This year marks the 125th anniversary of author Henry Miller’s birth (Dec. 26, 1891). Originally a Brooklyn boy, he spent 18 years in Big Sur (calling it the first place he felt at home in America), and later lived and died in Pacific Palisades (June 7, 1980).
Miller blew the literary world wide open with his controversial novel, “Tropic of Cancer.”
Some labeled it pornographic; others saw it as a pioneering work that opened the door to honest, personal and erotic writing. For nearly three decades its publication was banned in America … which, of course, made it a bestseller. Although the book was published in Paris in 1934, it wasn’t until 1961 when renegade publisher Barney Rosset’s Grove Press released it in the U.S.
After court battles in 21 states over charges of obscenity, the Supreme Court in 1964 ruled that “Tropic of Cancer” had “redeeming value” as literature and was therefore not obscene.
Living a libertine (not libertarian!), bohemian lifestyle, he spent a decade (1930-40) mostly penniless in Paris where he scrounged for meals, money and a place to sleep so he could focus on his writing. He relished his poverty. This was the time of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the golden age of 20th century expatriate American writers in Paris.
One famous lover, author, diarist (and fabulist) Anaïs Nin was Miller’s chief benefactor, sneaking francs to him by way of marked-up invoices to shopkeepers, paid for by a husband who didn’t know she was skimming money off the top to “keep” Henry.
By the strangest of circumstances, author Barbara Kraft found herself in Anaïs Nin’s world in her final years (she died of cancer in 1977) as well as Henry Miller’s in his (they met in 1978, after Nin’s passing).
Enlightening readers with her insights and intimately revealing moments, Kraft shares diary entries she kept during those years in two books, “Anais Nin: The Last Days,” released in paperback by Pegasus Books in 2013, and now “Henry Miller: The Last Days,” just out from Sky Blue Press.
A fateful fluke brought her to Henry Miller’s attention. Kraft, going through a horrific divorce, was seeing a therapist who also treated Henry’s long-estranged daughter (from the first of his five marriages), coincidentally named Barbara. The therapist gave Miller’s daughter a cassette tape of an open letter that Kraft had written and read on a KCRW radio program in 1977, celebrating Miller’s 86th birthday.
Miller heard the tape, wrote his daughter, asked to meet Kraft, and by 1978, after briefly corresponding with her about how much he appreciated her perceptive grasp of his writing, Kraft heard from Miller’s son Tony inviting her to join a rotating circle of (female) cooks who ran Miller’s kitchen on assigned nights, creating gourmet dinners and engaging in meaningful conversations.
Miller, a prolific watercolor painter with several exhibitions of drawings and watercolors to his credit, would gift works to his various cooks. Kraft was a regular recipient and probably his favorite cook because of the breadth of her knowledge of culture, art and literature, her willingness to argue, and because he recognized how deeply she comprehended what he was doing in his writing.
He in turn encouraged her writing, both effusive in his praise and appropriately analytical in his critiques, and she treasured both his friendship and his professional opinions.
Miller was a Herculean figure among the literary set. He lived life to the fullest, loved hard and unapologetically, was generous to friends (too generous toward the end, as Kraft writes about), and kind to strangers.
Even as his fragility and weak heart began robbing him of his life force, he still held onto the dinner tradition, sharing food and wine and civilized talk almost to the very end.
Kraft writes about the fascinating people who joined them at Miller’s table on these evenings, and she also writes that she became more involved when saw those who were neglecting and taking advantage of Miller’s open nature in these vulnerable years. She shares the agony of seeing this indomitable man pass out of this world, piece by piece, but still trying to push on.
It’s a touching memoir, and for those who want to look beyond the mask of a literary idol, you’ll find an informative and intensely personal look at a towering author, who after all, was proudly just a man.
Moses@90, Phase 2
Though he’s now in a wheelchair, every day Ed Moses makes more paintings. The William Turner Gallery has just opened Phase 2 of its wide-ranging look at early, mid-career and brand-new works created just in the last three months since Phase 1 of the Moses@90 exhibition opened.
The spirit, the joy, the fun, the patterned, the plaid, the colorful and the bold are all present on these walls. There are big canvases with large ribbon like gestures in black and white with red … he made these with a paint roller, but if you were doing your living room, trust me, you’d never get this effect on your walls.
One assembled piece may be an homage to painting, incorporating multicolored tools, brushes, paint stirrers and spreaders against a black background and amidst drizzled paint lines.
This show, honoring this local living legend, is a testament to his devotion to art and the definition of a spirit that won’t quit.
Go see the dual-space Moses@90, with Phase 2 in the gallery and the rest of the show in the former Santa Monica Museum of Art through July 30 at William Turner Gallery at Bergamot Station.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.