Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Passage From Greece On The S.S. Exochorda

Near the end 1939, Henry Miller visited the office of the American Consulate in Athens, Greece. He had been in Greece for over four months, to tremendous effect: "High water mark in life's adventures thus far," he wrote upon review of his life, years later. [1] Around the first few days of December, 1939, the American Consulate had sent him a letter to his hotel, requesting that he come by for an evaluation of his passport status. “‘Just a bit of red tape,’ I thought to myself.” [2]

Not so. “The United States Consulate advised him to leave Greece,” wrote Anais Nin in her diary [3]. The Consulate had much to be concerned about. The war had been surging for months, even before Britain declared Germany its enemy, and a handful of countries were intent on re-drawing the map of Europe. Poland had fallen to Germany (Sept 1), Finland to the Soviet Union (Nov 30) and Albania to Italy (Apr 7). Albania’s border with Greece became a rattling floodgate as Italy’s threat of Greek conquest became apparent. American nationals were at risk.

Henry was presented with a series of standard questions at the passport office. “I was so pleased with the fact that I could answer readily—no home, no dependants, no boss, no aim, et cetera, that when he said ‘couldn’t you just as well do your writing elsewhere?’ I said ‘of course, I’m a free man, I can work anywhere, no one is paying me to write.’” [2] Miller had walked right into a verbal trap: if he could write anywhere, he could also write in America. “I was heartbroken,” wrote Miller in Remember To Remember, “I had used every argument to induce him to allow me to go somewhere else, anywhere, only not back to America. But he was adamant. It was for my own protection, he explained. ‘And if I don’t want your protection?’ I asked. For answer he gave me a shrug of the shoulders” (p.319). His passport was invalidated. He had nothing to do but to book himself a one-way boat ticket to the U.S. The following day, he met with the Lincoln MacVeagh, American Ambassador to Greece (and, he was delighted to learn, the founder of The Dial Press). McVeagh told him that he should leave as soon as possible, but that there was no “undue hurry” [4].

A short while later, money was cabled from the United States to Henry’s hotel in Athens, so that he could buy his boat ticket. In ten days, he was to set sail on the American passanger liner, the S.S. Exochorda.

The American Export Lines commissioned a family of large passenger ships to be built in 1929, all with names beginning with “ex”: Excalibur, Excambion, Exeter and Exochorda (a flowering plant found mostly in China). Together, they were known as the Four Aces. (more ship history)

With only a few days left before the Exochorda was to lift anchor, Henry got word that the ship was being detained in Gibraltar, and could be held for as many as ten days. The S.S. Exochorda was just one of a series of vessels detained by the British at Gibraltar; in this case, for what it considered to be a contraband load of several tons of tin plate in its cargo hold. Miller made sure to enjoy these extra days in Greece—he even returned to the ancient well in Mycenae that he’d been afraid to descend several weeks earlier.

Above: A 1937 pamphlet for the Four Aces ships that serviced the Mediterranean. The Excliber is shown here, but all four were 'sister ships,' and therefore quite similar. This image was found at Maritime Timetables.

On December 13, 1939, the S.S. Exochorda was released from detention and free to sail again. From December 23rd, it began picking up American citizens in Haifa and Beirut [5]. On December 26th, Henry turned 48. He made his way back to his Athens hotel in preparation for his departure on December 27th, but a telegram was waiting for him, telling of another 24-hour delay [6]. On December 28, 1939, Miller was brought to the Port of Piraeus (in Athens) by his Greek painter friends known as Ghika. The S.S. Exochorda was docked and ready to take Henry back to New York.

Ghika boarded the ship with Henry before it set sail, and was impressed with the American luxuries that the vessel had to offer. Henry’s feelings were quite the opposite. “I felt as though I were already back in New York: there was that clean, vacuous, anonymous atmosphere which I know so well and detest with all my heart” …. “I was among the go-getters again, among the restless souls who, not knowing how to live their own life, wish to change the world for everybody” [7]. “The day the American boat left the port of Piraeus was one of the blackest days of my life.” [8]

Above: Miller's listing in the S.S. Exochorda manifest for U.S. citizens returning to America. Miller, and a 60-year old man named Paul Peters, appear to have been the only two Americans picked up at Piraeus and headed for New York. Ship manifests are available on

The passage across the Atlantic Ocean would take over two weeks. Henry was made further depressed by an Americanized Greek surgeon who had been assigned to sit across from him at dinnertime. “We hit it off badly right from the start.” [Colossus 234]. Often clashing in an exchange of opinions, they took to ignoring one another. Nearby, however, sat a French philosopher whom Henry admired, named Jacques Maritain. “Never addressed a word to him—tho’ I was dying to. Shyness” [9].

