Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Passage From Greece On The S.S. Exochorda

Near the end 1939, Henry Miller visited the office of the American Consulate in Athens, Greece. He had been in Greece for over four months, to tremendous effect: "High water mark in life's adventures thus far," he wrote upon review of his life, years later. [1] Around the first few days of December, 1939, the American Consulate had sent him a letter to his hotel, requesting that he come by for an evaluation of his passport status. “‘Just a bit of red tape,’ I thought to myself.” [2]

Not so. “The United States Consulate advised him to leave Greece,” wrote Anais Nin in her diary [3]. The Consulate had much to be concerned about. The war had been surging for months, even before Britain declared Germany its enemy, and a handful of countries were intent on re-drawing the map of Europe. Poland had fallen to Germany (Sept 1), Finland to the Soviet Union (Nov 30) and Albania to Italy (Apr 7). Albania’s border with Greece became a rattling floodgate as Italy’s threat of Greek conquest became apparent. American nationals were at risk.

Henry was presented with a series of standard questions at the passport office. “I was so pleased with the fact that I could answer readily—no home, no dependants, no boss, no aim, et cetera, that when he said ‘couldn’t you just as well do your writing elsewhere?’ I said ‘of course, I’m a free man, I can work anywhere, no one is paying me to write.’” [2] Miller had walked right into a verbal trap: if he could write anywhere, he could also write in America. “I was heartbroken,” wrote Miller in Remember To Remember, “I had used every argument to induce him to allow me to go somewhere else, anywhere, only not back to America. But he was adamant. It was for my own protection, he explained. ‘And if I don’t want your protection?’ I asked. For answer he gave me a shrug of the shoulders” (p.319). His passport was invalidated. He had nothing to do but to book himself a one-way boat ticket to the U.S. The following day, he met with the Lincoln MacVeagh, American Ambassador to Greece (and, he was delighted to learn, the founder of The Dial Press). McVeagh told him that he should leave as soon as possible, but that there was no “undue hurry” [4].

A short while later, money was cabled from the United States to Henry’s hotel in Athens, so that he could buy his boat ticket. In ten days, he was to set sail on the American passanger liner, the S.S. Exochorda.

The American Export Lines commissioned a family of large passenger ships to be built in 1929, all with names beginning with “ex”: Excalibur, Excambion, Exeter and Exochorda (a flowering plant found mostly in China). Together, they were known as the Four Aces. (more ship history)

With only a few days left before the Exochorda was to lift anchor, Henry got word that the ship was being detained in Gibraltar, and could be held for as many as ten days. The S.S. Exochorda was just one of a series of vessels detained by the British at Gibraltar; in this case, for what it considered to be a contraband load of several tons of tin plate in its cargo hold. Miller made sure to enjoy these extra days in Greece—he even returned to the ancient well in Mycenae that he’d been afraid to descend several weeks earlier.

Above: A 1937 pamphlet for the Four Aces ships that serviced the Mediterranean. The Excliber is shown here, but all four were 'sister ships,' and therefore quite similar. This image was found at Maritime Timetables.

On December 13, 1939, the S.S. Exochorda was released from detention and free to sail again. From December 23rd, it began picking up American citizens in Haifa and Beirut [5]. On December 26th, Henry turned 48. He made his way back to his Athens hotel in preparation for his departure on December 27th, but a telegram was waiting for him, telling of another 24-hour delay [6]. On December 28, 1939, Miller was brought to the Port of Piraeus (in Athens) by his Greek painter friends known as Ghika. The S.S. Exochorda was docked and ready to take Henry back to New York.

Ghika boarded the ship with Henry before it set sail, and was impressed with the American luxuries that the vessel had to offer. Henry’s feelings were quite the opposite. “I felt as though I were already back in New York: there was that clean, vacuous, anonymous atmosphere which I know so well and detest with all my heart” …. “I was among the go-getters again, among the restless souls who, not knowing how to live their own life, wish to change the world for everybody” [7]. “The day the American boat left the port of Piraeus was one of the blackest days of my life.” [8]

Above: Miller's listing in the S.S. Exochorda manifest for U.S. citizens returning to America. Miller, and a 60-year old man named Paul Peters, appear to have been the only two Americans picked up at Piraeus and headed for New York. Ship manifests are available on

The passage across the Atlantic Ocean would take over two weeks. Henry was made further depressed by an Americanized Greek surgeon who had been assigned to sit across from him at dinnertime. “We hit it off badly right from the start.” [Colossus 234]. Often clashing in an exchange of opinions, they took to ignoring one another. Nearby, however, sat a French philosopher whom Henry admired, named Jacques Maritain. “Never addressed a word to him—tho’ I was dying to. Shyness” [9].

Above: A smoking room from one of the ships of the Four Aces, probably very similar to that of the S.S. Exochorda. A series of hi-resolution colour postcard images of the luxurious interior of these ships may be viewed at Maritime Timetables.

Henry wrote letters while at sea. On December 29th, he wrote to Conrad Moricand [10]. Two weeks later, on January 12th, he wrote a letter to Anais Nin, lamenting the fading experience that was Greece. “I am not on the high seas—I am in America already. America began at Piraeus, the moment I set foot on the boat. Greece is fading out rapidly, dying right before my eyes” [11].

Later, after having arrived in New York, Henry’s father will ask him a list of questions about the voyage: What was the grub like on board the boat? Was it American cooking or Greek? Did he receive wireless news every day? Did he have to share his cabin with others? Did he see any wrecks? The questions appear in “Reunion in Brooklyn,” page 70 of Sunday After The War—but Miller provides us with no answers.


As America got closer, Miller became serene. “If any one on earth were free of hatred, prejudice, bitterness, I thought it was myself. I was confident that for the first time in my life I would look upon New York and what lay beyond it without a trace of loathing or disgust” [12]. But it was winter, and the American coastline looked bleaker than ever. First, there was a stop at Boston, and then, on January 15th, 1940, the home stretch towards New York City as night was falling.

“Sailing around the Battery from one river to the other, gliding close to shore, night coming on, the streets dotted with scurrying insects, I felt as I had always felt about New York—that it is the most horrible place on God’s earth” [12]

Above: From page 31 of the Jan.15, 1940 edition of the New York Times, a listing of the ship arrivals for that day. Note that it says it arrived late at Exchange Place in New Jersey. Miller says that he docked in New York, so perhaps it made a preliminary stop in Jersey City.



[1] Miller, Henry. My Life And Times. Hardcover, chronology on inside flap; [2] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi, p.179; [3] Nin, Anais. The Journals of Anais Nin, 1939-1944, v.3. Quartet Books:1979, p.21; [4] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi, p. 180; [5] U.S. Department of Labor. "List of United States Citizens." Ship maniest for the S.S. Exochorda. January 15, 1940. Haifa on Dec 23/39; Beirut on Dec 25/39; it then did not pick any New-York-bound Americans up until the 28th; [6] Colossus Of Maroussi, p. 232; [7] ibid p.233; [8] Miller, Henry. Remember To Remember, p.319; [9] Miller, Henry and Wallace Fowlie. Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie, p. 26; [10] Orend, Karl. The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons, p.36; [11] Miller, Henry and Anais Nin. A Literate Passion (G. Stuhlmann, ed.), p.322; [12] Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, pp.10-12;


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting post, RC. Well done.

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Blogger Unknown said...

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Hey, thanks.

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Blogger ROBIPOET said...

Great site on Henry Miller. Ive enjoyed sifting through the awesome documentation and research you have here. I have a copy of the French book called Henry Miller Par Lui Meme by Robert Snyder. It has some awesome photos in it that I can perhaps post to this site. Cheers,

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