Thursday, October 19, 2006

Witness To "Reds"

In 1979, Henry Miller was approached by actor/director Warren Beatty to appear in his film Reds, an historical love story bio-epic about social idealism in America, Communism, and the Russian Revolution. Beatty wasn't asking Henry Miller to act. His vision for his film was to include interview segments to intersperse throughout the conventional narrative structure of his story; he wanted Henry to talk about "the times" of his subjects, John Reed and Louise Bryant.

In a 1979 letter to Miller, the producers requested the following: "we will be asking you about the World War I years, Emma Goldman (whom, I understand, you met), the changing sexual mores of this period, the conflict between political and artistic sensibilities."

This is part of what Miller wrote in response: "If you or Warren Beatty have read my work you must know that I dealt at length with these years. Emma Goldman, whom I met in San Diego, changed my whole life, made me elect to be a writer instead of a cowboy. I mention these things because the tone of your letter is so scholarly. I have always detested academicians [sic]. I can't talk about those years like a professor. I lived them. I was a young anarchist and now an old one...."
[ref. - PBA Galleries - The Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Pt.2 - Item# 30]

Henry agreed to be interviewed, but apparently made a condition that his young love interest at the time, Brenda Venus, appear in a future film project of Warren Beatty [this fact is found in the Dearborn biography, Happiest Man Live, p. 306, and appears to cite the letters to Irving Stettner as its primary source]. This promise remained unkept by Beatty, though Venus appears to have ended her acting career just two years later, and Beatty [at left] did not direct another film until 1990.

The first meeting between Miller and Beatty must have been an interesting one, considering that Henry detested Bonnie & Clyde, the notoriously violent 1967 film that Beatty produced and starred in. "Bonnie & Clyde! Did I hate that!" [see Conversations with Henry Miller, p. 195]. "I feel compelled to look upon the viewers as even more sick than the killers they are watching." [from a Penthouse interview; ref.] Miller also diccusses Beatty in the Stettner book, From Your Capricorn Friend; I don't own this one, so maybe someone else can post a reference for us.

The interviewees for Reds are credited as "witnesses" but their appearances on screen are anonymous, without name titles to identify them (unless you happen to know them). Besides Miller, they included Arthur Mayer, George Jessel, Will Durant, Rebecca West, and over two-dozen others.
Reds began filming in August 1979. Miller's interview went on for 11 reels of film (acc. to Dede Allen, producer). Although Miller didn't know the two Communist subjects of the film--John Reed and Lousie Bryant--he did have a lot to say about Reed and the sexual mores of the WWI/post-WWI period. The general critical consensus is that Miller's bits are the most entertaining of the lot.

"I think that a guy who is always interested in the condition of the world and changing it, either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them." [Miller on Reed]

"People fucked back then just as much as they do now. We just didn't talk about it as much" [Miller on, well, you know]

Reds was released at the end of 1981, just in time to be considered for the Academy Awards that year (of which it was generously given). Miller would never see the film, as he died in the summer of 1980, making this likely his final appearance on film.

In celebration of the film's 25-year anniversary, the Oscar-winning Reds was finally released on DVD last week for the first time. From what I can make from internet details of its release, there are several extras on this DVD, including what I assume to be new footage of Henry Miller amongst others (I've yet to see the DVD; please confirm if you know). According to this: "One of the DVD features explores how Beatty and his staff found these individuals and used them to offer documentary-like scene-setting for the movie." I think this may be the extra titled "Testimonials," described by DVDTalk as "the story behind interviewing the Witnesses, including some raw footage."

See this earlier posting of mine regarding Henry Miller on film.

The film captured image of Miller in Reds was borrowed from the Tiny Revolution blog.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

First Exposure To Burlesque

Around 1909, Henry Miller--then 17 years old--attended his first burlesque performance, in which he saw women in states of undress in public for the first time. From that moment on, he was infatuated with burlesque. Miller wrote briefly of this in "The Theatre," a chapter from his Books In My Life (1969).

