Biographer Noel Riley Fitch Visits the Paris Writers Group

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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-M├ęchin 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.