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July 24, 2014

Nin, Miller, Venus

On this day in 1977, Anais Nin's Delta of Venus was published; also on this day in 1980, Henry Miller died. Delta of Venus was originally written as Nin's contribution to the dollar-a-page pornography that she, Miller and others contracted to write for an anonymous client in the 1940s. Although much of it was taken from or inspired by her journal, of which she was so proud, Nin viewed her pornography work as an embarrassment, and a detraction from the feminist-literary image she wished to promote. During her last year -- she died of cancer in 1977, six months before the book's publication -- Nin became convinced that her erotica might help support her two surviving husbands, and she reluctantly agreed to posthumous publication. The convincing was done by one of the husbands, the one sixteen years younger than Nin; he would also bring to market the second volume, Little Birds and, says Nin's biographer, Deirdre Bair (National Book Award, 1995), announce after Nin's death that it had been her last wish to have her diaries appear in unexpurgated versions -- or, more accurately, in versions expurgated by him. Four new volumes of diaries soon appeared, as well as the journal-based Henry and June and Incest -- the last a graphic record of her relationship with her father, not to be confused with her novel, House of Incest.

Delta of Venus became Nin's first best seller and, according to those familiar with the genre, a groundbreaking classic for its "sensitive descriptions of women's sexual feelings." The pornographer who bought the material originally had complained of this, telling Nin to cut the poetry. This leads to the kind of 'life imitating art imitating life' situation which few but Nin could manage: in her 1941 journal she records that her editing of the "erotic madness days" recorded in her 1930s journals in order to make them graphic enough for her pornographic boss she became so "powerfully excited" by recall and invention that "I had an orgasm while I wrote, then I went to Henry and he was passionate, then to Gonzalo who was passionate. Responded to both."

Miller could manage the sex but not the writing. He found the pornographer's dollar-a-page, hundred-pages-a-month job to be "hard labor," the pornographer found the bizarre tales he invented unsatisfactory, and Miller quit before he was fired. This pleased Nin, who thought it wrong that Miller should have to undergo "some Dante punishment" in which he was unjustly "condemned to write about sex when today he is a mystic."

A situation somewhat the reverse and brimming with its own set of ironies developed late in Miller's life. His last relationship was with Brenda Venus, a young woman from Biloxi, Mississippi with a Playboy body (July, 1986), some B-movie credits, and aspirations to fame. Miller was eighty-four and in failing health, but with still enough sex drive to be responsive to the first letters and photographs that arrived from Venus in 1976. (His fifth wife, a young Japanese pop singer, had recently moved on, eventually to open a Tokyo nightclub called "Tropic of Cancer".) Miller wrote her over 1500 letters during his last four years; published by Venus in 1986 as Dear, Dear Brenda, they show the charm of the Miller-of-old, and that the old Miller could now do little more than write about sex - and Venus says that she pretty much avoided that little more. In his introduction to the letters, longtime Miller friend Lawrence Durrell wrote that the "generosity and tact" that Venus did provide literally added several years to Miller's life and "allowed him to end his days in a marvelous euphoria of loving attachment."

They certainly brought life to Venus: she went on to write the best-selling sex books, Secrets of Seduction and Secrets of Seduction For Women. Those who have the $11.95 can read here how to go "from flirtation to foreplay to sexual ecstasy"; those who wish to actually do the Venus Butterfly should note that in a recent stage adaptation of Dear, Dear Brenda in Russia (at the Moscow Art Theatre of all places, home of Chekhov), Brenda Venus is played by Svetlana Khorkina, the medal-winning Olympic gymnast.

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