Monday, October 10, 2005

Miller's Log Cabin at Nepenthe, 1944

"I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation."
-- Henry Miller to Anais Nin, in a letter, March 1944

Outside of being a native New Yorker and expatriate Parisian, Miller is also an honorary resident of Big Sur, California. He lived there for many years, willed his ashes to be scattered there upon his death, and is immortalized there through the existence of the Henry Miller Memorial Library. A quarter mile from the Library stands the spot where Miller's Big Sur life chapter began, in a log cabin off of Route 1, overlooking the southern coast of Monterey County.

While Miller lived a lean existence in cramped quarters at Beverly Glen in 1943, he was visited by a friend: the artist Jean Varda. (Varda had responded to Miller's mass written request for assistance, called Open Letter To All And Sundry; these letters will be covered another time). Seeking a bit of peace and quiet, Miller took up Varda's offer to stay with him and his wife in New Monterey in February 1944.

Through Varda, Henry met a local writer named Lynda Sargent. Sargent offered to put Henry up in an unused servant's room in her log cabin. The solitude of the location, the natural wonder of Big Sur, and the spectacular surrounding view convinced Henry to accept the offer. He stayed here for March and April of 1944 until he could find "a vacant house to take over."

In March, he wrote to James McLaughlin, telling him that he was considering taking a job as "an overseer at the Sulphur Baths establishment 16 miles down the coast." (Henry Miller and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (p.43)

In April, he wrote James again, telling him "I am out scouting every day for a place of my own in this vicinity. They are hard to find, livable places." (p. 43)

In May 1944, Henry was forced out of Nepenthe by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. But I digress...

Here's the story of the Log House above Nepenthe:

In 1925, a contingent of Christian Scienists from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois came to California. They had a three-story log house built on a Big Sur cliffside south of Carmel, at which they planned to use as a private resort during horseback riding excursions. It would be called the Coastland Trails Club (or, the Trail Club Of Jolon). It was built by a local master woodsman named Sam Trotter.

During the early 1940's, the cabin was not being used by the Trail Club, so it was rented out to a local writer named Lynda Sargent. Sargent was an aspiring novelist who wrote as well for the weekly Carmel Cymbal newspaper. Henry and Lynda lived as perfectly platonic flatmates. Some internet accounts suggest that he and Lynda didn't get along (this, for example), though the Miller biographies Happiest Man Alive and Henry Miller: A Life make no such claims.

In May 1944, their peaceful writers' retreat was invaded by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who, at the time, were married. There are two variations of the story. The one told today on the Nepenthe website suggests that the movie stars stumbled across the location, fell in love with it, and pulled $167 out of their pockets for a down payment towards the cabin. The other version, as told in A Wild Coast And Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers by Rosiland Sharpe Wall, suggests that Welles' business manager bought the cabin as a gift for Hayworth, and that the famous couple did not in fact ever see the place.

Three things are certain: 1) It was Welles--directly or indirectly--who purchased the cabin; 2) Welles and Hayworth split up soon afterward and never lived in it; and, 3) the cabin was purchased from the owners, the Coastland Trails Club, who, in turn, gave Henry and Lynda their walking papers.

A Wild Coast notes a "furious invective and curse against the intruders" which Miller apparently wrote in response to his movie star eviction, but I'm not sure what letter or essay is being referenced here. Anyone else know?

Lynda helped Henry find other cheap accomodations in Big Sur (he rented from a former mayor of the area). He would remain in Big Sur for another 18 years.

With Welles and Hayworth as absent owners, the cabin remained vacant until 1947, when Bill and Lolly Fassett bought it, renovated it, and turned it into a popular local restaurant and the centre of the Big Sur artist community. Even Henry returned to become a frequent customer.

References: Pelican Network - Nepenthe; Nepenthe: 50th Anniversary article; Big Sur government document on history of the area [in PDF]; A Wild Coast And Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers by Rosiland Sharpe Wall (searchable on Amazon); Big Sur (Images Of America) by Jeff Norman (searchable on Amazon).

The Henry Miller photo (excerpt) above is of him circa 1943/44 at Beverly Glen, from the University Reserach Library at UCLA. The log cabin graphic is used only for artistic purposes. It is NOT an image of the actual cabin discussed here. The graphic on the left is a view from Nepenthe.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Henry Miller: "We are all guilty of crime the great crime of not living life to the full. But we are all potentially free. We can stop thinking of what we have failed to do and do whatever lies within our power. What those powers that are in us may be no one has truly dared to imagine. That they are infinite we will realize the day we admit to ourselves that imagination is everything. Imagination is the voice of daring."

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