Friday, January 18, 2008

The Atlas Portland Cement Company

Henry Miller was 17 years old when he graduated from Eastern District high school in 1909. His whole life was ahead of him. Once his summer ended, Henry attended City College in New York, but dropped out after eight weeks due to his disappointment with its teaching methods. [1] This left him with only one option: the tedium of full time employment at a job he would probably hate.

At the end of 1909, Henry found work as a filing clerk for a large cement company. The Atlas Portland Cement Company’s New York office was at 30 Broad Street, in the Manhattan financial district [map]. It was a well-established business with offices throughout the U.S. They had become an industrial authority on the subject of cement, and published several books on the topic, like Concrete Construction: About the Home and On the Farm.

As a clerk, Henry dealt only with paper, never the actual cement. The drudgery of the under-stimulating job quickly drove him to boredom. [2] This disinterest led to enough mistakes that Henry believed his boss thought he was “mentally deficient,” because “an idiot could have filled the job capably.” “The boss who was over me, an irascible Canadian, would fly into a rage over the mistakes I made.” [3].

The logo for the Atlas Portland Cement Co , from a 1916 magazine advertisement.

Henry’s mind was probably elsewhere. It was a period in which he was reading the “heaviest” books during his transit rides to work every morning: “I recall what a pleasure it was, as I made my way to the elevated train at the Brooklyn Bridge … I read standing up, squeezed on all sides by the straphangers like myself. I not only read during these trips on the “El,” I memorized long passages from these too-too-solid tomes” [4]. He also enjoyed finding new issues of the German satirical magazine, Simplicissimus at the newsstand on his way to work [5].

While employed at Atlas Portland, Henry was involved in a complicated relationship with a 30-something widow named Pauline Chouteau. His pay at the cement company was so miserable, he had to give an occasional amateur piano lesson to supplement his income [6]--Pauline entered his life as the friend of a woman whose daughter Henry was giving lessons to. Henry's Atlas Portland wage was only $15-20 a month (plus overtime) [7]. He was terrible at managing his money, and often spent a week’s worth of lunch money on a single night out with his friends in the Xerxes Society. This often meant going without lunches until his next paycheck [7]. Instead of eating, he would distract himself during his lunch hour at the Aquarium, located down at Battery Park, where he would “study marine life” [8]. Sometimes, a co-worker was generous enough to lend Henry a nickel so he could buy himself a candy bar [7].

The New York Aquarium, where Henry would often spend his lunch hours from 1909-1911.

Although Henry was “utterly unlike” most of his co-workers at Atlas Portland Cement [9], he was able to make some friends. One was Ray Wetzler, to whom Henry would confide the details of his relationship with Pauline. Henry admired Ray because he appeared to be the type of athlete that he aspired to be [10]. Not long after starting this job, Henry had begun a “period of rigorous athletic discipline that lasted seven years” [11]. Even on work days, at 5:30 AM he would either bike for miles or jog for up to five miles before returning home [12], getting changed, then exercising his brain muscles with dense books during his ride on the “El” into work.

In Books In My Life, Miller lists other workers (“wonderful fellows”) at Atlas Portland: “Eddie Rink, Jimmy Tierney, Roger Wales, Frank Selinger, Ray Wetzler, Frank McKenna, Mister Blehl (my bete noir), Barney something-or-other (a mere mouse of a man), Navarro, the vice-president, whom we encountered only in going to the lavatory; Taliaferro, the peppery Southerner from Virginia, who would repeat over the phone a dozen times a day, ‘Not Taliaferro—Tolliver!’” (p. 207)

Only as I write this piece do I realize that this Taliaferro appears to be the same Southerner to whom Henry paid his rent check for 91 Remsen Street many years later, and who subsequently and regrettably asked Henry to leave when said check was no longer being produced.

Finally, Miller spends a paragraph on Harold Street, for whom he had vague but pleasant memories of socializing with him at his home in Jamaica, New York (pp. 207-208).

