Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Sid Essen" And The Elkus Family

"How I wish I could change places wih you! I'm a roughneck, as you know, but I do love art, every form of art." --- "Sid Essen" in Henry Miller's Nexus, p. 259

After a four-month adventure in Europe, Henry and June arrived back in America on November 8, 1928. While being processed as they de-boarded the S.S. Leviathan, the Millers listed their New York residence as “116 Willoughby Ave” in Brooklyn. I just wrote about this the other day, and wondered who could have lived at 116 Willoughby, because it was not familiar to me as a Miller address. Thanks to Christopher Nesbit, who has discovered the address on the 1930 Census records for Brooklyn, we now have an answer: Abraham Elkus and family.

Abraham Elkus is portrayed as Sid “Reb” Essen in Miller’s novel, Nexus. According to Miller, his new friend was living a miserable existence, and felt envy and admiration for Miller’s artist lifestyle and apparent freedom. “Reb Essen” is portrayed as someone who wanted to live through Miller and, as such, offered his moral and financial support for his ventures, in 1928 and in 1930 when Henry relocated to Paris. According to an old letter of Miller's, he sent some of his “best letters” from Paris to Elkus in the early 1930s [1]. June also maintained a relationship with Abe Elkus and his wife Ester, while Henry was in Paris in the 1930s and their marriage was collapsing.

Does this all mean that the Millers had in fact stayed at the Elkus house upon return from Paris? Based on the Nexus account of the Elkus family hospitality, it seems a possibility. But it seems equally possible that they simply gave that address to the immigration authorities to not seem suspiciously without a permanent residence. Either way, it’s a solid bookend to the tale of the 1928 Europe excursion, because Abe wass befriended shortly before the couple left for Europe and was there for them upon their return.

THE ELKUS FAMILY IN NEXUS
Around the time that June told Henry that their Europe money was coming from an admirer called “Pop,” the Millers went on a stroll to get cigarettes from a neighbourhood corner store. Here, they met Abe Elkus (“Sid Essen”), a Jewish man playing chess with the shop owner. Sid, “a heavy man with grey hair and a huge cap pulled over his eyes,” [2-187] takes an immediate liking to Henry and June, and suggests that "Mr. Miller" come visit him some time at his “gent’s furnishing” shop on Myrtle Avenue.

Miller, intrigued by Elkus (especially by his Jewishness), takes him up on the offer. The Myrtle shop is “forlorn,” like a “morgue”; its sidewalk window is “crammed with shirts faded by the sun and covered with fly specks" [2-206]. Soon Henry makes it a habit to pop in on Abe at his shop, where he is usually found seated at the back, reading or playing chess to kill the time not filled by tending to (non-existent) customers. They develop an easy rapport that strangers might observe and mistake for lifelong friendship. [2-197]

Abe insists on giving Henry driving lessons, and has him practice by driving him out to Long Island to collect rent money from predominantly African-American tenants of properties he owns. In Miller’s “Schema for Nexus,” he notes: "Trips to negroes Long Island with Elkus..." [3].

Although Abe Elkus runs his own businesses, they are not lucrative and Abe seems to be a miserable and lonely man trapped by his obligations. He laments that he is in a loveless marriage in which he and his wife life in different worlds [2-259]. Henry and June witness for themselves how there’s “nothing between them” when they are invited to have dinner at the Essen house. This visit takes up several pages in Nexus (227-237). Here we meet “Mrs. Essen” (Ester Elkus) who is a good cook and a "good soul," but a “trifle too refined.” As Abe gets drunk, she chastises him for his foul language and talk of things like wrastling.” We also meet the two (unnamed) teenaged Elkus kids, including the awkward and precocious son who shares the observation that his father “wants to live,” suggesting he go on a vacation.

Myrtle Ave. at Washington St., Brooklyn, circa 1928. Abe Elkus' "gents' furnishings" shop was located "a block or so away [from the corner store] ... on Myrtle Avenue" (Nexus, 187). Photo from the NYPL Digital Gallery, Image ID: 707318F, Record ID: 365823 - Creator: Empire Photographers.