"I was still going to High School when an older boy (from the old Fourteenth Ward) asked me one day if I would not like to go with him to The Empire, a new burlesque theatre in our neighborhood. Fortunately I was already wearing long pants, though I doubt if my beard had yet begun to sprout. That first burlesque show I shall never forget (Krausemeyer's Alley with Sliding Billy Watson). From the moment the curtain rose I was trembling with excitement. Until then I had never seen a woman undressed in public."
["The Theatre," p. 3; from The Books In My Life, p. 289]

Miller's earliest exposure to the sight of scantily-clad women ("women in tights") was from the collectable cards found in packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes [examples below]: "featuring one of the famous soubrettes of the day."

Miller next became aware of sexual entertainment on the advertizing found outside of a Grand Street theatre called The Unique. "[T]hose lurid billboards that flanked the entrance to the theatre, showing ravishing female figures of luxurious heft displaying all their billowy, sinuous curves." ...... "[T]hat long Saturday night cue outside, pushing and milling around to squeeze through the door and catch a glimpse of that naughty little soubrette, Mlle. de Leon (we called her Millie de Leon), the girl who flung her garters to the sailors at each performance." [Books, p.290]

In fact, most people called her Millie. Millie de Leon (a.k.a. Millie Zonga) helped step up the raunchiness of burlesque dancing at the turn of the century (besides throwing garters, she also neglected to wear underwear [ref.]). She made use of gimmicks for her act: acting French, wearing blue, and later, in 1909, taking on an Orientalist aesthetic [ref.]. She was still active as of 1915 [ref.] You can read her story (for a fee) in the Journal of American Culture.

The Unique Theatre was located at 194 (198?) Grand Street in Brooklyn, several blocks north of Miller's childhood home on Decatur Street, but only a "stone's throw" away from the home of his friend Rob Ramsay, on whose front steps he used to pass the time during summer evenings. Miller wrote about The Unique in his novel Black Spring; only he refers to it in the way that many of the locals did, as "The Bum":

"All around The Bum were the saloons, and Saturday nights there was a long line outside, milling and pushing and squirming to get at the ticket window. Saturday nights, when the Girl In Blue was in her glory, some wild tar from the Navy Yard would be sure to jump out of his seat and grab off one of Millie de Leon's garters." [Black Spring, p.7]

In Book Of Friends, Miller again reminisces about The Bum, "a name invented because of its evil reputation." Much of the same details are listed (billboards, line-up), but he adds that he and his friends would also try to pick up on the dirty jokes that some of the sailors would tell one another in line. He then lists questions that young Henry used to contemplate during these stake-outs: "[W]hat went on in there when the lights went up? Did the girls really strip to the waist as they said? Did they throw their garters to the sailors in the audience? Did the sailors take the girls to the nearby saloon after the performance and get them drunk? Did they go to bed with them in the rooms above the salloon from which there always came great sounds of merriment?"
[Book Of Friends (I), p. 14-15]

In Books In My Life, Miller doesn't explicitly state his age at the time of seeing his first burlesque at The Empire (nor the date of the performance), other than to mention being in High School. However, he provides some sort of timeline: when he was "about sixteen" he saw A Gentleman From Mississippi; according to the IBDB, this show ran at The Bijou theatre from September 1908 to September 1909. "That same year," states Miller, he saw Alt Heidelberg at the German-language Irving Place Theatre in New York. The New York Times reports that this show was active (at least partly) in December 1908. His moment of burlesque occured "soon" after these two shows: it would have to be 1909, during his final term at Eastern District High School.

The show that the older boy from the 14th ward took Henry to see was called Krausemeyer's Alley, playing at The Empire burlesque theatre in Brooklyn. The prestigious Empire had opened about 15 years earlier, in 1893 [ref.; interior of the theatre, below left]. The play, Krasuemeyer's Alley, was written and performed by Billy Watson. According to Watson's obituary in the NY Times (1945), the plot went something like this:

Philip Krausemeyer (Watson), German clarinetist, is in constant battle with his Irish sausage-making alleyway neighbour (Watson's partner Billy Spencer), until their children end up marrying and forcing the two divided houses together.

