The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller. Nin’s lover had a collection of erotica that included a series of “one handed readers” that young writers wrote for one dollar a page. Prior to the interview, Dearborn warned Noel to bring along Bert, her husband. That was good advice Noel said. When she arrived, Nin’s former lover who was overweight, had his bare belly hanging over his unzipped pants that were held together with a safety pin. When she asked him what it was like to sleep with Anais Nin, he replied, “Nin would put her mouth on any warm appendage.”

Noel also learned that while in Paris, Nin aborted Henry Miller’s baby. As an adult, she had a sexual relationship with her father who abandoned the family when she was a child. Noel concluded that as a young woman, Anais was very naive about her own sexuality. “Once she started having sex, she never stopped…For Nin, seduction was a power trip.”

Noel has completed a biography about Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who was the young mistress of Louis XV. He insisted on meeting her after he saw Francois Boucher’s famous painting of “her bottom” (1752), that was painted when she was fourteen years old. Marie-Louise only escaped the guillotine because she was Irish.

Noel said being a biographer yielded some personal surprises. She met and became friends with biographers Mary Dearborn and Erica Jong.

This entry was posted in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , by Mary Duncan. Bookmark the permalink.
Mary Duncan

About Mary Duncan

Mary Duncan, a native San Diegan, grew up in National City, where Henry Miller said he found his identity. In searching for her identity, she has traveled to numerous countries and prefers to be where there is action, diversity and controversy. Her research specialty as a professor at San Diego State University was the “troubles” in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army. She focused on the conflict’s impact on children and the internal organization of the I.R.A. and its cell groups. In addition she has researched children and play patterns in Mexican squatter villages, Arab Tourism in London and international terrorism. In 1982, she moved to La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego. She met people who introduced her to the worlds of Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette and other writers. And it is in these worlds that she found relief from the stress and uncertainty that emanated from her Belfast research. Paris and La Jolla entered her life almost simultaneously. In Paris she created a circle of friends and started building a foundation for a life in the City of Light. After her marriage to Yuri Loskutov, a Russian, she lived in Moscow several months of the year and founded Shakespeare and Company Bookstore Moscow. Since 2000, she has mainly lived in Paris. In 2005, she purchased an archive consisting of audio tapes, photographs and correspondence related to the life of Henry Miller. Some of these materials are described in her memoir, “Henry Miller is Under My Bed: People and Place on the Way to Paris.” (2008). She is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Henry Miller Memorial Library in BIg Sur, California and is is a patron of the Shakespeare and Company Literary Festival. In 2008, she founded the Paris Writers Group. In between her writing and travels, she continues to live in Paris.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>