A short time later, Abe visits the Miller apartment, seeking advice from Miller about how to live, afraid that his son views him as a failure: “I want to live again,” states “Reb,” to which Henry suggests he just be himself, even if that means being careless [2-260]. Reb is inspired, and soon helps collect some passage money for the Millers, as a gift from some of his African-American tenants (whom we are told are fond of Henry [2-296]). Reb/Sid/Abe Elkus also offers to help them financially if they are stuck in Europe.

Shortly (a day or two?) before his ship is ready to set sail, Henry makes a final visit to Abe Elkus: “Paying my last respects to the dead.” Elkus suggests that Henry look up Maxim Gorky and Henri Barbusse while in Europe. In the closing pages of Nexus, within a list of parting salutations to Brooklyn and America, Miller adds: “Thank you Reb, I shall pray for you in some ruined synagogue!” [2-305].

Although Miller’s description of “Sid” gives the impression that he’s fairly old, the age listed in the 1930 census suggests that Abe was only 43 in 1928 (to Miller’s 36). This explains why, on p. 259 of Nexus, Henry says to him “You’re almost like an older brother.”
THE ELKUS FAMILY IN THE 1930 BROOKLYN CENSUS
On April 5, 1930, the census taker visited the families on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, in Kings County [4]. At #116, she found Abraham M Elkus, age 45, and his wife Ester, age 42. They had been married in 1911. Abe had been born in Russia, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1887, when he must have been 3 years old. Abe’s daughter, Rhoda was 18 and his son Bruce was 15. His in-laws, the Franks, appear to have lived with them in 1930.

LETTER TO THE ELKUS CHILDREN
While in Paris, Henry and June wrote to Abe’s kids, Rhoda and Bruce Elkus, at least once, as it evidenced by an original letter that was on sale online in 2006. Gerard A.J. Stodolski’s online catalogue of historic manuscripts and letters makes reference to—and provides a large excerpt of—a letter, signed by “June and Henry,” which is clearly in response to two letters sent to them by Rhoda and Bruce. The letter is undated, but the manuscript seller has estimated “1930.” Judging by the fact that it is signed by Henry and June, I would offer that this is actually 1928. (however, June did visit Henry briefly in October 1930, so a 1930 date is not impossible).

In the letter, reference is made to a “cookbook incident” in which it seems the Elkus teens found some of their father’s “pornographic” stash hidden away. The Arab immigrants living in Europe are described, as are the shops, aperitifs and wines of Paris (most of which they are unfamiliar with and have no real “taste” for (“the less I pay for the wine the better I like it.”). Worth noting is the fact that the letter is signed "June and Henry," in that order. The writing seems to be Miller's (you can also see a snipet of the actual letters on the website--it looks like Henry's hand). The placement of June first, then, suggests to me that she had the stronger relationship with the Elkus offspring.

Read the sections of this letter here. If you've got the interest and the cash, you can send them a query to see if it’s still available for sale ($4,400).

ELKUS FAMILY SUPPORT, 1930 AND BEYOND
While living in Paris in 1930 and onward, Henry Miller maintained a correspondence with Abe Elkus, no doubt allowing him a vicarious glimpse into his bohemian life in France. In April and May 1930, Miller’s letters to Emil Schnellock reveal that he was asking Schnellock to share his letters with Elkus, and vice versa [5]. When June popped in on Henry in Paris in October 1930, she arrived with the shirt on her back, while her remaining wardrobe was being shipped to France by Abe Elkus [11].

