Friday, March 20, 2009

The Cosmodemonic Offices

“After working several months as a messenger,” wrote Henry Miller [1], “I entered the Western Union as personnel manager in 1920 and left afterward the end of 1924” [2]. Portions Sexus and Tropic Of Capricorn are devoted to Miller’s job for the communications giant he would maliciously dub The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. After a few months of working as a “special messenger”/employee spy, Miller was given a position as employment manager (Capricorn 19).

But, which office did Henry Miller work out of? This was a question that Kreg at Miller Walks proposed to me, along with several clues and leads. In our first collaboration of sorts, I have taken these leads and tried to piece together some answers as best I could.
In the 1920s, Western Union was a monster of telecommunications, with thousands of offices throughout the United States and abroad. In New York, by 1920, they had both an uptown and downtown headquarters, a few employment offices, a large operating room beneath Wall Street, plus many cutomer outlets in Manhattan [2a]. To the best of my knowledge, here are Miller’s affiliations with the various branches:

* 195 Broadway, headquarters: Miller demands to see management here, after being denied a messenger job the day before; he will later be transferred here to keep him out of trouble.
* 186 Fifth Ave, Western Union Telegraph Building: Miller is hired here.
* 33 Park Place: the main employment office where he works the first couple of years; this is actually where he first applied as a messenger, but was rejected.
* 175 Fifth Ave, WU employment office in the Flatiron building;
* Unknown loft building where he would sleep at his desk and roller-skate.

In Tropic of Capricorn, Miller describes how he was rejected for a messenger position during a visit to the “employment bureau of the telegraph company” (16) [see 33 Park Place]. “Rankled” by the snub, Henry got up early the next morning and, bypassing the employment office, went directly to the “main offices” (17) to see the president of the company: “…up to the twenty-fifth floor or wherever it was that the president and the vice-presidents had their cubicles.” (17)

The Western Union office building at 195 Broadway was 26-stories high [3]. Between 1913-15, it had been expanded from the previous 230-foot WU head office (b.1875) at Broadway and Dey, which had been damaged in fire [4]. This upgraded Western Union headquarters (shared by AT&T) stood in Lower Manhattan at Broadway and Fulton [take a look at the exterior and beautiful interior of the building as it stands today, at the 195Braodway website].

The company president was Newcomb Carlton. I can’t confirm that his office was on the 25th floor as Henry said, but that would make sense. The Vice-President was JC Willever. In Miller’s Molloch, Willever is called ‘Twilliger,’ and described as “That jackass on the thirteenth floor” (36). Miller got only as far as speaking with Willever’s secretary, who could not easily brush off Henry. As a result of his perseverance, Miller was sent to see the general manager “in another building uptown” (Capricorn 18). This reference to “uptown” also helps locate this office as the downtown (Lower Manhattan) location.

Completed in 1884, the Western Union Telegraph Building (186 Fifth Ave) operated from West 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, SW corner—uptown from 195 Broadway. Here, Miller was offered to work as a “special messenger”; an apprenticeship of sorts: “I was to float from office to office and observe the way affairs were conducted by all and sundry” (Capricorn 19). He was to discretely meet the general manager at his home from time to time to report on “the conditions in the hundred and one branches of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company in New York City” (19). One such office may have been in the Flatiron building across the street—but I’ll get to that soon.
View some current photographs of the Western Union Telegraph Building (slated to become condos) at NYC Architetcture and Flickr (1, 2).
Above: This Western Union stone carving is found on the fascade of the
Western Union Telegraph Building at 186 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

After three months of his probationary “special” assignment, Miller was given an office and a title of employment manager. “I was sitting at Sunset Place hiring and firing like a demon. It was a slaughterhouse, so help me God” (Capr 19). The name “Sunset Place” comes up a few pages earlier in Capricorn: the day he first applied for a messenger job and was denied: “…the employment office—at Sunset Place, they called it” (Capr 18). As far as I can tell, there was never a place called “Sunset Park” in Manhattan, although there is/was such a place in Brooklyn and Palisades Park, New Jersey. I believe Sunset Place is code for “Park Place,” which was just a few blocks north of the WU downtown headquarters.

In a 1919 New York Times article, I found a reference to “Western Union emploi office, 33 Park Place” [NY Times, Mar 22, 1919]. But I’ve been hard-pressed to find any other references to this address as a Western Union office. However, In Jay Martin’s Always Merry And Bright, he quotes from a letter that a prospective job applicant wrote after meeting with Henry in 1921: “When I was up to the main office at 33 Park Place…” (59).

And consider this. Below is the header of a Western Union telegram blank with Henry’s name and title on it: “Henry V. Miller, Employment Manager, Messenger Department.” The location—33 Park Place—clearly designates the location of his office.

Above: Miller's name and work address on a Western Union telegram blank.

In Miller’s Moloch, he identifies Western Union as “The Great American Telegraph Company,” and describes the building this way: “its messenger employment department [was housed] in a low ramshackle building in the downtown section of the city. On the top floor was a wardrobe depot; on the floor below a tailor shop, where the discarded uniforms of the messengers were renovated, cleaned, and pressed”“The ground floor of this building was sectioned off into the employment office proper, facing the street, and a dressing room which occupied the rear of the premises. Along the side wall of this rear room tiny cubicles were partitioned off so as to permit the newly appointed messengers to dress and undress” (17-18).