Above: A smoking room from one of the ships of the Four Aces, probably very similar to that of the S.S. Exochorda. A series of hi-resolution colour postcard images of the luxurious interior of these ships may be viewed at Maritime Timetables.

Henry wrote letters while at sea. On December 29th, he wrote to Conrad Moricand [10]. Two weeks later, on January 12th, he wrote a letter to Anais Nin, lamenting the fading experience that was Greece. “I am not on the high seas—I am in America already. America began at Piraeus, the moment I set foot on the boat. Greece is fading out rapidly, dying right before my eyes” [11].

Later, after having arrived in New York, Henry’s father will ask him a list of questions about the voyage: What was the grub like on board the boat? Was it American cooking or Greek? Did he receive wireless news every day? Did he have to share his cabin with others? Did he see any wrecks? The questions appear in “Reunion in Brooklyn,” page 70 of Sunday After The War—but Miller provides us with no answers.


As America got closer, Miller became serene. “If any one on earth were free of hatred, prejudice, bitterness, I thought it was myself. I was confident that for the first time in my life I would look upon New York and what lay beyond it without a trace of loathing or disgust” [12]. But it was winter, and the American coastline looked bleaker than ever. First, there was a stop at Boston, and then, on January 15th, 1940, the home stretch towards New York City as night was falling.

“Sailing around the Battery from one river to the other, gliding close to shore, night coming on, the streets dotted with scurrying insects, I felt as I had always felt about New York—that it is the most horrible place on God’s earth” [12]

Above: From page 31 of the Jan.15, 1940 edition of the New York Times, a listing of the ship arrivals for that day. Note that it says it arrived late at Exchange Place in New Jersey. Miller says that he docked in New York, so perhaps it made a preliminary stop in Jersey City.



[1] Miller, Henry. My Life And Times. Hardcover, chronology on inside flap; [2] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi, p.179; [3] Nin, Anais. The Journals of Anais Nin, 1939-1944, v.3. Quartet Books:1979, p.21; [4] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi, p. 180; [5] U.S. Department of Labor. "List of United States Citizens." Ship maniest for the S.S. Exochorda. January 15, 1940. Haifa on Dec 23/39; Beirut on Dec 25/39; it then did not pick any New-York-bound Americans up until the 28th; [6] Colossus Of Maroussi, p. 232; [7] ibid p.233; [8] Miller, Henry. Remember To Remember, p.319; [9] Miller, Henry and Wallace Fowlie. Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie, p. 26; [10] Orend, Karl. The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons, p.36; [11] Miller, Henry and Anais Nin. A Literate Passion (G. Stuhlmann, ed.), p.322; [12] Miller, Henry. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, pp.10-12;

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fill In The Blanks

Samuel S. Goldberg was a New York lawyer who apparently had some connection with Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart. [1] He befriended both Anais Nin [2] and Henry Miller in the early 1940s. Two personal letters from Miller to Goldberg went up for auction last year through Swann Galleries in New York. This original listing is still viewable on

The first letter was written to Goldberg from Miller in Big Sur on July 3, 1944. Miller's works, in large part, were still banned in the United States--including Tropic of Cancer. Miller has come up with a fascinating idea to circumvent the forces of expression oppression. If he had gone through with this idea, its modern collector’s value would probably be quite substantial. Imagine this: a copy of Tropic Of Cancer in which Miller has personally hand-written all the naughty bits into the blank spaces left by the publisher.