This selection from the 1910 census of Brooklyn shows Henry's occupation as "clerk" for a "cement co."

Henry Miller worked at Atlas Portland Cement (called Everlasting Portland Cement in Books In My Life, p.264) until the end of the summer in 1911 [13]. After a period of being without work, he would eventually have little choice but to work for his father’s tailoring business.

Years later, in the mid-1920s, Henry met up with his cousin Gene after a very long absence. “I suppose you’re still in the cement company,” said Gene. “The cement company!,” writes Miller in Plexus, “I nearly fell off my chair. ‘Why no, Gene,’ I said, ‘I’m a wrier now, didn’t you know that?’” (p.217)

But Henry was only starting out as a writer. As Plexus illustrates, times were still tough for Henry. He found himself scrambling for any kind of work he could get--even considering a return to Atlas Portland. The Frank McKenna who is listed as his Atlas Portland co-worker (mentioned above) also appears in Miller’s hand-written notes for Plexus [14] (although I can’t identify him under any other name in that novel; maybe this scene didn’t make the cut). Meant to be about the 1925-1926 period, the note says, “Begging Frank Mc Kenna (Atlas Cement) for job = same scene later shoeshine.”

Desperate times.



[1] "1909-Entered City College of New York and left after two months -- rebelled against educational methods." From autochronology posted at Henry Miller Library website; [2] Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, p. 47;[3] Book Of Friends (I), p. 102. [4] Books In My Life, p. 264. [5] Books In My Life, p. 204. [6] Joey: Book Of Friends, Volume III, p. 55. [7] Book Of Friends (I), p.102. [8] Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hieronymus Bosch, p. 83. [9] Joey: Book Of Friends, Volume III, p.59. [10] ibid, p. 58. [11] Autochronology, from HM Memorial Library. [12] Joey, p. 57. [13] In Books In My Life (p. 207), Miller writes "... the day I left the company—at the age of twenty-one." He turned 21 on December 26, 1912. This claim seems to conflict with assertions made in Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright (p. 28) that Henry had quit his cement job by Sept 1911--when he would have been 19, almost 20 (in December). [14] Henry Miller On Writing, p. 171.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dogmatika's Henry Miller Week

Edited by Susan Tomaselli, Dogmatika is a monthly litzine with a companion daily blog. A few days after Henry's last birthday on December 26th, Dogmatika's blog arm compiled freelance contributions and items from other websites to make up what it called "Henry Miller Week." Some of these postings are excerpts from other sources, but a couple of these essays are original to Dogmatika.
Whitman Among The Corpses by Darran Anderson
Tropic Of Cancer and Henry Miller.
"For this is not just a book, it's a great orchestra of sounds, nocturnes, impressionist city-sketches, expressionist cacophonies, surging anthems, all the laments, dirges, curses and serenades that make up the song of existence."
This is not an essay, but several clips from Tom Schiller's Asleep And Awake compiled from YouTube onto a single page for your convenience (for an actual copy of the DVD, visit here).
Henry and Me by Steven Wheeler
A reflection on the place of Miller's books in the life of the author.
"I became interested and then obsessed with Miller's writing, read everything of his I could get my hands on. I still have a worn copy of Tropic of Cancer by my bedside along with Flann O'Brien's, The Poor Mouth. For some reason, which I don't want to analyse, both books are places of refuge for me when I just want to relax and enjoy the language. At times like that I don't think as much about the content of what I'm reading as much as how the words are strung together. Finding Henry's writing was like the moment when Shakespeare made sense to me in high school: a light bulb was switched on."
"A writer needs very little to stimulate him. The fact of being a writer means that more than other men he is given to cultivating the imagination. Life itself provides abundant material. Superabundant material. The more one writes the less books stimulate. One reads to corroborate, that is, to enjoy one's own thoughts expressed in the multifarious ways of others."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Jean Kronski: L Is For Lewin?