Miller mentions the fact that "Sliding" Billy Watson was in the cast. The obituary points out that there are actually two Billy Watsons: the "Original" one [real name: Isaac Levie, seen below] who had great success in theatre (and also produced an infamous "Beef Trust" show, in which every chorus girl in striped tights was over 180 pounds); and the comedic "Sliding" Billy Watson [real name: William Shapiro], who was a completely different person (who earned his nickname by a famous gag which involved sliding on a banana peel): he actually appropriated (the Original) Watson's name for "a while in the burlesque circuit." [NY Times obit].

I can't be sure that Miller knew which Billy Watson he actually saw that night. And I can only assume that the scantily-clad women whom young Miller witnessed were members of the chorus line (there were musical numbers in the show). It made quite an impact on him:

"[T]o see one of these creatures in life on the stage, in the full glare of a spotlight, [...] that I had never dreamed of." .... "[From] that momentous day when I first visited The Empire I became a devotee of burlesque. Before long I knew them all--Miner's on the Bowery, The Columbia, The Olympic, Hyde & Beeman's, The Dewey, The Star, The Gayety, The National Winter Garden--all of them. Whenever I was bored, despondent, or pretending to search for work, I headed either for the burlesque or the vaudeville house. Thank God, there were such glorious institutions in those days! Had there not been, I might have committed suicide long ago."
[Book in My Life, pgs. 289-290]

To read further on the subject of Henry Miller and burlesque, see Burlesque Dreams by William Solomon, as well as my posting about Miller and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Annotated Nexus - Pages 17 & 18

17.0 Henry continues his rant against Anastasia. On this page, the focus is on the feelings of a man who realizes his wife is in love with another woman; only Miller then suggests that this love is merely a ploy to manipulate him.

17.1 "someone like you can make me jealous"
This is actually at the tail end of page 16, but the theme continues halfway through page 17. Miller admits his jealousy to Anastasia, and feels "humiliated" by it. "You're hardly the type I would have chosen for a rival."

17.2 morphodites
This is the "type" Miller is referring to, in description of Stasia. This term is slang for hermaphrodite, being something with both male and female gender characteristics. Miller says he doesn't "like them any more than I like people with double-jointed thumbs." This implies indifference, but he is clearly offended by homosexuality, even though he attempts to clarify that "I'm not talking morals, you understand, I'm talking like and dislikes." (See also 14.8.)

17.3 fags
Within 17.2, Miller uses an example: he's met "fags who were entertaining, clever, talented, diverting, but I must say I wouldn't care to live with them." (the line regrading morals actually follows this one). Though Miller defines this as a simple matter of taste, he still opts to use offensive instead of neutral terminology. "I'm prejudiced. Bourgeois, if you like." (See also 14.6, 15.1+2.)

17.3 "a real man"
If Mona were going to betray Miller, he would have prefered that it were with a "real man." That her lover is a woman leaves him "defenseless." His objections do indeed seem "bourgeois," as his concern is more what other people would think, that his wife is "violently attracted to another woman." It implies that something is wrong with him (as a man), but he "can't lay a finger on" what it may be.

17.4 "a mixture of sham and reality"
Miller than launches into the possibility that Mona's "unusual store of affection" (i.e. lesbianism) is merely a "mixture of sham and reality" for the purpose of "conditon[ing]" her husband and "poison[ing] his mind." Mona is said to have told Miller about "experiences with girl friends before marriage," but he has strong doubts about the extent of them qualifying as lesbian love, especially since she's never admitted to sleeping with any of them.

Stasia's reaction to this is to get defensive then break into tears. Does this imply that she recognizes the possibility that Mona is simply playing at being a lesbian?

18.0 The scene begun on page 15 wraps up here, as Mona comes home and ends the drama. The next section begins with more thoughts on Dostoevski.