"Would you please tell me if I would be within the law in publishing the banned books with blank spaces for censorable words or phrases, assuming that in the fly leaf it read after this fashion: 'If you are curious about the blank spaces write the author.’ I would send him a printed slip giving words or phrases deleted,” wrote Miller to Goldman, seeking legal advice. “If the above plan is not viable, what of this--? State in the fly-leaf that [the] book is for the serious adult reader only . . . that blanks were left in order not to incriminate the printer. . . . I would, upon request, write in the missing words in my own hand . . . and thus assume all responsibilities myself.”

"In short, I am endeavoring to find a way to defeat a stupid censorship while remaining within the law. Will it work?"

Responding to Miller’s unconventional idea, Goldberg replied: “Frankly, as a lawyer, I would veto the proposals . . . The criminal law appears to be a lot stronger than many people think … The vicious part of the law is rather the elastic way in which Courts define the word ‘Obscene.’ I wish I could say that a stupid law can be beaten.”

On September 31 [sic], 1944, Miller sat down to write a response in kind to Goldberg. “'[T]he four freedoms’ won't help a god-damn bit. We need a ninth or a 15th freedom, it seems to me--or--just freedom, what?”
Ten years later, Miller was still struggling with ways to deal with state censorship, for his novel Plexus.
REFERENCES: [1] So says p.351 of Stuhlman's A Literate Passion, in reference to a letter from Miller to Anais Nin regarding a manuscript being sent to Goldberg in 1943. I've found very little about Goldberg, except that he was later a friend of Saul Bellow; [2] Goldberg had loaned money to Nin for her to re-print her first two books (Nin's "The Story of My Printing Press.").

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Photographed by Van Vechten, 1940

Writer-turned-photographer Carl Van Vechten took a few pictures of Henry Miller on January 22, 1940, in New York City. Miller was fresh off the boat from Greece, having ended the adventure that had begun with his escape to Paris in 1930.

After nearly a decade of living the life of a devoted artist in Paris (followed by a brief sabbatical in Greece), Henry Miller was forced to get back on a boat to America on December 28, 1939 [1]. A couple of weeks later, the S.S. Exochorda pulled into port in New York on January 15th, 1940. [2] Miller took a room at the Royalton Hotel, and asked Frances Steloff of the Gotham Book Mart to receive his mail for him at her bookshop. [3]

Since her shop opened in 1920, Steloff got to know many prominent New York literary figures. One such author was Carl Van Vechten, who’d done much for the Harlem Renaissance with his novel, Nigger Heaven (1926)--- significant for its positive portrayal of African Americans at the time, but ultimately hampered by its unfortunate title, which Van Vechten meant ironically (some analysis and explanation: Wilfred D Samuels and Robert Worth). At the end of the 1920s, Van Vechten traded in his pen for a camera, and built up a significant portfolio of portraits through his connections to the Art world and his fascination with African American culture.

One of his artist friends was Gertrude Stein. Frances Steloff, to mark the 20th anniversary of her shop in 1940, published an anniversary book in December 1939 [4] called We Moderns (1940), for which Van Vechten wrote a paragraph about Stein (and photographed the cover as well). Henry Miller also contributed to the collection, with a profile of his friend, "Michael Fraenkel." (see We Moderns link above)

I don’t know exactly how and when Miller met Van Vechten, but I mention the Gotham Book Mart, Frances Steloff and We Moderns because it seems to me that this could be the point of connection. Through Steloff, who acted as Miller’s Postmaster, I assume that he was introduced to Van Vechten, and was asked to pose for him.

Henry Miller (XV Q 5) by Carl Van Vechten, 22 Jan 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LOT 12735, no. 815

In 1940, Van Vechten’s photo studio was located at 101 Central Park West [5], although he seems to have also taken pictures at his apartment at 150 West 55th Street [6]. Miller visited one of these on Monday, January 22, 1940. [7] Only three days earlier, on Friday, January 19th, Van Vechten photographed iconic vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. [8]

I’ve found no account of the meeting between Miller and Van Vechten on the 22nd. We know that Miller had been in New York for only a week. All we have are three photographs—almost like a mug-shot series: turn to the left, face forward, turn to the right. Perhaps this is intentional, as Miller was still a banned man in America; a criminal artist and fugitive of creative expression. However, Van Vechten’s numbering of these photos (XV Q 1, XV Q 5, XV Q 8) suggests that these are only three selections from a series of at least eight [9]

These photographs are currently held by the U.S. Library of Congress, and are in the public domain.