Until today, I really hadn't made any progress on my attempts to investigate further the idea that Miller's "Jean Kronski" is possibly Jean Lewin in reality (see my posting, Jean Kronski: Revealed?). But today I found another piece of evidence to submit to the jury.
In Pascal Vrebos's book, 444 Ocampo Drive: A Crazy Week With Henry Miller!--which is essentially a transcription of every significant conversation they had during a week in February 1979--the author has published an excerpt from Miller's Rosy Crucifixion outline. This is the master plan Miller had created one night in 1927: a word map of his entire relationship with June, which would become the basis for much of his autobiographical writing.

In this transcription of notes, one person is referred to simply as "L." It's clear to me that "L." is Jean Kronski. My question is this: why refer to Jean as "L?" Answer?


Again, I've said this before: this is all a guess. For your consideration. I'm just putting it out there until I find something more concrete.

Here are the "L." references in the passage:

"L. decides to make puppets and sell them. Also death masks ... Relations with L. are improving. Sleeping three abed. J. now jealous ... The two of them look like freaks. L. hiring herself out for experiemnts of all kinds ... Returning at dawn to find L. sleeping at my place. Dragging her out of the bed by the scalp. Peeing over her on the floor. Then falling asleep in the bathtub, nearly drowned ... Suddenly the explosion in Jersey City and the discovery of L. standing on the stairs. Last confrontation. Dragging her along in the snow despite protestations and denials. I leave for the West."
(from 444 Ocampo Drive, p.120-121)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Henry And June Get Hitched

"'You remember that day we got married…in Hoboken? You remember that filthy ceremony? I’ve never forgotten it.'” –-- Henry Miller to June in Plexus, p. 38.

Henry Miller’s divorce from his first wife, Beatrice Wickens, was finalized on March 29, 1924. He was now free to marry June Mansfield, which he did just two months later, on June 1, 1924. The wedding was devastatingly unromantic, leaving the newlyweds with a deep feeling of disappointment.

“With the death of her father Mona [June] became more and more obsessed with the idea of getting married,” writes Miller in Sexus, [p.434] before going on to tell the story of their wedding day [452+]. Miller had kept disappointing June with his subdued enthusiasm for getting hitched (yet again), but her threats to leave finally convinced him it was something he had to commit to. “'I found the woman I need, and I’m going to keep her.'” [1-414].

It was decided to get married in Hoboken, New Jersey, instead of locally in Manhattan or Brooklyn. “Perhaps to conceal the fact that I had been married before, perhaps we were a bit ahead of the legal schedule.” [1-452]. In Mary Dearborn’s Happiest Man Alive, she suggests that June had been lying to Henry, claiming to be underage; in New Jersey, it would have been easier to claim she was 21, since it was less likely that a New York record would be available to prove she wasn’t [p.87] (although she actually it?). Even late in life, June misleadingly told interviewer Kenneth Dick that she was only 17 in 1923, [Colossus Of One, p. 165] when in fact she was 20, making her 21 in 1924.

Henry and June were living with Emil Conason and his wife Celia (Cele, or Ceil), who had agreed to act as their witnesses. When Henry and June stepped onto the Hudson Tubes on their way to Jersey, the mood was already turning dark. June kept reading into Henry’s words and actions, insisting that he didn’t really want to marry her. One stop before Hoboken, June stepped off the train, prompting Henry to follow her: “‘What’s the matter with you—are you mad?’” [1-452]. On the platform, Henry kissed and embraced her, giving her reassurance that he wanted to marry her.

Henry describes Hoboken as “a sad, dreary place. A city more foreign to me than Peking or Lhasa” [1-452]. Once they find City Hall for their civic ceremony, they go into a panic: the office was going to close at noon (it was a Sunday), and the Conasons hadn’t shown up [2-87; 3-167]. June convinced Henry to find a couple of people on the streets to act as replacement witnesses. Henry paid off two men--later described by both June [3-167] and Henry [1-452] as “bums”—to swear to the magistrate that they’d known the couple for a significant period of time. The civic official presiding over the marriage was A.C. Carsten (a former Police Recorder [ref.]). He was not very convinced about the credibility of the witnesses (“Where did you pick him up—in the garbage can?” [1-453]), but still proceeded with the formalities in a very dry, automatic, even contemptuous manner, as the noon closing time was less than 30 minutes away. “That ceremony let me down,” wrote Miller in Sexus. “I could have murdered that guy.” [454]. The marriage certificate was paid for with money the broke couple had borrowed. [1-452] The lack of finances also meant there were no rings to be exchanged [4-96].

