Today is the birthday (1891) of Henry Valentine Miller, a US writer who often lived in Paris, and known for breaking with existing literary forms, developing a new type of semi-autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, explicit language, sex, surrealist free association, and mysticism. He was inspiration for the beat generation writers, among others. His most characteristic works are Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, which are based on his experiences in New York and Paris (all of which were banned in the United States until 1961). Miller went through much the same accusations of obscenity as D.H. Lawrence did in Britain over Lady Chatterley. Small minds simply cannot distinguish descriptions of (loving) sex and pornography. In fact, to many, sex is, by definition, obscene. This very notion is the true obscenity, and I suspect stems from lascivious minds. Miller also wrote travel memoirs and literary criticism, and painted watercolors.
Miller was born at his family’s home, 450 East 85th Street, in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, New York City. He was the son of Lutheran German parents, Louise Marie (Neiting) and tailor Heinrich Miller. As a child, he lived for nine years at 662 Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known at that time (and referred to frequently in his works) as the Fourteenth Ward. In 1900, his family moved to 1063 Decatur Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. He attended the City College of New York for one semester only.
Miller married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. They divorced in 1923. Together they had a daughter, Barbara, born in 1919. They lived in an apartment at 244 6th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. At the time, Miller was working at Western Union, where he worked from 1920-24. In March 1922, during a three-week vacation, he wrote his first novel, Clipped Wings. It has never been published, and only fragments remain, although parts of it were recycled in other works, such as Tropic of Capricorn. Clipped Wings was a study of twelve Western Union messengers, which Miller called “a long book and probably a very bad one.”
In 1923, while he was still married to Beatrice, but in the process of divorcing, Miller met and became enamored of a mysterious dance hall dancer who was born Juliet Edith Smerth but went by the stage name June Mansfield. She was 21 at the time. They began an affair, and were married on June 1, 1924. In 1924 Miller quit Western Union in order to dedicate himself completely to writing. Miller later describes this time – his struggles to become a writer, his sexual escapades, failures, friends, and philosophy – in his autobiographical trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.
Miller wrote his second novel, Moloch: or, This Gentile World, in 1927–28, initially under the guise of a novel written by June. A rich older admirer of June, Roland Freedman, paid her to write a novel. She would show him pages of Miller’s work each week, pretending it was hers. The book went unpublished until 1992. Moloch is based on Miller’s first marriage, to Beatrice, and his years working as a personnel manager at the Western Union office in Lower Manhattan. A third novel written around this time, Crazy Cock, also went unpublished until after Miller’s death. Initially titled Lovely Lesbians, Crazy Cock (along with his later novel Nexus) told the story of June’s close relationship with the artist Marion, whom June had renamed Jean Kronski. Kronski lived with Miller and June from 1926 until 1927, when June and Kronski went to Paris together, leaving Miller behind, which upset him greatly. Miller suspected the pair of having a lesbian relationship. While in Paris, June and Kronski did not get along, and June returned to Miller several months later. Kronski committed suicide around 1930.
In 1928, Miller spent several months in Paris with June, a trip which was financed by Freedman. One day on a Paris street, Miller met another author, Robert W. Service, who recalled the story in his autobiography: “Soon we got into conversation which turned to books. For a stripling he spoke with some authority, turning into ridicule the pretentious scribes of the Latin Quarter and their freak magazine.” In 1930, Miller moved to Paris unaccompanied. Soon after, he began work on Tropic of Cancer, writing to a friend, “I start tomorrow on the Paris book: First person, uncensored, formless – fuck everything!” Although Miller had little or no money the first year in Paris, things began to change after meeting Anaïs Nin who, with Hugh Guiler, went on to pay his entire way through the 1930s including the rent for an apartment at 18 Villa Seurat. Nin became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934 with money from Otto Rank. She wrote extensively in her journals about her relationship with Miller and his wife June. A great deal of what we know about Miller’s personal life comes from Nin’s journals, and the two continued a (now famous and celebrated) relationship for many years. Late in 1934, June divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico City.
In 1931, Miller was employed by the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proofreader, thanks to his friend Alfred Perlès who worked there. Miller took this opportunity to submit some of his own articles under Perlès’ name, since at that time only the editorial staff were permitted to publish in the paper. This period in Paris was highly creative for Miller, and during this time he also established a significant and influential network of authors circulating around the Villa Seurat. At that time a young British author, Lawrence Durrell, became a lifelong friend. Miller’s correspondence with Durrell was later published in two books. His first published book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), was published by Obelisk Press in Paris and banned in the United States on the grounds of obscenity. The dust jacket came wrapped with a warning: “Not to be imported into the United States or Great Britain.” He continued to write novels that were banned. Along with Tropic of Cancer, his Black Spring (1936) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) were smuggled into the US, building Miller an underground reputation. In 1939, New Directions published The Cosmological Eye, Miller’s first book to be published in the US. The collection contained short prose pieces, most of which originally appeared in Black Spring and Max and the White Phagocytes (1938).
In 1939 Durrell, who lived on Corfu, invited Miller to Greece. Miller described the visit in The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), which he considered his best book. One of the first acknowledgments of Henry Miller as a major modern writer was by George Orwell in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”, where he wrote:
Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.
In 1940, Miller returned to New York; after a year-long trip around the United States, which was to become material for The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, he moved to California in June 1942, initially living just outside Hollywood in Beverly Glen, before settling in Big Sur in 1944. While Miller was establishing his base in Big Sur, the Tropic books, then still banned in the USA, were still being published in France by the Obelisk Press and later the Olympia Press. There they were acquiring a slow and steady notoriety among both Europeans and the various enclaves of US ex-pats. As a result, the books were frequently smuggled into the States, where they proved to be a major influence on the new Beat Generation of American writers, most notably Jack Kerouac, the only Beat writer Miller truly cared for. By the time his banned books were published in the 1960s and he was becoming increasingly well-known, Miller was no longer interested in his image as an outlaw writer of “dirty” books, but he eventually gave up fighting the image.
In 1942, shortly before moving to California, Miller began writing Sexus, the first novel in The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, a fictionalized account documenting the six-year period of his life in Brooklyn falling in love with June and struggling to become a writer. Like several of his other works, the trilogy, completed in 1959, was initially banned in the United States, published only in France and Japan. In other works written during his time in California, Miller was widely critical of consumerism in the US, as reflected in Sunday After The War (1944) and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). His Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957, is a collection of stories about his life and friends in Big Sur.
In 1944, Miller met and married his third wife, Janina Martha Lepska, a philosophy student who was 30 years his junior. They had two children: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Valentine. They divorced in 1952. The following year, he married artist Eve McClure, who was 37 years his junior. They divorced in 1960, and she died in 1966, likely as a result of alcoholism. In 1961, Miller arranged a reunion in New York with his ex-wife and main subject of The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, June. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly three decades. In a letter to Eve, he described his shock at June’s “terrible” appearance, as she had by then degenerated both physically and mentally.
In February 1963, Miller moved to 444 Ocampo Drive, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, where he would spend the last 17 years of his life. In 1967, Miller married his fifth wife, Hoki Tokuda. After his move to Ocampo Drive, he held dinner parties for the artistic and literary figures of the time. His cook and caretaker was a young artist’s model named Twinka Thiebaud who later wrote a book about his evening chats. Thiebaud’s memories of Miller’s table talk were published in a rewritten and retitled book in 2011.
Only 200 copies of Miller’s 1972 chapbook On Turning Eighty were published by Capra Press, in collaboration with Yes! Press, it was the first volume of the “Yes! Capra” chapbook series and is 34 pages long. The book contains three essays on topics such as aging and living a meaningful life. In relation to reaching 80 years of age, Miller explains:
If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power.
Miller died of circulatory complications at his home in Pacific Palisades on June 7, 1980.
Here’s some quotes, some from Miller’s novels and some personal. It’s hard to tell the difference anyway. I’ve interspersed a few of his watercolors.
Without a Coca-Cola life is unthinkable.
To be joyous is to be a madman in a world of sad ghosts.
I have found God, but he is insufficient.
There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.
What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.
Finding a recipe for Miller is no small matter. Miller himself, and others, mentioned repeatedly how much he loved eating. Here’s Miller:
‘Life,’ said Emerson, ‘consists in what a man is thinking all day.’ If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night.
Nin wrote in her diary that Miller had two primal needs: sex and food. They were, indeed, famous for frequenting the cafes of Paris, and nowadays you can go on a tour of their most popular haunts – many decorated with their photos and other memorabilia. Miller was also legendary in giving dinner parties.
The biographer of Miller’s last years, Barbara Kraft wrote:
The house bore the face of the man. The walls were covered with his paintings, posters, memorabilia, photographs of friends and the famous framed lists. Lists of places he had been, list of places he hadn’t been, lists of all the women he never slept with — but no lists of those he had, lists of favorite foods, of favorite piano music — Ravel’s virtuosic Gaspard de la nuit comes to mind . . .
All good to know. But, what about the actual food in his list of favorites? Or what he ate when dining with Nin? Nothing. Not a word. I’ve gleaned her diaries, as well as Miller’s writings and come up empty – except for this:
Henry was eating red beans for lunch. Heavy red beans. When I met Betty Ryan at the Dôme I told her about the red beans and ordered Vichy. How we laughed!
It’s a start, I suppose, but not much of one. She might have been talking about a cassoulet or a hundred other ways of cooking beans. Why did they laugh? Anyway, you can go with a dish of red beans if you wish, but make it heavy. Here’s a recipe for croque Monsieur which has been a popular favorite in Parisian cafes for many years. If you are a good cook you don’t need a recipe, just the idea. Croque Monsieur is a grilled sandwich of Parisian ham and Gruyere cheese, smothered in a cheesy béchamel and baked. I expect Miller enjoyed it on occasion.
2 tbsp unsalted butter, plus extra
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
½ cup grated Gruyere cheese, plus 8 slices
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
8 thick slices crusty bread
12 slices Parisian ham
Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and whisk in the flour to make a blond roux. Add the milk slowly, stirring all the time. Bring to a simmer, whisking all the time until the sauce thickens. Add the grated cheeses and remove from the heat. Keep whisking until the cheeses are completely melted and the sauce is smooth.
Generously butter the bread slices on one side only. Put half the slices, buttered side down, in a heavy skillet. Layer each bread slice with 2 slices of Gruyere and 3 slices of ham, with the Gruyere on the outside. Spread the Dijon mustard on the unbuttered sides of the remaining bread slices, and put each on top of a sandwich, buttered side up.
Put the skillet over medium-high heat and cook the sandwiches until golden on each side. If the cheese melts well, flipping them with a spatula should be easy. I help the melting process along by covering the pan, or weighting down the sandwiches with a large plate.
Place the sandwiches in a baking dish and divide the béchamel evenly between them, spooning it generously over the top. Broil the sandwiches until the sauce is bubbling and golden.
Serve immediately. I like to serve this sandwich with buttered, steamed asparagus spears.