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The August 1, 1994, issue of the New Yorker printed an expert from a forthcoming book by the British writer John de St. Jorre, ‘The Good Ship Venus’ about the infamous novels published by the Olympia Press – including Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, William S. Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’, and Pauline Réage’s ‘Story of O’, When the author interviewed Aury for his book, he was treated to ‘a double surprise’: he learned definitively that Aury was Réage; and he learned that the name Dominique Aury ‘was itself a disguise’.
Aside from this major revelation, the article also delved into a subplot of the saga: the pseudonymous translator of the English edition of ‘Story of O’. There was no evidence of deception, aside from the translator’s suspiciously florid name, ‘Sabine d’Estrée’, yet no one seemed to know the mysterious woman. The Grove edition included no biographical note on her, and she mentioned in her Translator’s Note that although she’d never met Réage, she had been in indirect communication (via the French publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert) and received the author’s comments. Aury, in her interview with St. Jorre told him that she had no memory of any contact with d’Estrée, not any idea who she (or he) might be. St. Jorre had a theory, however: the New York editor, translator, and publisher Richard Seaver (1926–2009).
In the early 1950s, Seaver had lived in Paris as a Fullbright scholar studying at the Sorbonne. He cofounded a literary journal that published an early champion of the then unknown Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, and had been instrumental in arranging a book deal for Beckett with Barney Rosset (who hired Seaver). Eventually, Seaver worked his way up to editor in chief at Grove, where he was celebrated for advocating challenging and censored books. He stayed at Grove for twelve years before moving to Viking and then to Holt, Rinehart & Winston; along with his French wife, Jeanette, he founded Arcade Publishing in 1988. Jeanette’s middle name is Sabine.
St. Jorre’s attempt to extract information from Seaver himself went nowhere. Seaver insisted that he’d been sworn to secrecy about d’Estrée’s identity but told St. Jorre that he would seek permission from d’Estreé – whom he called a ‘very shy, secretive person’ – and get back to him. He never did.
So the journalist did his own research, carefully going through the Grove Press correspondence archive at Syracuse University Library’s Special Collections Department. He found it curious that there were variant spellings of ‘d’Estrée’, and that one letter purporting to be from d’Esrée herself requested that all payments be addressed to an attorney in Manhattan, Seymour Litvinoff. After St. Jorre tracked down the lawyer, Litvinoff said that he had represented both Seaver and d’Estrée, but ‘I cannot say who Sabine is. I don’t know who she is.’
St. Jorre also discovered that d’Estrée had continued to translate French erotica – at least four other books – in collaboration with Seaver, who kept ‘hiring’ her even after changing publishing jobs. She did translation work for no one else. Seaver was long believed to be d’Estrée, but he kept quiet about it.
The mystery was solved in January 2009, when he died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-two. His wife finally confessed. ‘He wanted people to guess,’ Jeannette told a reporter, ‘But yes, he did it.’
See also Anne Desclos.
Ciuraru, C. (2011), ‘Pauline Réage & Dominique Aury’, Nome de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, pp.328–329
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