On November 18, 1930, Miller wrote to Elkus to ask him to raise $100 for a cheap passage for him back to New York [6]. Miller did not return to New York in 1930, but I can’t tell if this was for lack of raising funds or not. A year later, Henry would lament that his American friends are not replying to his letters; even “Elkus is silent” [7]. Another year later, in October 1932, as the Millers were heading for divorce (Miller in Paris, June in New York), June wrote to Henry, asking that he “write me care Elkus” [8]. In December 1933, when Anais Nin was his love and June Mansfield a memory, Henry began to have morbid thoughts—“a premonition of imminent death.” With this in mind, he wrote to Anais with concern about “a faint recollection that before leaving for Europe one of my friends (A.M. Elkus) induced me to draw up a will leaving everything to June. I now withdraw that…” [1]. Earlier that year, he’d also panicked that his contributions to posterity--his letters and other writings--were at threat of being lost. He imagined June throwing everything into a fireplace; he adds, “Elkus too has a wealth of material from me” [9].

Henry’s letters (at least some) to Abe Elkus would end up in the private archive of Celia Conason [10]. Not only would Emil Conason maintain a relationship with the Elkus’s, but June seems to have as well, right into the late 1940s. In 1947, it was through Ester Elkus that Emil Conason heard that June was struggling in poverty [12].

At left: 116 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, as it looks today (Photo © 2009 The Corcoran Group, Inc.)

116 WILLOUGHBY AVENUE
116 Willoughby Avenue, near Waverly, still exists, and has been recently sold. The Corcoron real estate listing includes several photographs of the interior----very atractive, but completely renovated from what it must have looked like in 1928.

If you’re the one who bought the house, you can proudly claim that “Henry Miller ate here.” And maybe, just maybe, it is reasonable for you to suggest that Henry and June slept there as well.
____________________________________
REFERENCES
[1] Miller, Henry and Anais Nin. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-53. Gunther Stuhlman, ed: pp.228-229 - letter dated Dec. 6, 1933; [2] Miller, Henry. Nexus; [3] "Schema for Nexus," Pacific Book Auctions - PBA Galleries listing, Item 81: link; [4] I take this date from that listed on the census form, in a statement that beings "Enumerated by me on..." The census is for Brooklyn, Kings County, Ward G.D. 11, Block C, p.127, Sheet # 9A. This census document was sent to me by a third party, so the source is unclear, but probably from an online database of public records; [5] Miller, Henry. Letters To Emil, pp.40 + 53 (April 1930; May 10, 1930); [6] ibid, p.66; [7] ibid, p.89 - Nov 1931; [8] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright, p. 268; [9] Miller, Henry. Letters To Emil, p.112 - January 1, 1933; [10] Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life, footnote 9, chapter 9: he references a letter from Henry to Abe, dated October 20, 1930; [11] ibid, pp.172-173; [12] ibid, p.310.

22 Comments:

Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

More great work, RC. Looks like you're working up to something here...

11:03 am  
Anonymous pierre from montreal said...

Hi RC!
Very interesting and very professional post!
I wonder if by consulting the “Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957” (in your previous post: “The Millers Return From Europe”), we could learn finally who June Mansfield’s friend Jean Kronski (aka Anastasia, Stasia and Thelma) was. She probably returned to New York from Europe in 1928.
Karl Orend affirms: “Her real name was Marion and she had two other surnames, one Fish and the other McCarthy. One was her birth name and the other the name of her foster parents.”, in Nexus, The International Henry Miller Journal, Volume Three, p.80; but he doesn’t give a specific reference to support his claim.
Orend could have taken this assertion from Kenneth C. Dick who writes: “Anastasia was not the girl’s real name nor, because she was an orphan, did she know her true name. Her first foster parents, who did not adopt her, Mr. and Mrs. Thrall, called her Marion. Her second foster parents were said to be Mr. and Mrs. Fish, somehow associated with the Grace Steamship Lines.”, in Colossus of One, p.181; no footnote on this either.
Robert Ferguson says: “A great deal of curcumstantial evidence suggests, however, that she was properly Martha Andrews, known to those outside the Millers’circle as Mara.”, in Henry Miller, A Life, p. 133; again, where did he get the “circumstantial evidence” ?

You once wrote a fine post on this subject. Maybe Karl Orend’s projected new bio of Miller will give us the definitive answer with an undeniable proof…
Keep up the good work, RC! It’s always exhilarating to read you!

10:43 pm  
Anonymous Kreg said...