Henry Miller (XV Q 1 and XV Q 8) by Carl Van Vechten, 22 Jan 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LOT 12735, no. 814 and 816.

Miller and Van Vechten remained in contact after the photo shoot. In Robert Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life (p.273), he states that Miller sent Van Vechten a copy of his “Jazz Passacaglia” section from Colossus Of Maroussi for his evaluation (not sure if this was before or after he met him). Karl Orend points out in The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons (notes 90 + 97) that, in the weeks after these photographs were taken, Miller convinced Van Vechten to have his horoscope cast by Conrad Moricand. Impressed with the precision of Moricand’s interpretation of his star chart, Van Vechten wrote to Henry on April 15, 1940, to suggest that he photograph the astrologer himself (it doesn’t appear to have happened; all of this info from Orend, as above).

Years later, in 1954-55, Miller’s debt ledger for those years shows that he borrowed a few bucks from Van Vechten [10], who would have been around 74 at the time. Carl Van Vechten died a decade later in 1964.

Countles photos by Van Vechten may be viewed online at the Library of Congress or Yale’s Beinecke Library (search "Vechten").

UPDATE JAN 11/09: I found the cover for George Wickes' Henry Miller: Down And Out in Paris (1969/1974) on Ebay (at left). It appears to show a slight varitaion of the three Van Vechten photos held in the Library of Congress collection (as seen above).



[1] See my posting about the Exochorda; [2] A Literate Passion, p.322 - Miller writes a letter to Anais Nin while still on board the Exochorda; its dated Jan 12, 1940. See the link on the following sentence re: Exochorda; [3] Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright (p.367) and Mary Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive (p.209); [4] Shifreen & Jackson's Bibliography of Primary Sources v.1, B8a-B8b; [5] according to his photo stamps on many of his photos from 1930s to 1940s (see Beinecke archive as example); [6] The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten by James Smalls, 2006 - p. 4, and Kellner's Van Vechten bio at Beinecke website; [7] acc. to dates in Library of Congress pages; [8] see Library of Congress; [9] acc. to Library of Congress pages; [10] PBA Galleries auction item 216 from May 1998.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Annotated Nexus - Pages 55 - 58

55.0 Mona returns with a peace offering of violets, and suddenly Stasia is painting a portrait of Henry and Mona is expressing her happiness that maybe the two of them will become friends one day. Henry observes their behaviour as he would a stage performance. Henry is no longer interested in reading Mona’s letter, which falls from her purse. Stasia asks who Mona loves more; Mona loves them equally.

56.0 Mona wonders what Henry and Stasia had been talking about while she was out: she suspects they were judging her.

56.1 “What have I done to deserve such treatment?”
This rhetorical complaint is voiced by Mona, who assumes that Henry and Statsia had been saying bad things behind her back while she was out. This particular phrase is familiar to Miller: “it was my mother’s favorite phrase when in distress.” Miller talks about feeling “terror and disgust” when his mother first used it when he was a child. “Such self-righteousness! Such self-pity! As if god had singled her out, her, a model of a creature, for wanton punishment.” Henry feels guilty just hearing it now—guilty for what, he’s not quite sure.

This is the first reference to Miller’s mother in Nexus. We will meet her for Christmas dinner on pp. 82-99. Later, on page 289, his friend MacGregor will comment that Henry will never change; this also reminds him of something his mother would say.

57.0 Barley stops by to visit Stasia. Ulric stops by the apartment, not at all impressed with the atmosphere. Henry makes a theatre date with Mona, but she stands him up, not realizing he’d been serious. Henry slaps her in the middle of a song.

57.1 Barley popped in
Stasia’s poet friend Barley first appeared at 48.3. It had been mentioned that Barley never managed to lay Stasia, but he would sometimes masturbate while she wrote poetry. Here, Miller builds on this idea by mentioning the “strange sounds” that come from Stasia’s room when Barley comes to “la[y] a few eggs (poems)” with her at their apartment: “Animal cries, in which fear and ecstasy were combined.”