The City Hall at Hoboken, circa 1913 (source)

Henry and June Miller felt horrible on the ride back to New York. Hand in hand with June, Henry spoke of humiliation and regret (over the way the marriage took place). June was resigned, on the verge of tears. They then met up with Ned Schnellock (brother of Emil) and his girlfriend Marcelle. During a few drinks with them, June let out her stress with a fit of unending laughter that Ned called "hysterical" [1-457]. Later in the evening, the group moved on to celebreate their new marriage by watching the dancers at the Houston Street Burlesque.

When he and Ned had a moment alone, Henry responded to his friend’s challenge that the marriage was “a little impetuous” : “You think it’s a mistake, eh? Let me tell you this…I never did a better thing in my life. I love her. I love her enough to do anything she asks of me. If she asked me to cut your throat…if I thought that would make her happy…I’d do it.” [1-457]

That’s one romantic bastard.



[1] Miller, Henry. Sexus. [2] Dearborn, Mary. Henry Miller: Happiest Man Alive. [3] Dick, Kenneth. Henry Miller: Colossus Of One. [4] Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Merle Armitage, By Design

"I am often amused by overzealous souls who are going to 'do something for art.' These people are starkly ignorant. Art is an elusive divinity." --- Merle Armitage, Accent On Life [1965], p. 145.

Miller makes reference to dozens of names in Big Sur And The Oranges Of Hiernoymus Bosch; many of them artists. In 1957, the year Big Sur was published, the media was refering to the isolated Calfornia community as an "artists' colony" (Time, June 10, 1957). Although Miller makes a point to deny this description in his book (he seems mostly to take exception to the use of the term "colony"), there is no denying that many of his scattered Big Sur neighbours were indeed artists. Merle Armitage was one such man.

Merle Armitage (1893-1975) was born in Iowa but eventually made his way to New York City in his 20s. It was there that he began working an an impresario (theatre promoter), a profession that served him well when he relocated to the Los Angeles area in the 1920s. As a child, he developed a love for Art (and was collecting it at age 12) that included an appreciation for innovative advertizing art and design (he worked briefly in advertizing for the Packard Motor Co.). As a concert promoter in California, he used modern design techniques in posters he created himself, in order to draw "low brow" audiences to "high brow" events such as ballet and opera. In the 1930s, he began writing and designing his own books, mostly on the subject of Art and artists. It was as a publication designer that he made his greatest reputation. During the time that Miller lived at Big Sur, Armitage was the Art Director of Look Magazine (1949-1954) [ Look covers from 1950], and president of the American Institue of Graphic Arts (1950-51).

In Chapter 3 of Big Sur ("The Chama Serial"), Miller writes about the fantastic stories he entertained his children with: the adventures of a rich, worldy little girl named Chama. Although Miller made up the Shirley Temple-like plot, Chama was actually the daughter of Merle Armitage. Armitage had been over for dinner with his family, and Chama had captured the imagination of young Val [p.78].
During one of the nightly stories, Miller tells the kids about Chama's father. "[He] was once an impresario, a very famous one, too." Miller goes on to explain that an impresario takes "famous singers around the world." Miller amps the story up for their entertainment by saying that Armitage got to know Zulus and Pygmies through these travels, and brought the opera singers Caruso, Tetrazzani, Melba, Titta Ruffo, and Gigli to meet Indians in the Far West [p.85-86].