Hi Pierre.

I've looked into the passenger crew lists (via ancestry.com) for arrivals in New York and haven't found a good match for Jean Kronski under any of those aliases. The trouble, of course, lies in knowing which name she would have used while traveling.

Ferguson's speculation that Mara Andrews = Jean Kronski is simply incorrect. Andrews was a known, identifiable person who was distinct from Jean Kronski. She shared some similar characteristics with Kronski -- she was American, lesbian, and hung out with Alfred Perles in Paris in the late 1920's, but otherwise, they don't match up. The best info on Andrews can be found in biographies of Cyril Connolly, particularly Cyril Connolly : Journal and Memoir, by David Pryce-Jones.

Ferguson's info should be generally taken with a grain of salt. For example, in describing June's return from Europe without Jean, he writes, "To Miller's great relief, she was alone, though the ubiquitous Count Bruga was still under her arm as she descended the gangplank from the Berengaria" (Ferguson, 155). Ferguson describes her descending the gangplank of the Berengeria, though from the ship passenger list, it's clear that she sailed on the Aquitania. While Miller's other biographers, like Jay Martin and Mary Dearborn fail to identify the Aquitania, they do specifically point out that she did not sail on the Berengeria, though she had written to Miller that she would (Martin, 140 & Dearborn, 111).

The info from Kenneth C. Dick is a bit suspect as well. He gets his material on Jean Kronski from an interview he conducted with June. Miller depicts June in his novels as a fabulator who is incapable of telling the truth -- and this seems to be the case in Dick's interview. For example, June told Dick that it was she who made up the name "Jean Kronski" and that she selected Kronski based on the Dr. Kronski character in Miller's books (Dick, 181-182). Well, June and Jean only knew each other between 1926-27, but Dr. Kronski's first appearance is in Tropic of Capricorn, published in 1939. Also, Dick says the name "Jean Kronski" was meant to imply a descent from the Romanoff's, but that makes no sense, whereas the name Miller gives her in his books, "Stasia" clearly draws the link to Anastasia Romanoff.

The whole Jean Kronski thing is a mystery within a mystery. Personally, I think the identification of Jean Kronski as Jean Lewin makes the most sense, if only because it's not obviously incorrect. Would be great though to turn up a 1927 passenger list with June and a companion sailing from New York to London or Le Havre.

3:33 am  
Anonymous pierre from montreal said...

Hi Kreg!
Thanks for the comment!
Your first paragraph (“I've looked into the passenger crew lists (via ancestry.com) for arrivals in New York and haven't found a good match for Jean Kronski under any of those aliases. The trouble, of course, lies in knowing which name she would have used while traveling.”) gave me an idea: let’s suppose June did not come back alone from her first trip to Europe; if she arrived in New York with her companion (who had one of the possible aliases, of course), their names should be on the same list. “June Miller, born January 28, 1906” could have returned to NYC with the mysterious Jean Kronski. It’s a big “IF”, but it might lead us somewhere…
Take care!

2:43 pm  
Anonymous pierre from montreal said...

Hi Kreg!
I looked again at the passenger list of the Berengeria, but couldn't find any possible alias for June Kronski. So, I guess all this was wishful thinking from my part...
What I find strange though is her passport name (June Mansfield)with the correct date of birth. She was already married to Henry in 1927 and on the 1928 list her name is clearly June Miller. A new passport maybe, with a new identity (her real surname was Smith)?
Have a nice evening, Kreg!

8:38 pm  
Anonymous pierre from montreal said...

Kreg,
I meant the list of the Aquitania...
Sorry!
Good night!

8:48 pm  
Anonymous pierre from montreal said...

Sorry folks,
"...but couldn't find any possible alias for June Kronski". It's JEAN,of course. Old age (my case) can make a person quite inaccurate...

12:49 am  
Blogger RC said...

Thanks Pierre and Kreg for this information. "Jean Kronski" is certainly one of the biggest mysteries of the Miller legend. Hopefully if we keep at it, we'll eventually crack the case.

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