18.1 dog
Mona comes home, finds Stasia in a state of distress; she chastizes Miller and comforts Stasia, insisting that she must stay the night. Stasia looks to Henry for approval, to which he says the biting line, "Of course, of course! I wouldn't turn a dog out on a night like this." The irony is that Miller has already characterized himself as the "dog" [see 1.1] in this threesome, but, in his cruel case, has usually been turned out.

18.2 Feodor
Dostoevksi's first name, alternately spelled as "Fyodor"

18.3 "I have never pretended to understand Dostoevski."
Miller returns to the Russian novelist, begun on pages 11 & 12. Similar to his thoughts on those pages, his relation with Mr. D (at right) seems to be more intuitive than academic ("I know him, as one knows a kindred soul.")

18.4 "even to this day"
Miller had not read all of Dostoevski's works as of summer/autumn 1952, when he began Nexus. He wanted to save some for "deathbed reading."

18.5 Dream Of The Ridiculous Man
Dostoevski's final short story, written in 1877 [full text here]. Miller can't remember if he's ever read it or heard anyone talk about it.

18.6 Marcion/ Marcionism
Miller throws in the fact that he knows nothing about these two subjects either. I've found no connection between Dostoevski and Marcionism, so he simply seems to be saying, one can't know everything.

Marcion (110-160) was a theologian who accepted only the Book of Paul in the Christian bible, and rejected the Hebrew bible. His theology became known as Marcionism.

18.7 "I can never picture him wearing a hat"
This being Dostoevski; an example of the "aura of mystery" that Miller finds around his idol. It's true, one is hard-pressed to dig up a photo of Mr. D wearing a hat; but, in the interest of being thorough, please see the photo at left: Fyodor's personal hat, encased in glass at Dostoevsky's House in St. Petersburg. (found the photo here).

18.8 Swedenborg['s] angels
I have no idea why Miller connects the idea of "hats" with those that "Swedenborg gave his angels to wear." I guess he thinks it just as ridiculous to imagine angels wearing hats as it is Dostoevsky.

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist and theologian, who claimed to have divine communication with demons and angels while personally visiting heaven and hell. As such, he felt qualified to write descriptions of how things work in the netherworlds, including how angels dressed. I could find nothing about hats, per se, though Swedenborg liked to picture angels in reddish-purple gowns, white linen [ref.] or naked [ref.] depending on the mood. And if you dressed incorrectly, you were refused entry to heaven [ref.].

18.9 Berdyaev
Miller goes on to quote Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) regarding Dostoevski and evil. [Miller had also quoted Berdyaev on page 9 - see 9.1]. Essentially, the quote explains that evil is undesirable, yes, but also a useful human experience, as one becomes stronger in resisting it. (quote continues onto page 19). [see 12.8 regarding the subject of Evil in Dostoevski's work].

<--- previous pages 15 & 16 next pages 19 --->

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Miller's Campaign For The Nobel Prize

"One must wait for Miller to become respectable."
-- Member of Nobel Prize committee, "years" before 1978, explaining to Lawrence Durrell why Henry Miller had not yet won the literary award [Oct. 16, 1978/The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-1980]

Henry Miller had his eye on the 1978 or 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature. As a man of 86, he could not wait any longer to be nominated. He encouraged his friends, publishers and acquaintances to participate in a letter-writing campaign in his support. The awards went instead to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978) and Odysseus Elytis (1979).


