Storied past, uncertain future
THE glass-and-concrete house on a hilly Silver Lake street appears tired and forlorn. The sensual violet fabrics inside are now faded; a stillness surrounds the emerald swimming pool, which had once been used every day. The gathering place of weekly chamber music concerts and numerous masquerade parties in the 1970s, the property is empty and quiet, as if in mourning.
The future of the contemporary house is uncertain now that its occupants -- Anais Nin, a free-spirited writer who chronicled her passions in diaries, and Rupert Pole, a forest ranger who scrimped to build her a place where she would feel safe -- are dead. Its legacy, however, is clear. “This was a nest for a little bird,” says Eric Lloyd Wright, a third-generation architect who designed the house for his half-brother, Pole, and Nin.
The famous couple’s longtime residence was Wright’s first solo project, completed in 1962 for $22,000. “The one thing we do want to do is get it registered with the city of Los Angeles as a historic landmark,” says Wright, 76, the executor of the estate. His mother, actress Helen Taggart, a divorcee with son, Rupert, married his father, architect Lloyd Wright.
“My brother and Anais were very much involved in designing this house, from the preliminary plans to the working drawings to getting the contractor,” says Wright, the grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright. “I met with them and heard what their dreams were. Rupert felt that she should have a sense of security, a place that was permanent. I got to know them better by doing their house.”
Nin, whose well-known books include “Henry and June,” about her sexual relationship with writer Henry Miller and his wife, wrote about her bohemian lifestyle, her string of lovers and her Los Angeles home. In the sixth volume of “Diary,” she described the one-story dwelling perched above the city as “one large studio, no separate, small partitions. It had the sense of space of Japanese houses; it had the vista of a Japanese screen, all sky, mountains, lake, as if one lived out of doors. Yet the roof, held by its heavy beams, gave a feeling of protection while the big windows which separated the roof from the studio framed the flight of birds, the sailing of clouds.”
Photographs and the 1973 documentary “Anais Nin Observed” by the late Robert Snyder show her posing, her hand gracefully holding her chin, at the mosaic-top dining room table alongside a bank of windows. Or sitting on an orange pillow on the coral carpet in the living room next to the glowing fireplace, her hair swept into a loose roll, lipstick perfect on her upturned smile, barefoot and wearing a scooped-neck caftan, her only accessory her diary in her hand. The writer, who shocked America with her sexually explicit prose before and after World War II, looks peacefully domestic.
The home was a stage upon which Nin wrote, danced, listened to classical music and hosted a circle of young writers. Often, people who read her intimate diaries and felt they knew her would knock on the front door. Few were turned away.
But she kept some parts of her life a secret. Nin led a double married life on opposite coasts. Neither husband had a clue. She told her New York husband Hugh “Hugo” Guiler that she needed to rest in L.A. When in Manhattan, she told Pole that she needed to be there for writing assignments. She wrote down the lies she told them on index cards and referred to them as her “trapeze.”
Pole wed Nin in 1955 but the marriage was invalidated 11 years later when she confessed to him that she was already married and needed to return to her first husband. She left but then returned to live her final years with Pole, until her death from cancer at age 73 in 1977. Pole, who was 16 years younger than Nin, remained in their house until his death at age 87 in July, surrounded by her books and portraits drawn of her by Miller, Renate Druks and others. In her office, he carefully went through 35,000 pages of her handwritten diary and published many of them uncensored after her death.
The couple had a few requests when working with Wright to design the 1,400-square-foot house: They wanted a view of the pool, Silver Lake reservoir and the sunset from the living room and patio; they needed only one bedroom. They didn’t have children, and their cherished privacy was not going to be interrupted by overnight guests.
The bedroom was off the living room, but its folding doors were never closed, says Wright. Visitors were just as likely to sit on the violet bedspread as on the purple-and-blue-cushioned bench-style couch Wright designed for the living room. On one of the bedroom’s grainy paneled walls -- visible from the front door -- hung most of their best art: paintings by friends Miller, Don Bachardy and Corita Kent. Nearby was a collage of three women by Jean Varda.
To capture the views they wanted, the living room and dining areas have a long wall of windows and sliding glass doors. There’s a small interior Japanese garden cut into the floor near one of the glass panels, where Nin would etch swirls in the sand with a small hand shovel. The stone fireplace, she wrote, was “like that of a castle.” There was a grand piano and packed bookshelves.
The Douglas fir beamed ceiling has never been painted or covered; neither have the paneled walls. Pole helped paint the few drywall surfaces and stain the plywood paneling with a special chromium mixture that left a trace of silver color in the grain. Over the years, the silver has turned slightly terra cotta.
During the day, says Los Angeles writer Tristine Rainer, who befriended the couple in 1970, the house was almost invisible, the sunlight streaming in. At night, however, the house reflected inward. Nin wrote, “If one walked in the garden at night and looked back at the lighted room, the scene, dresses, colors, poses, seemed like a play.”
Another admirer, Los Angeles calligrapher David Mekelburg, wrote a note to Nin when he was a CalArts grad student in the early 1970s. She left a purple calling card for him on his porch, inviting him to her house to hear a string quartet. Pole, who earned a degree in music at Harvard, played the viola and guitar.
On that night, Nin was perched on the couch, next to Mekelburg, her diary, as always, in her hands. “She had severe writer’s block and she was struggling with it then,” he recalls. As the guests got lost in the music, he says, Pole saw Nin scrawling in her journal. Pole walked across the room to her and whispered, “Anais, you’re writing again.” Mekelburg says, “I felt I was watching history being made.”
He also remembers a photograph of Nin cleaning the pool in a white Grecian goddess gown. “She believed the mundane and writing and creating were all interwoven,” he says.
Nin, a trained dancer and self-educated school dropout, could traverse the living room to reach her study in six or seven gliding steps. At her desk, she transcribed her handwritten diaries on an Underwood typewriter, pecking at the keys with two fingers. When she paused to think, she would look up at the cypress and pine trees through the mitered corner window.
When she was searching for inspiration, she would study drawings sent to her by fans, sit on the floor and sift through personal photographs or walk outside and listen to mockingbirds. “Their melody is important to my work and life here,” she said in the 1973 documentary. “I want my writing to levitate.” Sometimes, she would bring a hand-held tape recorder to capture their songs. If all else failed, she would swim.
Nin and Pole were in the pool every day, even though it didn’t have a heater, Rainer says. “She could overcome anything, even the cold, with her imagination. She would look like a water naiad, pushing off gracefully from the sides.”
Nin, who was born in Paris in 1903 under the water sign Pisces, said in the documentary, “Swimming restores me.” When she was weak from cancer, Pole quit his job teaching science to middle-school children in Silver Lake and would carry her to the pool.
Walking the backyard in late August, Wright saw the hammock where Nin swayed. The patio chairs that held her and Pole on long afternoons. The pool steps where they liked to sit even in the rain. In Wright’s eyes, everything in this nest is still in place.
“Nothing has really changed here,” Wright says.