57.2 Ulric called
Ulric is the fictional name of Henry’s friend, Emil Schnellock. Ulric is featured more prominently in Plexus. Here, we just get a quick pop-in to the basement apartment, which Ulric finds depressing and off-putting. Ulric will appear once more at the end of Nexus, at the important moment when Henry is about to depart for France.

57.3 a rum one
On his way out, all Ulric will say about Stasia is “A rum one, that!” According to, rum as an adjective goes back to the 18th century, and means an “odd, strange or queer” person, often defined as a “rum fellow.” In Dicken’s Pickwick Papers (written 1835/36), characters are referred to as “rum fellows” and, in one case, a “rum ‘un to look at” (p.192).

There’s also a bawdy Scottish traditional song called She Was A Rum One, which ends with the “she” of the title offering her “stable for my stallion.” Although she was a bonny “pretty fair maid,” she was also “a rum one” (which doesn’t appear to be a major characteristic, except for making her sexually liberal). (lyrics)

57.4 Let Me Call You Sweetheart
After being stood up by Mona at the theatre, Henry returns to the apartment to find Mona and Stasia singing this song. Henry and joins them for three rounds of this tune, before confronting Mona about the aborted date.

Henry was 20 years old when this song was first recorded by The Peerless Quartet in 1911. Mona and Stasia would have been young children at the time. Here’s a modern quartet singing it a capella.

57.5 slap in the puss
Before they could launch into Let Me Call You Sweetheart a fourth time, Henry grills Mona about his being stood up. When her excuse is that she didn’t think he was serious, Henry gives her “a sound slap in the puss. A real clout.” As the scene continues on the next page, we see that Miller wasn’t joking—he really was angry. But, moments later, everyone is merry. Either he was quickly forgiven or the slap was not actually very hard.

I include this annotation as a marker for violent outbursts from Miller, which appear to be extremely rare. When I first read this, it seemed out of character for him.

58.0 The slap could not have been hard, because they are soon happily feasting on the food and wine the women surprise him with. It is announced that Stasia is pregnant after having been raped in the Village.

58.1 gut table
Miller calms down once seated at the “gut table.” A gut table is a workstation in a butchery, at which an animal is eviscerated and its guts laid bare. In this Brooklyn basement apartment, the gut table is the place where its three occupants lay bare all true feelings. “Not a very refined expression,” writes Miller of the term, in Crazy Cock (p.106), “but then neither was the language which they employed when gathered here. As a matter of fact, it had been christened thus because here, at one time or another, sometimes in turn, sometimes all together, they were given to their guts […] No kowtowing or salaaming over the gut table. No küss die Hand business, or s 'il vous plait.” Here, Henry apologizes to Mona for hitting her so hard.

58.2 Benedictine

58.3 Rhine wine
Miller’s transgression seems forgiven immediately, as Mona and Stasia take Henry by the arm and show him the “pile of groceries” they’ve picked up, including lox, biscuits and caviar. To wash it down, several bottles of wine have also been made available, including a bottle of Rhine wine.

Rhine wine (a.k.a. Rhenish) is a dry white wine from the Rhine Valley in Germany. Miller, himself of German extraction, was likely familiar with it from a young age. Later in Nexus, on page 77, he will comment: “Marvellous wine, Rhine wine.”

58.5 Moselle
Another wine option for the trio is Moselle, a (usually) white wine from the Moselle River region in Europe, shared by Germany, France and Luxemberg. In Germany it is spelled Mosel.

Later in Nexus (p.279), while describing a vacation in Quebec City with Mona, Miller will tell a waiter that he knows nothing about wine. It seems then, that Miller’s first real indication of becoming a sort of wine connoisseur began during this 1927-28 period.

58.7 Kronski … promised to take care of things
The festive mood is cut short at the gut table when Henry is told that Stasia had been gang-raped in the Village and is now suspected of being pregnant. Dr. Kronski (first introduced at 9.2) has already committed to “take care of things,” meaning, of course, to perform an abortion. But Kronski first wants to confirm the pregnancy through examination (ironically enough, Kronski’s previous examination of Stasia on page 49 ended with charges of rape). We will learn the next day (page 59) that the exam proves she is not actually pregnant.

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