Knut Hamsun--one of Miller's most revered writers--won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Miller was 28 years old, and must have secretly desired the prestigious prize ever since then. In 1946, Miller wrote the following to Wallace Fowlie, which seems to confirm his long-held desire to win it:

"As I said to G. [Maurice Girodias] -- if I got the Nobel Prize, it would give me no thrill. One waits too long for everything to really enjoy it when it comes. Besides my focus is now elsewhere." [3/6/1946/ Letters of Henry Miller to Wallace Fowlie, p.107]

Meanwhile, an American writer whom Miller thought much less of--Ernest Hemingway--won the Nobel Prize in 1954. Miller's bitterness is apparent in an essay he had published that same year:

"The American strikes me as having the vivacity of a pall-bearer [....] Every month some well-known American author is being translated into one of the numerous European tongues. Can anyone say that, taken as a whole, the works of our contemporary authors breathe optimism, wisdom, courage or insight? Examine the works of those American authors who won the Nobel Prize: do they reflect the spirit of a young, ardent, up-an-coming race?"
["When I Reach For My Revolver," p.2, from Stand Still Like The Humminbird, p.51]

In a letter dated Decemebr 2, 1958, Miller wrote this to his photographer friend, Brassai: "We may see each other again when I receive the Nobel Prize (what a joke!)." But as Brassai explains in an April 1959 entry from The Happy Rock: ".. he laughs until he sheds bitter tears: 'You'll see, one day I'll win the Nobel Prize all the same! And other grave magistrates will praise my books.' He's joking. Yet I detect a glimmer of hope in his words [...] After all, couldn't he get the award in Stockholm? Obscenity is no impediment. The winds can change. Wasn't André Gide among the elect despite—or because of—his defense of homosexuality? Wasn't he honored precisely for his courageous struggle against hypocrisy? The same arguments may one day work in Henry's favor."
[The Happy Rock, p. 6].


Flash-forward, 20 years later. Henry Miller sends out postcards to friends, publishers, influential acquaintances with the following request:

"Dear Friend, In my attempt to obtain the Nobel Prize for Literature this coming year I hope to enlist your support. All I ask is for you to write a few succinct lines to: Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, Borshuset, 11129 Stockholm, Sweden. Please note that the committee urgently requests that the name of the proposed candidate not be publicized. Sincerely, Henry Miller."
[August 28, 1978/ Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters, p. 271]

Letters of support were fired off to the Academy by such people as Lawrence Durrell, Kay Boyle, Elmer Gertz, Barney Rosset (Grove Press), Maurice Girodias (Olympia Press), Hans Reitzel, John Killinger (Dean, Vanderbilt University), J. Rives Childs (American Ambassador), William S. Burroughs, William Targ, and Noel Young (Capra Press). [ref. PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #69].

Erica Jong responded immediately to the request: "Of course I'll try to think of something persuasive to write the Nobel Committee. Who deserves it more than you? I fear, though, that because they recently gave it to an American [Saul Bellow], they won't want another American so soon. Probably they are looking for some Latvian goatherd who writes obscure poems in a dialect spoken by only 3 (very elderly) people. Some of their selections are truly idiotic - & most of the greatest writers of all time have been neglected in favor of hacks...."
[PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #15]

The Nobel Prize for Literaure for 1978 was handed out on October 5, 1978, to Polish-American Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Miller had recently been an active admirer of Singer's work.

A great irony is that Singer (at left) supported Henry Miller's nomination for the 1978 Nobel Prize he himself would win. In private, he responded to Miller's nomination request in September 1978:
"I think that no writer alive has earned as much recognition, praise and high prizes as you both for your literary work and for your selfless fight for literary freedom. Of course I will write to the Academy. Just the same I feel that you are too great a man to ask for any prize. Whatever recognition you should get must come from the givers, not from you...Whatever the results, you will remain a pillar of literature and a most couragous fighter against any kind of censorship in literature. Yours with love and admiration, Isaac B. Singer."
[PBA - Personal Archives of Henry Miller, Item #79]

Even as the spotlight was on Singer for his Nobel win, he told reporters that Miller deserved to win "for his fight against censorship, for freedom of literature." [Singer interview with Phyllis Malamud, October 6, 1978] (Incidentally, on the official Nobel Prize website, you may read Singer's presentation speech or his Nobel lecture [which may also be listened to on RealPlayer]).


[All reactions drawn from The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-1980].