“The employment office itself was exposed to the public eye. Two enormous plate-glass windows permitted the curious passerby a full sweep of the drama that was constantly being enacted within” (17-18). Later, in Sexus, Miller will describe this location as “the old messenger bureau with the dressing rooms in the rear” where he was able to get away with “shenanigans” (271).

Above: A view of the south-west corner of Church and Park Place in 1919, with the NW corner visible across the street. I believe that 33 Park Place was at or very close to this intersection, on the north side. Photo: New York Digital Gallery.

Miller describes this "downtown" building as “low” and “ramshackle.” This certainly does not seem to apply to the 10-storey, brand new Western Union Telegraph Building, the 26-storey headquarters at 195 Broadway, nor the grandiose Flatiron building uptown. I have been unable to find many details or photos of 33 Park Place in the 1920s. Below is a photograph of a building at the NW corner of Church and Park Place in 1934. Perhaps this is the buidling? Maybe it's the tiny buidling barely seen to its left? Perhaps the original 33 Park Place had been replaced by 1934? I have no conrecte answers.

Above: NW corner of Park Place and Church (1934). Photo: New York Digital Gallery.

The final piece of evidence that Miller worked at 33 Park Place is found on the New York locations list [5] that Henry had drafted for Robert Snyder’s documentary, The Henry Miller Odyssey: Both “Park Place NY” and “Flatiron bldg” are identified as his “WU offices”.


In Sexus, due to some shenanigans, Miller tells of a forced transfer to “the main office” with “Twilliger” about fifteen floors above him (the height confirms this is the downtown office). The office space was small and sweaty, and so loud that he had to see the company doctor more than once due to the strain that the necessary shouting caused on his throat. This appears to have lasted “a few months” (271).


On page 272 of Sexus, Miller writes that he was then moved “uptown from the main office.” As a landmark, Miller happens to mention the clock on the Metropolitan Tower, which he sees out his window. The Metropolitan Life Tower is located at Madison Square, a two-minute walk from the Flatiron building, at the opposite southern corner of Madison Square Park.

Above: The Flatiron building (left) and Western Union Telegraph Building (right). Photo: Ardalan on Picasa.

The 22-storey wedge-shaped Flatiron building—located at the tri-section of Fifth, Broadway and 23rd—was just across the street from the Western Union Telegraph Building at 175 Fifth Avenue. The Flatiron would come to tower over the ten-storey WUTB when it was completed in 1902. Although I’ve barely found any reference to a Western Union employment office here in the 1920s, Catch 22 author Joseph Heller does confirm that one existed here in the 1940s, when he was a messenger boy: “I believe it was on street level in the Flatiron building itself that a large, central Western Union office was situated, with a locker room providing space and facilities for forty or fifty of us to change into our work clothes" (Heller, Now And Then (1998), p. 122).

This reference to a street-level employment office supports Miller’s description that he gave to his children, as recounted in Big Sur and the Orange of Hieronymous Bosch: “I gave them as good a description as I could of the streets and sights I loathe. I didn't start with Fifty-ninth Street either, but from the Flatiron Building at Twenty-third Street and Broadway. To be exact, I started from the Western Union office there, from the ground floor, where I once had my headquarters, my last headquarters" (81).

But, in fact, Miller was transferred once again, “this time to the top of an old loft building in the twine and paper-box district. My desk stood in the center of an enormous deserted floor …” (Sexus, 365). Near the end of this career as an office worker, Henry would sometimes sleep at his desk and roller-skate in the expanse of the loft. I have no idea where this location may have been (any New York readers know where the "twine and paper-box district" was?).

From there, Miller eventually fled the life of office drudgery forever, “determined never to take a job again" [6].


[1] Miller's own biographical chronology, available at the Henry Miller Memorial Library wesbite; [2] Unpublished letter by Miller to Huntington Cairns, 1939--in Erica Jong's Devil At Large, p.74; [2a] Addresses referenced in George P Oslin, The Story of Telecommunications (1999); pp. 244, 254, 264, 300; [3] O'Shea, Michael Vincent. The World Book, 1918; p. 4208; [4] New York Times, Nov 19, 1911: "OLD WESTERN UNION BUILDING SOON TO GO"--see also NYC Architecture; [5] I had saved images of this handwritten list from Ebay about two years ago; [6] Miller's biographical chronology for 1924, found on the inside flap of the hardcover edition of My Life & Times.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very thorough research, RC! You really took this one and ran with it. I like all the little details you included too, like discovering the real identity of "Twilliger" and including the telegram blank with Miller's name and address on it -- BTW, where did you find that?

4:28 pm  
Blogger Eric D. Lehman said...

Great work, RC.

I was just down by the Flatiron, and I wish I had read this beforehand!

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Blogger Rich T said...

Hey RC,
Great blog! I thought there'd be a mention of the odious Spivac, the efficiency expert, but he was probably a non-entity even when he was alive.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I put together a little Google Map of the locations in the article.

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You guys are a great one-two team. Maybe you should consider a career as superheroes?

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