Bern Porter’s Wild Sexual Life with Anais Nin or Wild Imaginings?
In the late 1990s, Bern Porter, a physicist turned avant-garde publisher in the 1940s, did a series of interviews that became books published by Roger Jackson. These staple-bound, premium paper stock, ink-illustrated editions were formatted in a Q&A style conducted by one Natasha Bernstein, a presumed pseudonym for Sheila Holtz, who was Porter’s live-in companion. In these “interviews,” Porter tells fantastic tales of Nin’s sex life with him and with others.
The first in this series, My Affair with Anaïs Nin, starts off with Porter meeting Nin in the fall of 1935 at an open house conducted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. He states how Nin made passes at three men and a female, all of whom declined her advances. Porter writes that Nin then sat next to him, drinking tea with one hand while the other hand, under the table, had “a full grip on my penis…very hard and very big.” This scene ends with Porter and Nin getting up to leave the party. According to Porter, Toklas had been watching the scene under the table and “made beckoning signs to me.” As he says goodbye to Toklas, she opens the front of her dress, unzips his trousers, and rubs him between her legs until he ejaculates on her. Nin and Porter then walk a couple of blocks quietly, because Nin “knew what she wanted… It wasn’t necessary to talk,” to a bar with an “hour room.” Porter goes into great detail about the sex he had with Nin, her washing his penis, and her overgrown mass of public hair. Most serious Nin readers would see this story as suspect at best, but those familiar only with the public reputation evoked by her name may find it fitting. What is the reality?
Gertrude Stein was known to be jealous. Would she have let such a scene transpire between Porter and Toklas? Linda Simon, Toklas’s biographer, states, “I have no evidence that Alice had sexual relationships during the time she lived with Stein, or ever with a man” (personal communication). Anaïs’s very presence at the open house is suspect. Looking through the original diaries housed at UCLA, there is no mention of the event in the journals numbered 36, 48, and 49. These journals were searched for falls of 1936, 1935, and 1937. Nin chronicled almost all activities, and it seems nearly impossible that she would not have mentioned attending one of the well-known Stein and Toklas gatherings. One suspects she would have at least mentioned Bern Porter, but his name is absent.
Even the time of this particular story comes into question. According to Porter, the open house started at 4:00 PM. Porter claimed he walked with Nin to the bar at about “quarter after five,” and later states that “She’d been playing with my penis for the better part of an hour” under the table. This means that Nin’s unwanted advances with the three men and one woman all took place within fifteen minutes before she sidled up to Porter. The chronology doesn’t add up.
The second section of this book consists of Porter recounting a meeting with Nin in New York in the winter of 1937. Once again, there is no record of this in the original unpublished diary, numbered 49. He mentions her printing press and the living situation with Hugo. The rest is details about having vaginal and anal sex with Nin.
The series of books in which Porter recounts his “affair” range from Nin orally servicing a line of 40 gay men after a reading in a private home in San Francisco to Rupert arranging lesbian orgies at their house in Silver Lake.
Margo Schevill, widower of Porter biographer James Schevill, believes “Porter did exaggerate details and embellished the truth” (personal communication). Margot Duxler, author of Seduction: A Portrait of Anaïs Nin, said, “[It] made me laugh. It certainly wasn’t the Anaïs I knew. Nor the Rupert I knew!” (personal communication). Tristine Rainer, once a confidant of Nin and now working on a memoir of their friendship, says, “I think the story about Anaïs servicing all those guys sounds spurious; she was too much of a romantic for it to ring true” (personal communication). Duxler confirms, “Anaïs may have used her sexuality as a means to connect with others but connection was the main dynamic…orgies just don’t sound like her at all” (personal communication).
One has to question why Bern Porter would bother to tell such stories. One theory could be that the validity of Nin’s diaries were being questioned at the time of the interview. Maybe Porter saw the unreliability of Nin’s diary narration as an opportunity to spin his outrageous tales. There is no evidence Nin and Porter ever actually had sex. To determine this definitively would require a detailed page-by-page reading of the original diaries. Given the numerous accounts of affairs, one can’t help but think not all the sexual encounters Porter clams to have had with Nin could be fabricated. In the book Questions about Henry Miller No One Ever Asked Me—With Answers, Porter is directly asked about having a sexual relationship with Nin. He only recounts one incident at the printing press. Maybe this was true, but why the fisherman’s tales? Porter, lonely and living in Belfast, Maine, could have wanted to enhance his reputation and desirability to other women by sharing stories about his sexual connection to Nin. Margo Schevill states, “Women found Porter charming.” Physically speaking, he was not very fit or conventionally attractive. By his own account, he was well endowed and sexually skilled. In the first book, we are given a glimpse of the relationship between Porter and the interviewer, “Natasha Bernstein,” after she responds to Porter’s claim that he penetrated Nin anally. “Don’t say ‘mm hmm!’… You see,…it’s clear that whatever I did to Anaïs I have done to you.” The interviewer could have omitted this, and yet it was left in, a moment when even she is aligning herself with Nin’s sexual linage. In an introduction to another book in the series, she states Porter and she are no longer in a romantic relationship.