In his correspondance with Lawrence Durrell, Miller states: "No, I wasn't robbed of prize by Singer - my applications are for 1979." [p. 498]. In my mind, this reveals a miscommunication by Miller, as everyone else seems to have acted to have him nominated for 1978. In any case, he did not win for 1979 either.

Discouraged by Durrell's anecdote about a committee member not finding him "respectable" enough, Miller blames the Swedes: "Respectable! What shit! Just like these Swedes of the Academy." [p.498] ... "Those blasted Swedes. They ate up Quiet Days In Clichy. But -- I must tell you some other time how I offended Artur Lundkvist, Swedish poet and translator. [...] (Let me only say this -- there are no greater, no more colossal bores than most Scandanavians, with Swedes in the lead.)" [p.498]

Miller then goes on to expain that he doesn't want to Nobel Prize for "fame or glory. Shit, I have enuf of that now," but instead for the cash prize to cover his inheritance taxes. [p.499]

1979 passed without a Nobel Prize. On the eve of the following year, Durrell wrote on encouraging letter to Miller: "PS - Now they say that 1980 is your Nobel year!" But it was not to be, as Henry Miller died on June 7th that year. Unfortunately, according to Nobel Prize statute #4, a Prize may not be awarded posthumously.

Here are several quotes by Miller regarding this Prize campaign, from his letters to Maurice Girodias.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Letters To Hoki

Henry Miller's fifth and final wife was a young Japanese woman named Hoki Tokuda. Miller humiliated himself in his attempt to win her love, as evidenced in the collection of letters called Letters From Henry Miller To Hoki Tokuda Miller. The letters began in 1966 and increased with desperation until their marriage in 1967 (was she after fame or a green card, one wonders). The letters continued (while she was away in Japan) with feelings of doubt about her love (the lack thereof being obvious to everyone but Henry), finally ending in bitterness and divorce in 1970. He was 74 and she (seen below, left) was 27 when they first met.

The purpose of this entry is to direct you to rjhudson's Livejournal posting about these letters. On it, you will find excerpts from Miller's letters, editorials about these letters, images of postcard-sized watercolours he'd sent to Hoki (one of them is shown below, right), along with the transcribed notes that came with them (as well as annotations of references made in these notes).

Here's an excerpt of his desperation:

"I hope I have the courage to mail this letter and not put it away in a drawer, as I have with the others I wrote you. For with this goes the last ounce of pride I possess. I have to know, I must know, whether you really love me or not. I have been in absolute torture for months now. I can't hold out much longer. I am truly at the end of my rope. I can't work, I can't sleep; my mind is on you perpetually, without let up. It's not a sickness any more, it's a mania. I am obsessed and possessed."

Hudson points out that there are rare moments of insight visible through the repetitive and sad romantic mud of this collection. Here's Miller on growing old:

"The older I get the more I struggle not to make plans in advance, not to think of tomorrow, or yesterday, either, for that matter. I try my best to live day to day, as we say in English. This is a result of my philosophical strain rather than of my innate temperament. I have been all my life a most active man, perhaps too much so. All I ever wanted of life was the freedom to write what I had to express and to do so with perfect freedom. It has been a long hard struggle, and I suppose one might say that I won out. But at what a price! As a result of a my achievement, my fame or success, whatever you wish to call it, the word tries to involve me in things which no longer concern me. Every day of my life, for the last ten years or more, I have to struggle to win a couple of hours which I my truly call my own. The consequence of all this is that I do less and less creative work. I am at the mercy of the world. And since my time on Earth is running short you can well understand how desperate I sometimes feel. I have thought of running off to some remote corner of the Earth, where I might live in peace and do only what I wish to do, but where is that place? Years ago, I thought of going to Tibet or to Nepal or some remote corner of India, but today I haven't the heart to pick myself up and go to such outlandish places. I need some comforts and also some medical attention. And I don't want to leave my son here alone should he be drafted into the military service."

I'll supplement this information with my own posting about Henry and Hoki in the near future.