Dinner With Henry On Film
Dinner With Henry is a rare, 30-minute documentary about Henry Miller. It is exactly what the title implies: footage of Henry having dinner. With him at the table is the film crew, and actress/model Brenda Venus, to whom Henry was enamoured in the final years of life. Henry—at age 87—spends the majority of his time speaking on a number of subjects, the most persistent of which is Blaise Cendrars. Occasionally, he complains about the food. That is all. It may not be of much interest to a general audience, but is a curious “slice of life” for any Miller fan who likes to imagine being at the table with him.
Brenda Venus wrote about the filming of this dinner, in her 1986 book Dear, Dear Brenda: The Love Letters of Henry Miller. Although her placement of the anecdote implies that it took place at the end of 1977, Miller says on film that he’s in his “88th year,” which would place the filming year as 1979 . As Venus recounts, two filmmakers had requested to film Henry speaking freely about wine. When they arrived at Henry’s home, he was in “an ill temper” explains Venus, who guessed that he’d had a bad sleep. When dinner time arrived, Henry was asked to “speak frankly and spontaneously.” At first, his comments seemed negatively focused on the meal. It’s unclear who prepared the meal, but Henry does not spare anyone’s feelings by calling it “pitiful” and refusing to eat certain things, or complaining about the order of courses. With some coaxing from Brenda, Henry is finally set on track to various personal commentaries. Although he does offer some comparison between French and American wines, he doesn’t offering any real opinion of the wines set before him, which had been the whole point of the film. “I kept encouraging Henry to say something about the various wines he was sipping,” write Venus, “but he pointedly ignored me while regaling the camera with his powers as a raconteur” [all quotes from Venus, pp. 124-125].
WorldCat also helps identify the fact that one version was distributed on VHS in 1984, and the second was distributed in 1991. The earlier version is said to have been distributed by the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I was fortunate to have been hooked up with this film by a blog reader—thanks D.! I’ll try to find out if the HM Memorial Library still has copies, or knows how it can be accessed by the public.
THE FILMMAKERS – YOUNG AND CHESKO
First, Richard Young. Now, I’m putting a lot of blind faith in a single posting by an anonymous blogger, so please consider this as I present these “facts” about Young. The Californian blogger, JPShuffle (on Eon.com) mentions both Richard Young and John Chesko in a posting in which he writes about his time in Monterey in the 1970s. In fact, he also happens to mention: “I've visited in the home of Henry Miller and been privilidged to listen to his 'after dinner stories.' He was by far, one of the most gracious and unassuming people ever on this planet.” According to JPShuffle, in the 1970s he worked in the film business, “pounding nails” with Richard Young on various film sets. Young, he says, would later go on to play “Fedora” in the film Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. ‘Fedora’ [photo, at left] was the character from whom the young Indy (River Phoenix) literally inherited his fedora; the adventuerous man was the prototype on which Indiana would base his whole image. You can view his listing on IMDB to see if you recognize any of Young’s other films or TV shows (assuming, of course, that this is the same guy who filmed Miller).
Of John Chesko, there is more information available in relation to Henry Miller. In her book, Brenda Venus refers to him as “Little John Chesko.” JPShuffle states on his blog that Chesko was a “prodcution manager” for Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects company started by George Lucas). IMDB shows a John Chesko who was active in production support in the late 70s. JP also mentions that Chesko was a friend of both him and Richard Young.
Henry made a number of friends in the Hollywood film industry, big and small, from huge celebrities to struggling filmmakers and actors. John Chesko appears to have known Henry as early as 1976, as a letter dated February 12, 1976 suggests: “To Whom it may Concern--,” writes Henry, “This is to testify that the bearer, John Chesko, is not a crook but a friend who is trying to help me sell some of my library to the highest bidder. Be good to him!” [PBA Galleries: Item 359]. In 1979, Henry wrote to someone named Jeff Carpenter; the PBA Gallery listing [Item 358] describes the content as Henry “recommending his good friend John Chesko for a job.”
In 1985, five years after Henry’s death, Chesko’s name appeared in the New York Times , where he is described as Henry’s “friend and agent at his death in 1980.” The original handwritten manuscript of Tropic Of Cancer went up for auction this year. Chesko is said to have been “entrusted” with the manuscript, and is quoted as saying that Henry has asked him to auction it for him and give the money to his children. Henry’s daughter Valentine inherited the Cancer manuscript after his death, and John Chesko helped to represent her during the arrangements with the Sotheby’s auction house.
DINNER WITH HENRY: A SUMMARY
Three other writers are discussed: Proust’s homosexuality--how his character Albertine is based on a man (12:55); how Henry tried to write like Knut Hamsun (24:20); D.H. Lawrence is quoted regarding an idea that Christ wanted to return to Earth as an average human (25:00).
Miller also explains how he wanted the Nobel Prize for the cash reward, to be able to cover the inheritance tax for his children (03:00); he states that French wine is superior to American wine because of a poor American work ethic (06:15); a fan named Molly who had asked to make him dinner (16:15); slams the Scandinavians for being “boring,” then proceeds to tell the story of the Swede who he’d evaded in Paris (because he couldn’t stand him), who them went on to be on the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature (26:25); tells what Lawrence Durrell told him: that the Committee wanted to wait for Miller to become “more respectable” (28:50);
“I don’t think I can ever stop writing, don’t’cha know? I might write crap after a while, but I’ll still be writing, I feel […] I may die with a pen in my hand, though I’d rather die this way: with my arms folded and a seraphic smile.” (29:45)