Sunday, June 29, 2014

133. Ree Dragonette and Anais Nïn: Two Remarkable Women

Ree Dragonette

     Short, lean, almost gnomelike, her hair cut short with a lock hanging down her forehead over her sharp features, she could be friendly, humorous, gossipy (she loved gossip, repeated it with relish), let astrology influence her friendships, had a way of focusing attention on herself.  Her poetry was hard, chiseled, concise, studded with original and striking imagery, never expansive, never effusive.  When I told her that none of mine was inspired by a personal relationship, she marveled, noting that every poem of hers was rooted in just such a relationship.  I respected her as a poet but couldn’t decipher her poetry.  Consider for instance the opening lines of her volume Parable of the Fixed Stars (Allograph Press, 1968), of which she gave me an autographed copy:

Curtained with rain,
unsolved as is the verb to be;
nonvolatized and forbidden:
leafless at consummation of here and now.

as with growing ferns.

Neither you nor I heavy,
on the anterior premise of wind;
or agile down turnpikes of passion.

     Fresh language without a hint of cliché, but where, oh where, is the feeling?  I sense a true poet at work but am baffled by what results.  A love poem, presumably, but who, what, where are the lovers?  Leafing through the volume, I am impressed by the novel use of words, often scientific and technical, and by the images, but always the meaning teases and then eludes me.  Certainly I agree with Anaïs Nin (more of her anon), who is quoted in the blurb: “New imagery.  Interesting fusion of old myths with new symbolism taken from science.  A modern poet – adventurous, original.”  Exactly what I would have said, if pressed for a quote, while stifling my reservations.  And yet, the moment she took the stage and began reading her poems, they came alive and drilled right into you, and she registered as a commanding presence, a driving force.  Which is why a mutual friend of hers and mine acknowledges that today she is being forgotten; without her dynamic presence to project it, her poetry on the printed page doesn’t really work.  Perhaps for some, but not for him or for me.

     Yet back in the 1960s, when I knew her, Ree Dragonette was well known in avant-garde literary circles, and beyond.  She read her poems in poetry workshops, bookstores, and Greenwich Village coffee houses, on college campuses, and on radio stations like WBAI, and was the recipient of the 1960 Village Voice Poetry Award.  She appeared in poetry and jazz concerts with various groups, was published in a number of literary magazines, and conducted a poetry workshop at Greenwich House, located then in the West Village, where it offered social services and cultural programs. 

     I met Ree through my friend Vernon, also a poet, and read with her once at Greenwich House, and on other occasions heard her read.  Always interested in combining poetry with music or dance, she once gave a reading while a dancer performed simultaneously, her movements careful synchronized with Ree’s  poetry.  An adventurous undertaking, but for me it didn’t work: you’re going to focus on either the dancing or the poetry, but not both.  This was likewise my reaction when I heard a poet in San Francisco read to jazz; either the poetry eclipses the jazz or, more likely, the jazz eclipses the poetry.

     Who was she and where was she from?  There is almost nothing about her online, not even a photograph, apart from information about her printed works and the jazz groups she read with; the woman herself eludes me.  She was born Rita Marie Dragonetti in 1918 in Philadelphia to an Italian immigrant family and was writing poetry by age seven.  At some point, whether in Philadelphia or New York, she married an Italian-American with Mafia connections named Consiglia who became the father of her children.  According to Vernon, who must have got it from Ree, she found him beaten up in a gutter, the result of some Mafia falling out, and took him in and nursed him back to health. 

     When I knew Ree in the 1960s she lived with three teen-age children in an apartment just north of West 14th Street, though they had lived at other addresses in the West Village before that and would later live in Westbeth, the West Village artists’ residence.  The eldest child, Juanita, was closest to her mother.  Of the two younger sons, John and Ralph, one (I forget which) was taking his high school work seriously, while the other was already a dropout and drifter who, as Vernon put it, had “a rich street life.”  There was no sign of the husband, nor did I ever hear her mention him, though they were evidently still in touch. 

     Ree and Juanita took astrology seriously.  When they learned my birth date, they assured me, an astrology ignoramus, that Libra on the cusp of Scorpio was about as good as you could get.  (I can’t say that my life then or since gives evidence of it, but no matter.)  And when Ree was one of a panel of interviewers on a new TV show in the planning stages, she explained her antipathy to one of the interviewees in terms of their opposed astrological signs.  I saw the first episode of the show at her apartment, and her antipathy, masked by a steely reserve, wasn’t hard to detect.  The show never really took off, one reason being that it was supposed to be oriented toward the interviewees, whereas Ree wanted it oriented toward the interviewers in general and herself in particular.  She couldn’t help it; it was just in the nature of things – her things – that she should be the center of attention.

