Paris is a city paved in history with time portals at every turn of the head so, like Owen Wilson’s character Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris, you can’t help but often yearn for the Paris of the past. In the early 1990s I, like Gil, fantasised about Parisian life of the 1920s and ‘30s, the time when a Lost Generation found itself in Paris, in both senses of the expression. Book-ended by two horrific wars, it was a period of frenetic creativity and despairing debauchery: Parisians frantically reaffirmed their love of life, of which there appeared little point in these pre-Existentialist days beyond an excuse to have as much fun as possible; and anarchistic artists reacted to the absurdity of it all with the subversive movements Dadaism and Surrealism, which seemed to make as little sense as living itself.
For serious bookish types, like Gil, the twenties would have been the place to be, an incredibly rich decade for modern writing; fashion people tend to prefer this glitzier jazzier decade, too, with its short, sparkling dresses perfectly suited to nights of dancing and drinking cocktails. It was the time of the literati and glitterati. But I personally felt more an affinity to the thirties, or what I imagined them to have entailed: longer, flowing gowns designed for a more languorous kind of hedonism and the subdued self-contemplation of post-Depression Paris. In the early nineties, we too were just recovering from a Wall Street crash; our maxi dresses proved the hemline theory to once again be correct, and our spirits had been similarly dragged down by all the talk of economic doom and gloom. Perhaps that’s why Paris of the thirties spoke to me.
Or maybe it was due to my obsession with the recent film Henry & June, which chronicles the ménage à trois of authors Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, and his wife June (seductively played by Uma Thurman, pictured here with co-lead Maria de Madeiros). Seemingly filmed by the glowing light of a velvet-shaded, tassel-trimmed lamp, the movie is all languid lamé dresses, long soulful stares, foggy Parisian strolls and steamy scenes that make your skin flush. It’s as beautiful as an extended perfume advertisement, and distils the melancholy essence of a lost Paris, one of yearning accordion players, bacchanalian feasts and clandestine trysts by the Seine.
My growing fascination with Anaïs led me to discover that I’d been born on Nin’s 70th birthday, and I convinced myself we would have been the best of friends, kindred spirits. I began to devour her reams of lifelong diaries, but it was Anaïs on the cusp of Paris of the ‘30s who really entranced me. She had begun her diary to concoct a more interesting version of herself; soon she was living a double life, her inner seductress at odds with the bourgeois wife of real life; finally she became the femme fatale of a woman she wanted to be.
After the 1929 Crash, Anaïs and her banker husband Hugo moved from the city out to an ivy-trellis-covered villa among the wild flowers of a village west of Paris. She painted her walls in warm hues of coral and crimson, lit the space with byzantine lamps, filled the air with incense, and devoted her days to writing. In her languorous velvet dresses and twirling capes, emanating a cloud of Guerlain Mitsouko, her lips red and eyes lined in kohl, her black kiss-curls caressing her forehead, Anaïs exuded pure seduction.
Although some considered Anaïs Nin a feminist for her commitment to self-realisation and sexual emancipation, the more hardcore of the sisterhood, denounced her for her dainty feminine ways with words as much as personal style. But the French-Cuban writer was a Gallic kind of feminist, insisting on equality through difference, that men and women balance each other out when in perfect opposition. Anaïs even lived in the building that Simone De Beauvoir would later inhabit for many years, although it must be said that De Beauvoir found Nin too annoyingly delicate, while Anaïs thought SDB’s mind too masculine.
I was still under Anaïs’s spell at the time, although I’d soon decide that she was as wrapped up in herself as her fringed shawl. I couldn’t understand her burning need to seduce every man she met, including her estranged father and her therapists (I hadn’t studied Freud, nor did I then know of her childhood abuse at the hands of her father, which propelled her classic victim behaviour). Her erotica embarrassed me as much for its subject as for its try-hardness, and I suspected that she created a melodramatic reality purely so it would give her fodder for her writing. She was all artifice, even if her illusion of herself eventually became the reality. And therein lies the attraction. Hailed as a key to the workings of the female mind, Anaïs Nin’s diaries have seduced many a girl lost on her way to womanhood, setting us on our own diary-writing obsession, attempting to write our own reality, to will our selves and lives to be more exciting. I used to have long tortured conversations about this with friends, until one warned me about “paralysis by analysis.” Eventually my lame attempt at an Anaïs-esque diary petered out. But I have long loved to dress myself in her romantic floral fashion, in homage to the style icon who inspired one of the beauty world’s most enduringly loved perfume, the powdery prettiness that is Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs.