Henry Miller was born on December 26, 1891 in the Yorkville section of Manhattan to first generation German-Americans. It was his mother, Louise, who spurned the writer and the rebel in him. She beat up his sister for the “crime” of being retarded, scolded his father for being a dreamy alcoholic, and hid Henry’s typewriter in a closet to hide the embarrassment of having a writer for a son. His childhood was not easy. He was a great reader, reciting Old Testament stories out loud even before he stared elementary school. He graduated second in his class from Eastern District High School in Brooklyn.
He dropped out of City College after two months because he didn’t like the reading list they gave him. “If I had to read stuff like that,” he said, referring to ‘Fairee Queene’ by Spenser, “I give up.” He went to work at a series of jobs he found himself unsuitable for.
After a waning relationship with an older woman, he married his first wife, Beatrice Sylvas Wickens, in 1917. She was a ‘good girl’ that his mother would approve of, and marriage helped him avoid going to war. However, once married, he found himself living with his mother again. Beatrice was critical and demanding, and sneered at Henry’s ambitions to write. He was unable to hold down a job to soothe her, always getting fired for scribbling or reading philosophy. From that marriage came his first daughter, Barbara.
In 1920, with his father’s tailor shop finally failing, Henry applied for a job as a messenger at Western Union. They wouldn’t hire him. So he went to the higher office, angry that he had been turned down for such an easy job, and he got hired there with a mission to spy on the hiring practices at the place where he had just been refused. This setting would become the basis for his novel called “Tropic of Capricorn”, which he would write many years later.
Until that had happened, there had always been a drive to write, but how good can it be without a story to tell? Now, he soaked up this experience of working this job like a sponge, and began simply waiting for “a breathing room.”
He was working on a book called “Clipped Wings,” inspired by a suggestion that he should write a “Horatio Alger book about the messengers.” Henry vowed to do this. He was not proud of the final result, which he said he wrote only because “nobody believes; perhaps the real secret lies in making people believe. That the book was inadequate, faulty, bad, terrible, as they said, was only natural. I was attempting at the start what a man of genius would have undertaken at the end.”
Henry was about to meet his most enduring muse, a five cents a dance girl named June Mansfield (called “Mona” or “Mara” in his novels). She was a dark, beautiful Jewish femme fatale. They met in 1923 at a Times Square dance parlor. Disregarding the rules, he fell madly in love with her, divorced Beatrice in 1924, and married June. She encouraged him to quit his job and start putting his efforts into writing.
He would find this marriage faithless, but full of passion and madness. In these years he wrote his first real novels, “Crazy Cock” and “Moloch”, which wouldn’t be published until the 1990’s. He also ran a speakeasy, painted and exhibited watercolors, and toured Europe in 1928.
In 1930, Henry left for Europe without June, who remained in New York to support them with her various liaisons. He spent a year in Paris, nearly starving. It was there, while living off his wits surrounded by friends, that he wrote “Tropic of Cancer.”
It wasn’t until Paris, during the depression, that Hanry felt the freedom he needed to write this book, which would become his most famous work. He’d felt trapped in New York, his native land, where his relatives lived and talked of his failed marriage, where he was seen by many as just a bum. In Paris, he found freedom to escape. The exile allowed Henry Miller to find a voice he had not been able to find for “Moloch” or “Crazy Cock”
He lived with a friend, Alfred Perles, in various hotels, sometimes even sleeping in cinemas. He was learning to let go — of literature, of New York, of his father’s tailor shop, and of his mother. June came to Paris in September 1930, hoping for a job that failed to materialize. They battled hideously and June left Paris on borrowed money. Henry almost went with her, but did not. He found freedom in her departure.
He began to learn French as November 1930 crept up. The weather got miserable and he tried to raise money to go back to New York but was unable to do so. Instead he stayed on, cultivating the friends he had, clinging to his notebooks. Ultimately, good luck kicked in.
He met Richard Osborn, through whom he met Anais Nin. Richard wanted to be a writer but was employed as a lawyer at the Paris office of the National City bank, where Hugh Guiler, Anais Nin’s husband, worked. Dick Osborn desperately wanted to be a Bohemian, and invited Henry Miller to live at his place for free. Perles got him a job writing articles for “The Tribune.” Before long, there were diagrams of books he planned to write hanging above his desk.
A near bout with mortality came on the last day of 1930, when Henry’s cab flipped over. He walked away unharmed. 1931 became for Henry what 1819 was for Keats: the “annus mirabilis.”
He meant to write “Tropic of Cancer” anonymously, knowing it was barely publishable due to it’s unfiltered language and strong life force of the book. During this period, June was in New York demanding countless rewrites of “Crazy Cock” and “Moloch” to make herself look better. However, Anais Nin gave Henry the acceptance he needed. She became like a mother-surrogate, and his greatest love. Her passionate belief in Henry’s writing, as well as her financial support, made “Tropic of Cancer” possible. Nin’s diary tells of their love affair in the works “Henry and June” and “Incest”. She also tells of her infatuation with June. Henry’s books about the Paris years omit his relationship with Anais Nin, keeping with his promise to Anais that he would not jeopardize her marriage with the facts of their affair. Even years later, when their relationship turned hostile, he didn’t go back on his word.
In time, Anais, Henry, and June began a three way flirtation, their relationship marred with lies, deceit, and betrayal.
By 1934, Henry and June were divorced and Anais Nin had become the mainstay in Herny’s life. Anais Nin underwrote the cost of printing ‘Tropic of Cancer’, about 5000 francs, which she borrowed from another of her smitten lovers. When the book appeared, it was priced at fifty francs and came with a notice that the book should be not shown in windows. In order to save money, Jack Kahane of Obelisk Press had his fourteen year old son design the cover, which depicted a woman in the jaws of a crab.
‘Tropic of Cancer’ established Henry’s reputation, but it didn’t make him rich. It had, instead, cemented his view of himself as a writer. He was reborn. He made peace with the wild man inside of himself and came to terms with his sexuality and his mortality.
In August of 1934, Nin gave birth to a stillborn girl. She made it appear in her journals that her husband was the father but revealed later that the baby had really been Henry’s. On the same day that ‘Tropic of Cancer’ was published, Henry moved into 18 Villa Seurat, which became his home base for the next five years. This was an envious living space, and the neighbors included artists like Salvador Dali. He was hoping that it would be his home with Anais.
During his stay there, he began an affair with Betty Ryan. She was a great cook, which was very important to Henry, and this affair was kept secret from Anais, who had her own harem of lovers to take care of. Anais mothered Henry, and was so important to him that he wouldn’t do anything to get her mad. When she took off for New York in 1935, Henry jealous
ly followed them to New York, determined to capture her from her lover and make her his wife. She didn’t go for it. While there, he threw himself into meeting e.e. cummings, Nathaniel West, and James T. Farrell and tried to sell ‘Tropic of Cancer’ to Harcourt Brace and Simon & Schuster. He was rejected, and was also unable to get published in magazines like the New Yorker and Esquire. Amidst all this activity he finished ‘Black Spring’, dedicating it to Anais Nin.
There was very little chance for above-ground publication for ‘Tropic of Cancer’ or ‘Black Spring’. Obelisk Press used a loophole in French obscenity laws which allow obscene books to be published in English. Henry returned 18 Ville Seurat in May 1935, where he concentrated on becoming famous and just writing, writing, and writing. He also mailed his underground book to publishers and authors all over the world, determined to mark his place by sheer will and postage. In the meanwhile, ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ was beginning to grow.
In 1936, Henry made another brief trip to New York along with Anais. ‘Tropic of Cancer’ was garnering fame around the world at this time, and Henry was becoming an underground celebrity. His works were still unavailable in America. But he found a way to try to get ‘Tropic of Cancer’ into the country, with the help of avant-garde booksellers in stores like New York’s Gotham Book Mart.
From 1936 to 1938, there was a whirlwind of activity in his life: writing ‘Capricorn’ and ‘The Hamlet Letters’; the Villa Seurat became a center of activity to which Henry’s friends would flock to; and constant visits from Anais Nin. She once ordered Betty Ryan, who still did not know about her relationship with Henry, to knock on a pipe leading to Henry’s room if her husband was to show up so she could continue her sexual relations with Henry.
Publisher Jack Kahane died in September 1939, ending Miller’s monthly stipend from ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Black Spring’ temporarily. Paris was in chaos, preparing for war. It was time for Henry Miller to get the hell outta dodge. Anais Nin had also fled Europe, but she was ill and failed to meet Henry’s ship when it docked. She was retreating from Henry more and more each passing year.
In 1940 Henry found himself broke and penniless once again in New York, the city that he hated.
He got a “job” writing pornography for a dollar a page, mainly because he couldn’t get anything published with the mainstream publishers. Just as in earlier times, he was fired from this job. His pornography was “too poetic,” when what was needed were simple masturbatory aids to reach the goal of orgasm. Some of these porno-for-hire writings were later posthumously published, but they proved to be dreary, dull, and badly written.
During this same period, Henry worked on an essay called “The World of Sex,” explaining that only a small percentage of people made sense of how sex and the spirit are actually interrelated.
After not visiting them for a long time, Henry went to visit his parents. They were more accepting than in the past, and he found his past bitterness transforming into empathy for his aging parents.
His writings continued to face rejection by publishers. Penguin Books wanted to publish “Tropic of Cancer” but he was wary of their intentions and wouldn’t allow it. Desperate for money, he applied for grants and got turned down. One day, he asked his agent what would sell in America, and received a $500 advance for a book about America. On Christmas Day, 1941, he finished a book called “The Air Conditioned Nightmare.” This book full of rough truths couldn’t have come at a worse time, because America had just entered World War II. It wouldn’t be published until 1945.
He found himself in Hollywood between 1942 and 1943. He turned to watercolor painting, which he had fallen in love with back in the twenties. He had a chance to write screenplays, but turned down the offers to concentrate on his painting. Needing a place to call home, a dream of paradise where he could be an artist, he moved to Big Sur in Northern California.
Then Henry met another June, June Lancaster, who didn’t make him any happier than the first June. She could not endure the domestic demands of living in Big Sur, but another new woman, Lepska, did. Their romance got serious and he married her in Denver, Colorado in December 1944. In 1945, his second daughter, Valentine, was born. He sent letters out begging for money for food, clothes, and diapers.
The cult status of Henry Miller was steadily growing, though money was still tight. There were rumours of Henry’s “cult of sex and anarchy” in Big Sur, and visitors traveled there to see it. Henry had misgivings about these people but still invited them in for conversations and dinner. It was Lepska’s duty to cook and entertain Henry’s guests. Life at Big Sur with Lepska proved to be difficult for Henry, with their constant arguments over the children, the arrival of guests, and their different points of view concerning life.
In the mid-forties, Henry wrote ‘Sexus’, ‘The Time of Assassins’, and
‘The Smile At the Foot of The Ladder’ where he delved again into his marriage with the first June. These books had some wonderful passages on a broad range of topics, but Henry also seemed to be attempting to repeat the brilliance of the earlier Tropics books.
After Paris was liberated from German occupation, Maurice Girodias, the son of Henry’s first editor, Jack Kahune, wrote to Henry informing him that his early books were selling. It seemed to have become the tradition of GI soldiers to go to Paris and buy the book that was still banned in America at the time. For a short time, Henry was rich in France – $40,000 — but the franc got lowered in value before Henry could lay a claim to it. Everyone wanted a piece of this wealth, from Henry’s old friends to his ex-wife June to the IRS. In the meantime, his Paris books were showing up in America, smuggled in by the soldiers.
Lepska left him in 1951 after quarrels over child rearing and Henry’s realization that she was a disciplinarian like his own mother had been. Then Eve McClure showed up in 1952. They met by letter and by book, the way Henry would meet his friends after this point. Eve was an artist who admired his works, and she was willing to take care of him. During the next few years, Henry’s status grew from cult figure to superstar. He went on a seven month tour of Europe in 1952 and found himself famous. After this, he was never really a poor man again. His books were reprinted everywhere… except for America. Characteristically, Henry shared his newfound money freely.
His marriage to Eve had started to fall apart. In 1959, Henry had an affair with Caryll Hill, which hurt Eve deeply and worsened her habit of alcohol abuse. In 1960, Henry took off again for Europe to be a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, and there began a passionate affair with Renate Gerhardt, an assistant of his German publisher. By the time, Caryll got to Germany, Henry was in love with Renate. But Renate proved to be unavailable, not wanting to give up her life in Europe to move to Big Sur.
Henry sent Renate money to help her finance her own publishing firm. He wrote her love letters, signing himself as “St. Valentine.” In 1961, he went back to Europe to try to convince her to come to America once more, but she wouldn’t. On the way home, he stopped in New York City, and ran into June Mansfield. She was now 58 years old and seemed beaten and very old. She had endured loneliness, starvation, madness to the point of hospitalization in the years since their split.
In the midst of all this, American literature was just starting to open up. In 1958, Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ appeared from Putnam and shot up to the top of the bestseller’s list on the assumption that it was a memoir of a pervert (Nabokov had joked about this). Then D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatter
ly’s Lover’ showed up on the American bookshelves. It was at this time, finally, that Grove Press published the first legal American edition of ‘Tropic of Cancer’ on June 24, 1961. It sold 68,000 copies in its first week.
The legal battle was not over. The book sold, but many booksellers were arrested for selling what was called, “filthy, disgusting, nauseating trash.” This only helped establish Henry Miller as a household word. Grove Press paid the legal fees and in 1964 the Supreme Court finally ruled in his favor. But the ordeal had taken a toll on Henry, who had a warrant out for his arrest, had been threatened with extradition from Big Sur to his hometown of Brooklyn (the city which had sued him), and was restricted from traveling abroad. He was also unhappy about his ignoble worldwide reputation as the author of “smut”.
He was actually driven out of Big Sur, and would live out the rest of his life in the Pacific Palisades. He found himself alone and turned to a 27 year old Japanese woman, Hoki (Hiroko) Tokuda. Once again, he was in love with an unavailable woman, who would come and go mysteriously. His tribute to this romance was “Insomnia or The Devil at Large.” But Hoki looked at Henry as a grandfather figure and seemed to have married him in search of a green card. By 1974 she had left the country, and was found running a club called Tropic of Cancer in Tokyo.
In his last years, Henry continued to fall in love, forming relationships with actresses like Brenda Venus. He also became a mentor to young writers like Erica Jong. Henry passed away on June 7, 1980.
Honest and outstanding overview of Miller’s life and work.