     She often had anecdotes about other literati.  Attending a reading once by the Dominican monk Brother Antoninus, an acclaimed San Francisco poet, she was puzzled and annoyed to see him glance at the audience, then pace up and down on the stage, as if deciding whether or not to acknowledge the presence of these intruders.  “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed loudly, though I don’t recall if any kind of personal exchange followed; but he did finally read to the audience.

     Vigorously opposed to the Vietnam War, she met other activists, among them the poet Robert Lowell, whom she esteemed highly for participating in protests.  On one occasion he announced to others of the intelligentsia, “It’s time we gave this little lady the recognition she deserves!”  A nice sentiment, the sort of thing poets say of one another, but nothing came of it; storming the Pentagon probably monopolized his attention.

     I lost touch with Ree for a while, being preoccupied with things other than the rarefied world of poetry, and some years later Vernon told me he had met her by chance on the street.  She confided in him that she had a tumor on her breast and was scared sick – too scared to go see a doctor.  He urged her to do so, and when he informed me of this, I announced with great concern that by delaying she had probably signed her own death warrant.  She died, presumably of cancer, in 1979.  Her children still live in the city.  A remarkable woman, a cultural live wire in her time, even if mostly forgotten today.

Anaïs Nin

     Unlike Ree Dragonette, author Anaïs Nin (last name pronounced neen) is well remembered and well recorded today, so I shall chiefly give my personal impressions of her.  Born in France in 1903 to a Spanish-Cuban father who was a pianist and composer, and a mother of French and Danish descent who was a singer, she grew up in Europe and then came to New York with her mother.  Though she wrote novels, essays, short stories, and even erotica, she is best known for her voluminous journals, which cover her life from age 11 until close to her death.  Prominent in the journals is an account of her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June in Paris in the early 1930s, and a merry threesome it was, with her passionately and sexually involved with the husband, while feeling an attraction to the wife as well.

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The Anaïs Nin I knew.
Elsa Dorfman
     I met Anaïs Nin in 1968 through Ree Dragonette, who sponsored an informal talk by Nin in the Village and then invited the audience to accompany them to a nearby restaurant for coffee and further discussion.  Then in her mid-sixties, Nin was petite, birdlike, and exquisitely feminine. She had dark hair and was carefully made up with dark, arching eyebrows and mascara-outlined eyes, and spoke softly with a high, thin voice.  Of her talk I remember just two details.  First, she defined poetry as being quintessential, which describes Ree’s poetry perfectly, though hardly Milton’s or Whitman’s.  And she told how years before, when her banker husband opposed her publishing her writing, she was so depressed that she went walking along a railroad track, planning to throw herself under a train, a suicidal attempt that failed because she had never been able to read a railroad timetable and therefore had no idea when a train would be coming.

     En route to the restaurant afterward I told Nin that I had done my dissertation on the French poet André Breton, the founder and arbiter of Surrealism.  This kindled her interest, for she had known Breton and the Surrealists in Paris in the 1930s.  When we reached the restaurant, she and I continued our conversation, sublimely unaware of the others who, as I remember, kept their distance as we chatted on.  She asked me if I didn’t think that Breton, fierce ideologue and vigilant gatekeeper of the movement who decided who was in and who was out, hadn’t in the end been a limiting influence on Surrealism, and I heartily agreed.  He inspired, but he also judged and excluded, which his why those banished from the movement decried him as the pope of Surrealism, flic and curé (cop and priest).  Though I’ve always been one to steer clear of celebrities, including literary ones, I was completely at ease with her and she with me; if she was already a literary icon difficult of access, as some would have it, I, a total innocent, was unaware of it.

     The result: a few days later she phoned to invite me to a party that she and her husband were giving in their apartment; surprised, I was delighted to accept.  When I saw Ree shortly after that and told her of the invitation, she announced, “Yes, my dear, we’ll all be there!”  (Of our mutual acquaintances, the “all” really included just me and herself.)  I went in jacket and tie, because in those days that’s how one dressed for cultural events, except in hippie circles, and this was definitely not an excursion into hippiedom. 

     She lived in a spacious apartment in the New York University apartment complex on the edge of the West Village, an easy walk from my own digs on Jane Street.  There was a mix of guests there, including Ree, and I met Nin’s husband, Ian Hugo.  I remember chatting briefly with many people but can’t recall anything of interest, which suggests that neither they nor I were effusing brilliance.  But I did inform Nin that I now considered her my white witch.

     “Any color will do,” she replied with a smile.

     “Oh no,” I insisted, “it was to be white.  Black witches are evil, white witches are benign.  You are certainly benign.”