Interestingly, Chama appears to have entered adulthood with an interest in the magic realism with which Miller employed in making up his stories about her. In 1965, Chama Armitage wrote a 12-page book called Surrealism And Magic Realism, which was published by the California imprint Manzanita Press. Her original artwork (pre-1974) appears in the Merle Armitage Collection at Arizona State University. She appears to have married an man by the Italian name of Rogate [ref.], which possibly helps explain how she came to translate a Tarot book from Italian in 1978.


Beyond this pretty obscure association with Henry Miller, Armitage is significant in that he applied his book design talents to Miller's Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder, published in 1948. The story of this relationship with Miller is told by Armitage in an article "The Man behind the Smile: Doing Business with Henry Miller," published in Texas Quarlterly 4 (Winter 1961), and re-printed in Conversations With Henry Miller (1994, University Press of Mississippi).

Armitage first met Miller when Val and Tony were "babies." He and his wife popped in at his cabin after reading one of Miller's "all and sundry" appeals for money and goods, published in a small literary magazine. Some of Henry's paintings were on display on the walls of his home. Noted art fan Armitage: "[They] seemed to be an odd mixture of what might be produced by a Paul Klee influencing Gaugin. They were free and tight at the same time, an expression of a man who wanted to portray many things without an adequate technical equipment. But colorful, and right for his place."

When Armitage explained that, besides being an impresario, he also designed books, Henry replied "Does a book have to be designed? [...] A book is a book, and I don't see how you can do much about that." Even after Armitage had a few of his books sent to Miller, the response was "I do not know what to make of them, they are so crisp and definite and compelling. I like European books, they are mellow, and more decorative and have the feel of old castles and tradition. Your books have no tradition." Armitage felt Miller was irrationally clutching to the past, and argued "Today will be tomorrow's tradition, provided we do not imitate the past." Henry still didn't get it (which is pretty surprising for someone whose writing and painting were meant to be creative projects unbound by tradition).

Six months later, Henry was having increased financial difficulty, made none the easier by the fact that seventeen magazine publishers had passed on his short story, The Smile At The Foot of the Ladder. Being a good guy, Armitage bought the manuscript from Henry for $500, confident that he could get it published and make a profit to further pass along to Miller. He got a distribtuion deal through Duell, Sloan And Pearce, designed the book himself, had Henry write an epilogue and Edwin Corle write an intro about Henry. The first edition sold out within a year, and Henry was forwarded another $1,685 in profits.

At right, the cover page of the first Japanese edition, with a "black sun" design by Armitage.

When Miller first received the book at his home, on May 17, 1948, he immediately sent Armitage a letter of gratitude: "For a long time now I've lacked the enthusiasm with the appearance of a new book. When the Tropic Of Cancer came out I was dazzled, of course--it was my first published book and I had waited almost four years to see it printed. With this one of yours, that same unforgettable thrill shook me. I actually had tears in my eyes turning the pages."

Armitage must have been pleased to have seen Henry come around like this, but his essay also contains many critical views of him as a person. He believed that Miller displayed an arrogant ignorance about the world. They butted heads on the subject of America, and Armitage--an advertising man at heart--was hardly impressed when Miller told him once, "American advertising really is excrement." Armitage lays an arrow into Miller in his essay: "Few men are so unable to see the truth, or face it."

The bitterness from Armitage seems best explained by the anecdote he finishes with. Although the Smile Armitage collaborated on was a success, and went on to be published in other countries, Miller later had his story published by a New York publisher in January 1959. It was passed off as a first edition, with no reference to Armitage or the real first edition. Armitage is clearly offended by this when writing about it two years later. In the Armitage first edition, he'd arranged to have paintings of clowns by master artists such as Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec included in the layout. Miller had jokingly written to Armitage: "Of course, I shall never forgive you for not including one of my clowns." The New York "first edition" includes just that: a clown watercolour by Miller. Maybe he wasn't kidding after all.

A page from the Armitage-designed cookbook, Fit For A King.

More biographical information: Bobolink Books; Jay Satterfield; Merle Armitage Papers.
Samples of his work: Bobolink Books; Optos Books - Fit For A King.