In the only biography on Porter, Where To Go, What To Do, When You Are Bern Porter, by James Schevill, Porter talks of always being in love with Anaïs Nin but does not mention anything about a sexual relationship with her. Schevill records Nin’s inscriptions written to Porter in her books: “I am learning from your books now” to “With admiration for the way you fuse science and literature” and “Your dual activities, poetry and science are the future synthesis.” These could be seen as evidence of closeness, although in the UCLA special collection is an undated letter on Bern Porter’s stationery giving an address in Alabama. He writes, “Not sure if you still provide autographed copies of your books now direct from you. If so, I’ll buy if autographed to me personally.” He then lists the new titles he’d like.
Porter, though once a scientist by trade, had an interesting concept of the female anatomy and seemed a bit fixated on Anaïs’s in particular.
In a letter postmarked August 29, 1990 to Henry Miller biographer Mary Dearborn, Porter writes that Nin had “an examination by a Russian doctor early—that her anatomy would never allow pregnancy or pills, diaphragms, salves never needed. Resulting in an incredible sex life—4-6 lovers a week at some periods male and female.”
Porter states in The Silver Lake book that Nin had her first orgasm with him. This is a claim that Rupert Pole, Nin’s second husband, once made. Perhaps this was a line Nin had given to more than one lover. Porter states e.e. cummings had sex with Nin and was concerned about her inability to orgasm.
In A Sex Oriented Woman, Porter claims that “Three separate medical authorities stated from the evidence men penetrated Nin from 12 to 16 and as many as 20 times a week for a period of 3-8 months.” One questions how an authority would make such a determination, and if so, why they would release medical records to Bern Porter. In this volume he states Nin never had a natural orgasm, a direct contradiction to his earlier statement in the Silver Lake book. This isn’t the only alarming contradiction, since he also states that “I was not in Paris in the 1930s,” though he “visited later.” The basis of the first book is on his meeting Nin at Stein’s and Toklas’s house in 1935.
In Part IV, the book describing the Silver Lake days, Porter conveniently states how he cannot recall the names of the people he knew attending the parties at Nin’s house. He also mentions that Nin stated, “We will not be going into my bedroom…” This is curious since the floor plan of the house is open and the bed is visible from the kitchen table. The only thing separating it is a folding partition that was usually kept open.
These editions were published by Roger Jackson of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jackson’s primary interest was in Henry Miller, and he respected Porter’s “publishing and promoting Henry Miller with small, unique editions.” This led to the publication of the interview series and other volumes written by Porter ranging in topics such as food, O.J. Simpson, and Monica Lewinski. Even at the time of publication, Jackson had doubts about the validity of Porter’s stories, but he had also questioned the veracity of both Nin and Miller. Jackson told me that “[Porter] wrote what he wanted, I printed it as received” (personal communication). He published the interviews as a series over a two-year period, publishing them as they came in and does not know why Sheila Holtz used a pseudonym. Though inside each book is a listed number of copies printed of each edition, Jackson states that was the maximum number he’d print, but he never reached that number. “There were never more than 100 copies actually printed/published of the Affair with Nin books and as a result my books are rarer than one would expect reading the colophons” (personal communication). These books were sold to collectors and a few universities. He does not have plans to publish them in a single volume.
As one ages, memory recall, always a slippery element, becomes less reliable. Details become vague. Sometimes with memory, stories are exaggerated to produce interesting “facts.” Repeated retelling sometimes causes the spinner to believe their own tales. Natasha Bernstein writes in the introduction of My Affair with Anaïs Nin: San Francisco Days that although Nin is “the luminary in this relationship…it is really Bern who surfaces as the personality—or—personage—in these chronicles.” This is one fact we can be sure of.
Porter, Bern. I Pursue Her Still: Bern Porter on Anaïs Nin. Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1997).
Porter, Bern, and Bernstein, Natasha. My Affair with Anaïs Nin (Part I: Paris-New York Days). Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1996).
----. My Affair with Anaïs Nin (Part II: San Francisco Days). Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1997).
----. My Affair with Anaïs Nin (Part III: Berkley Days). Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1997).
----. My Affair with Anaïs Nin (Part IV: Silver Lake Days). Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1998).
----A Sex Oriented, Woman Connected Guy Doing His Own Thing:
Bern Porter on Henry Miller, a Manuscript Sampler. Ann Arbor: Roger Jackson (1996).
This article was originally published in A Café in Space titled Bern Porter’s “Affair” With Anaïs Nin Fact or fancy?