     (Here a personal aside is in order.  The year 1968, a year of riotous student protests and a turbulent presidential election, was a signal year for me personally, especially the spring, since, almost simultaneously, I quit teaching once and for all, met Anaïs Nin, and also met my longtime partner, Bob.  The coincidence of the first two explains my proclaiming Nin my benign white witch, capable of white, as opposed to black, magic.  As for quitting teaching, for me, usually a prudent bourgeois, it was a rather bold move, since I had no immediate prospects of a job and planned to devote my time to playwriting, an absurdly futile commitment that requires acerbic comment on some other occasion.  My friend Ken, also a teacher, gently pronounced my move immature and foolish, but since Ken himself hated, loathed, and detested teaching, his pronouncement weighed lightly on my psyche.)

     The high point of the evening came when the lights were lowered and Ian Hugo showed a brief film of his own making, quite plotless, being mostly a succession of cityscapes with juxtapositions of signs and scenes.  Some of the juxtapositions were so deliciously absurd that I often felt an impulse to laugh, but no titters, no sounds of blatant merriment, were forthcoming from the rest of the audience.  Afterward I mentioned my reaction to Hugo, wondering if it was appropriate; he was delighted that at least one person present “got” it, since the juxtapositions were definitely meant to amuse.

     Ree’s reaction to the evening, I soon learned, was seasoned with annoyance since, while the film was showing, one of the older gentlemen present had made unwelcome physical advances in the darkness.  Her reaction to Anaïs Nin was likewise mixed, even critical.  They were recent acquaintances, and Nin was apparently quite taken with her.  During a recent visit to Nin in her apartment, Nin had exclaimed, “If only I had known you earlier!”  She said this with a glance at the open door to her bedroom, which Ree found a bit off-putting.  Personally, I can see how Nin, who had something of the fragile doll about her, might have been attracted to Ree, a decidedly dominant personality. 

      Ree’s later final comment on Nin was decisive: “She doesn’t have the soul that Marguerite Young has” – a comment that I thought needlessly judgmental.  Marguerite Young, another West Village resident and a friend of both Ree and Nin, had catapulted into fame of a kind in 1965 with the publication of her 1198-page novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling, 18 years in the writing.  A publicity photograph of her hugging the hefty manuscript had convinced me that I didn’t have to read it, nor was I the only one.  Nin proclaimed it “an epic American novel written in a poetic style,” but reviews were more negative than not, and the New York Times would later proclaim it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”  Still, it developed a cult following, and Young became known as a colorful Village eccentric, walking its streets in a serape, getting drunk with Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern, amassing a huge collection of dolls in her Bleecker Street apartment, and claiming to encounter Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, and other deceased literary luminaries on misty nights in the Village.  If mental flights are an indication of soul, Marguerite Young had plenty of it.

     I showed some of my poems to Anaïs Nin, who called them “subtle” and in exchange sent me a paperback copy of her novel A Spy in the House of Love (a title that I find catchy).  After that we drifted apart.  That was probably inevitable, since there was no chance of a closer relationship.

     Only now, in researching this post, did I learn that in 1955 she had acquired a second husband, Rupert Pole, 16 years her junior, without bothering to divorce Ian Hugo (real name Hugh Guiler) or even inform him: a bit of duplicity requiring two checkbooks, one for Anaïs Guiler in New York and one for Anaïs Pole in Los Angeles, and a “lie box” in which she kept a written record of her many lies, so she could keep them straight.  Her marriage with Ian Hugo was obviously an open one, but in 1966 she had her marriage with Pole annulled, because of legal complications from both husbands claiming her as a dependent on their federal tax returns.  Though she never broke with Ian Hugo, she spent her final years with Pole and named him as her literary executor.  She died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1977 and was cremated, and her ashes scattered over Santa Monica Bay. 

Not the Anaïs Nin I knew.

     Of all these marital adventures (and the nonmarital ones as well), and the lush eroticism in the journals published later, I was totally unaware when I knew her, and I doubt if Ree knew much of it either.  For me, she was simply an accomplished writer, deep, sensitive, wonderfully feminine.  And why do we know so much about her today?  Because she, like André Gide, was a diarist, and diarists are notorious tattle-tales about both themselves and others.

     Yes, Anaïs Nin, now hailed as a liberated woman and sexual pioneer by feminists, was certainly a remarkable woman.

     A note on trivia:  Waiting to pay for the Times at my neighborhood deli, I discovered three products, displayed conspicuously on the counter, that I had never noticed before: HI CHEW, FIVE-HOUR ENERGY, and DREAM WATER.  There are three of our most vital needs attended to: the need to chew, the need for energy, and the need to dream.  And right there at my deli.  Marvelous.

This is New York

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     Coming soon:  Our Crumbling Infrastructure, or, Where Can I Vacation?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

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