Questions & Answers In Montreal, 1969
Alfred Rushton was a long-haired, 27-year old writer in 1969, when he and a friend went to the Ritz Carlton hotel on rue Sherbrooke to hear Henry Miller speak.
Rushton describes the conference as taking place on a second floor salon of the Ritz. Miller had not yet arrived when Rushton and his friend entered the venue. There was a sense of formality about the room, even the rigid arrangement of chairs, that did not seem to fit Miller’s informal nature. The room was filled with “fashionable men and women,” each of them “posing his own prologue to Miller’s visit,” and scanning the room “to see if they could recognize a great or a near-great just coming into recognition of sorts.”
Miller seemed to be running late. To calm his nerves of anticipation, Rushton helped himself to martinis from the passing waiter. Finally, Miller materialized “in a very undramatic way, just the way you expect such a man to arrive.” He was accompanied by his personal assistant, Gerald Robitaille. Miller, in a brown suit with a bright yellow tie, sat on the “ornate couch where he looked like a man suddenly alone with his thoughts in the center of the curious.”
When Rushton’s friend asked a question about the possibility of liberation being brought about by the current cultural revolution, Miller responded with a raspy “Now, do you really give a good Goddam what happens to these people? You just asked that question for the sake of asking a question. Isn’t that right?” Rushton’s friend had to agree. A French reporter chimed in next, asking if Miller was still writing or painting. Miller: “I don’t plan my days now. I just do what I want to do. I could go out in the street and be hit by a car for all I know. I don’t plan for anything.” Miller then fielded some French questions with French answers, all to the same French reporter. Miller tired of this individual, and asked the room for other questions.
Rushton took the opportunity, and asked Miller about his opinions on Marshall McLuhan. “Well,” said Miller, “I haven’t read too much of him, but I think he’s saying some interesting things. He’s a brilliant man. I believe that in the future we probably will rely upon mental telepathy … the written word seems to be on the way out.”
[Read this post here, about Miller’s predictions about future communication].
When asked by another person about politics, Miller replied: “Look, I don’t bother reading the papers anymore. As far as I am concerned, it’s just Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.” About the racial conflicts occurring in the U.S., Miller suggested that “intermarriage is the only answer to that problem.”
Miller smiled when asked what he thought of Gore Vidal’s evaluation of him as being out of proportion to himself. “Vidal is a clever man, and maybe that’s why I dislike him. I don’t know … I’m not a very clever man […] Goethe was a genius. He wasn’t clever. He was far more than that. There’s a difference between being clever and being a genius.” Miller then asked his interrogator if his response was reasonable.
One questioner asked Miller about the many women in his life. “Every woman I’ve had has given me something…,” he replied. A young woman in the audience shouted out “I love you!” Rushton noted the intense, magnetic effect that Miller’s charisma and legend seemed to have on the assembled women and men alike. As Miller continued to answer whatever was hurled at him, while enjoying drinks and a cigarette, the photographers began flashing at him all at once, causing Robitaille to raise his hand to demand they stop. He then looked at his watch and concisely announced “Two minutes.”
Rushton managed to get a copy of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch signed by Miller, although his mumbled request for a dedication to his girlfriend was left unheard. As the formal event was officially dispersed, Miller continued to casually engage with people around his couch. Rushton, surprised that Miller wasn’t scooted off immediately, wandered back and found a seat right next to Miller. Someone asked Miller why he changed Mara to Mona halfway through Rosy Crucifixion. “In Hindu Mara means hell or anguish and Mara was hell on earth … I forgot I had changed the name. I am forgetful sometimes,” replied Miller. He added that Tropic Of Cancer would have been called the Ovarian Trolley, except for the fact that he forgot the name he’d written on the page.
With that, Miller suddenly got up for the back room, where he said goodbye to someone. For Rushton, as he and his friend walked away from the Ritz Carlton, the experience had felt like an encounter “in one of his recorded dreams, allowing us to become part of the dream image…”
Rushton’s account was published in 1970, in his small press book, Mind Maps (Poseidon Press: Toronto); the table of contents notes that the article, “Meeting Henry Miller,” first appeared “in the Harbinger.” (I haven’t been able to find any details about this Harbinger.)
Thanks to Roger for bringing this article to my attention.
NOTE: All drawings in the banner art have been excerpted from the cover of Mind Maps and are credited to the author, Alfred Rushton. All quotes, except those attributed to Miller, are from Alfred Rushton in his book.