Born Anne de Lenclos in Paris, France, she was nicknamed "Ninon" by her father at an early age. In 1632 her father was exiled from France after a duel, and when her mother died ten years later the unmarried Ninon entered a convent only to leave the next year.
Based on the remainder of her life, the choice of a convent would seem surprising, but it was really only an aspect of the clear idea that drove her actions: she was determined to remain unmarried and independent. Influenced by Epicurianism in general and Montaigne in particular, she devoted her life to pleasure, both physical and mental.
Returning to Paris, she became a popular figure in the salon scene, and her drawing room became a centre for the discussion and consumption of the literary arts. In her early thirties she was responsible for encouraging the young Molière, and when she died she left money for the son of her accountant, a nine-year old named François Marie Arouet so he could buy books.
Ninon also took a succession of notable lovers, including the king's cousin the Great Condé, Gaspard de Coligny, and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. More prudish ages have characterized her as a courtesan, but it is known that money was involved in the transaction no more than a few times in her life. Regardless, both this and her opinions on organized religion caused her some trouble, and she was imprisoned in a convent in 1656 at the behest of Anne of Austria, Queen of France and regent for her son Louis XIV. Not long after, however, she was visited by Christina, former queen of Sweden. Impressed, Christina wrote to Cardinal Mazarin on Ninon's behalf and arranged for her release.
In response, as an author she defended the possibility of living a good life in the absence of religion, notably in 1659's La coquette vengée ("The Flirt Avenged"). She was also noted as a wit; among her numerous sayings and quips are "Much more genius is needed to make love than to command armies" and "We should take care to lay in a stock of provisions, but not of pleasures: these should be gathered day by day".
Starting in the late 1660s she retired from her love affairs and concentrated more on her literary friends -- from 1667, she hosted her gatherings at l'hôtel Sagonne, which is considered "the" location of the salon of Ninon de l'Enclos despite other locales in the past. During this time she was a friend of Jean-Baptiste Racine, yet another first class French playwright. Later she would become a close friend with the devout Françoise d'Aubigne, better known as Madame de Maintenon, the lady-in-waiting who would later become the second wife of Louis XIV. Ninon eventually died at the age of (at least) 82, a rich woman.
Ninon de l'Enclos is a relatively obscure figure in the English-speaking world, but is much better known in France where her name is synonymous with female beauty.