Friday, April 11, 2008

The Synagogue Of Maroussi

Did Henry Miller write most of his memoir of Greece, The Colossus Of Maroussi (1941), inside a New York City synagogue in 1940? In a biographical locations list drafted when he was around 77 years old, Henry identified a “Synagogue – off Lex. Ave. (52nd ?) NY where I wrote some most of Colossus.” A decade earlier, however, when he wrote about the writing of Colossus in a preface for The Henry Miller Reader (1959), he wrote: “This book I remember writing in New York, shortly after my return from Europe. Most of it was written in a furnished room overlooking a synagogue” [p.55]. He may or may not have written inside the synagogue, but, for whatever reason, he clearly felt it was a significant enough presence during the writing of his Greek memoir, to mention it twice.

Miller’s golden era in Paris ended when the threat of the Nazi invasion of France caused him to flee to Greece. This Greek sabbatical ended up being a profound personal experience. Again, the War intervened and Henry was forced out of Greece. By February 1940, he was just scraping by during a New York City winter, back in the hometown he’d sought to escape in 1933. Initially, he took a room and lived unhappily [1] in the Royalton Hotel [2].

Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob, 1891-1970) was a writer, editor, and co-founder of Black Sun Press. As a literary socialite in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s, she naturally befriended Henry when he arrived on the Paris scene in 1933 [3]. Crosby owned several homes [4], including one in Bowling Green, Virginia, and an apartment she kept in midtown Manhattan. In February 1940, Anais Nin visited Caresse in the apartment at 137 East 54th Street, at Lexington; both women were living in New York at the time. Anais told Caresse that the apartment was exactly something Henry would like; not long afterwards, Caresse informed Anais that there was “a bachelor apartment for rent in the same house. It was just what he wanted, a large room to work in, peaceful and secluded, because the windows gave on a back yard” [5].

Henry’s furnished apartment at 137 East 54th Street became the scene of much proactive writing, starting in March 1940. Here, “overlooking a synagogue,” Miller wrote, amongst other things, the short novels The World Of Sex and Quiet Days in Clichy, as well as the essay “Reflections on Writing” [6]. By May 1940, he was also 80 pages into The Colossus Of Maroussi, which he would complete that summer at Crosby’s manor at Bowling Green, VA.

Above: The Central Synagogue on Lexington Ave.

The apartment was located at East 54th and Lexington; near the south-east corner, as far as I can tell. There is barely an internet presence for this address, even with a reverse address search. It may have been a small building that has since been torn down to make way for the apartment building at 135 E. 54th, which was constructed in 1949 [7] or possibly the big, modern glass buildings that today appear to domainate that corner.

Henry was keeping his 54th Street address a secret. In a March 4th letter to his publisher James Laughlin, he only stated that he was “near" the Gotham Book Mart, which is where he was having all of his mail directed [8]. Gotham was located at 41 West 47th Street, and was only about 10-11 blocks away from Henry’s temporary residence at Lexington.

Much closer, just north up the Lexington block from East 54th, was New York’s oldest synagogue in continuous use [9]. Central Synagogue was—and still is—located at 652 Lexington Avenue (at 55th), where it has stood since 1872. By using the amazing street-level view of New York on Google Maps, you can really get a sense of how close the synagogue is to Henry’s apartment by taking a virtual walk. I can't be sure that Henry had a direct view from his apartment. In Jay Martin’s Always Merry And Bright, he states that Henry’s writing window overlooked a courtyard (p.369), and Anais Nin, quoted above [5], states that Henry’s window faced a back yard; in my mind, a back courtyard would face south, away from the synagogue. And of course, Henry himself wrote that his room overlooked the synagogue. I can’t quite figure out the logistics. Perhaps it was not in his view as he wrote.

This is a view of Lexington and the synagogue from the street-level Google Map.

What, then, is the significance of mentioning this synagogue in relation to writing Colossus Of Maroussi? Was Henry simply trying to embellish a degree of spiritual romanticism to the experience of writing it by making a connection with its proximity—architecture as muse? For someone who found New York so depressing, the sight of something “exotic,” something reflecting the “spiritual” and representing the “Other” may have offered Henry some mental refuge just by looking at it. His appreciation for synagogues is apparent on page 60 of the hardcover edition of My Life And Times (1971) is an undated, handwritten list of places in the world “where mysterious things happened to me”; in the third column, Henry references four synagogues, at Prague, Toledo [?], Seville and “Loop – Chicago” (the latter being the location of a stained-glass mural created by his artist friend Abraham Rattner).

There are only two minor references to anything Judaic in Colossus (pages 202 + 219), so the synagogue had little if any direct influence on the content of his book. Unfortunately, I have nothing more to support the claim that he wrote inside the synagogue, although the interior [seen below] is quite large and has upper-floor galleries in which I suppose Henry could have easily sat inconspicuously with a notebook. “The whole book came effortlessly,” wrote Miller, “often with tears streaming down my face—tears of joy and tears of sorrow” [10].

This interior view of Central Synagogue was found on the NYC Architecture website.

Although Miller completed enough of Colossus Of Maroussi by the end of June to submit it for consideration to James Laughlin of New Directions (who passed on it in writing on July 3rd, 1940 [11]), Henry continued to expand on it. It was completed in August 1940, while Henry was staying at Craesse Crosby’s estate in Bowling Green, Virginia [12]. Colossus was first published by Colt Press (San Francisco) in October 1941 [13].

The Central Synagogue was badly damaged in a fire in 1998, but has been restored and continues to thrive at Lexington and 55th.



[1] Nin, Anais. The Journal of Anais Nin: Volume Three 1939-1944. (1979). London: Quartet Books, p.33: “Henry was staying in a hotel room, and was unhappy.” [2] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. (1980) New York: Penguin Books, p. 367: “He made his way by cab over to the Royalton Hotel … and settled down … in a little, worn room …” [3] Marin, Jay. “Biography And Humanity” Humanitas Communitas, No. 3. (Winter 1999), pp. 18-19. Online:
[4] Phelps Family History in America. “Mary Phelps Jacob, Inventor of the Modern Brassiere.” Online:
[5] Nin, Anais. The Journal of Anais Nin: Volume Three 1939-1944. (1979). London: Quartet Books, p.34.
[6] Sex: Always Merry And Bright, p. 370; Clichy: Robert Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life, p 272, and Always Merry, p. 369; Reflections: Always Merry, p. 369. [7] Wired New York. “Manhattan Condos – 135 E. 54th St.” Online:
[8] Wickes, George, ed. Henry Miller And James Laughlin: Selected Letters. (1996) New York: Norton, p. 33.
[9] Rubinstein, Peter J. (Introduction) “The Restoration of Central Synagogue.” PDF document online: [10] Miller, Henry. Preface: “Epidarus And Mycenae.” The Henry Miller Reader. (1959). New Directions, p. 55. [11] Miller/Laughlin: Selected Letters, p. 37. [12] HM: A Life, p. 272. [13] Shifreen, Lawrence J., and Roger Jackson. Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Primary Sources, vol. 1. (1993) Jackson and Shifreen, p. 132 (Item A25a).


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Wow! Great stuff, RC.

As always, this investigates at such an amazing micro-level that I'm stunned. How do you find the time?

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