"Sid Essen" And The Elkus Family
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 . 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
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..." .
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.”
LETTER TO THE ELKUS CHILDREN
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).
On November 18, 1930, Miller wrote to Elkus to ask him to raise $100 for a cheap passage for him back to New York . 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” . 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” . 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…” . 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” .
Henry’s letters (at least some) to Abe Elkus would end up in the private archive of Celia Conason . 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 .
At left: 116 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, as it looks today (Photo © 2009 The Corcoran Group, Inc.)
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.