17 February 2010

Love Affairs: Henry & June

By Karen Mercury

Henry Miller, "Just a Brooklyn Boy," was born in 1891 "under a lucky star." He followed his strict German tailor father's directives to get a conventional job, and found work as a personnel director in charge of messengers at the "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company"-- a pseudonym for Western Union. But Henry was "always merry and bright," anything but conventional , and loved to party with his friends, to womanize, and to write semi-autobiographical tales. One day when the Vice President was bawling him out for his absenteeism, the manager suggested that Henry write an Horatio Alger book about the messengers.
I thought to myself 'you poor old futzer, you, just wait until I get it off my chest, I'll give you an Horatio Alger book...' I saw the army of men, women and children that had passed through my hands, saw them weeping, begging, beseeching, imploring, cursing, spitting...I saw the tracks they had left on the highways, lying on the floor of freight trains, the parents in rags, the coal box empty, the sink running over, the walls sweating...I will give you Horatio Alger as he looks the day after the Apocalypse, when all the stink has cleared away.
He married a woman Beatrice, a very cold-hearted and disapproving fish--they even had a child Miller always referred to as "the child"--who saw his "scribbling" as a waste of time, which gave Henry even more reason to stay out late at vaudeville shows and dance halls, where taxi girls would dance with one for a small fee.

In 1923, Henry met June (referred to in his novels as Mona), a taxi dancer at the Orpheum Dance Palace in Times Square. She was a gorgeous, flamboyant, and unstable woman who had sex with Henry in the back seat of the cab on the first night they met, and he was instantly smitten, calling her "June, Julia, Henriette, and She" (after one of his favorite Rider Haggard novels).

Henry was never sure which of June's stories to believe, whether she was born to a Romanian gypsy in Sherwood Forest, how many of her rich lovers truly existed, but when she whispered, "You must be a great writer--for me!" the flattery sent him into a dizzy whirl. Whatever she is, I love her, and for the moment she is mine, he thought. Henry married her the next year after unceremoniously dumping Beatrice. Claiming to be variously an actress, artist, and also a bisexual, June invited her friend Jean Kronski to move in with them, although all Jean seemed to do all day was craft puppets that were apparently not very attractive or marketable, dragging along "Count Bruga" wherever they went.

Having walked out the door of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company without a word, now Henry attempted to make a living solely as a writer, selling prose poems from door to door. They struggled to exist in cold water flats, June remaining as a taxi girl and entertaining strange men to make ends meet, "gold-digging with a vengeance." Henry thought Paris might be the place for them, and so the trio departed with ten dollars in their pockets. "I have no money, no resources, no hopes," Henry wrote. "I am the happiest man alive."

Everyone, apparently, was in love with June. Jealousies between Henry, June, Jean and their many "admirers" led to the womens' return to New York--June's despicable treatment of men had led at least two of her lovers to suicide. Henry's gregarious, friendly, and relaxed personality led to some important Parisian associations such as Blaise Cendrars, Alfred Perles, Man Ray, Lawrence Durrell, and, most importantly, in 1931, Anaïs Nin. Henry began a fling with Anaïs, but when June returned to Paris, Anaïs also fell under her inexplicable spell. Anaïs wrote:
A startlingly white face, burning eyes. June Mansfield, Henry's wife. As she came towards me from the darkness of my garden into the light of the doorway I saw for the first time the most beautiful woman on earth...As I sat in front of her I felt that I would do anything she asked of me. Henry faded. She was color, brilliance, strangeness.

By the end of the evening I was like a man, terribly in love with her face and body, which promised so much, and I hated the self created in her by others. Others feel because of her; and because of her, others write poetry; because of her, others hate; others, like Henry, love her in spite of themselves.
Henry and June divorced by proxy in Mexico in 1934.

His first novel, Tropic of Cancer, was not published until 1934 in Paris, instantly famous and, of course, banned in all English-speaking countries. It was his Horatio Alger story, "the blood-soaked testament revealing the ravages of my struggles in the womb of death." When it finally was released in the US in 1961 it caused a sensation, leading to obscenity trials that debated pornography. I recall my mother had all of his 60s books on her shelf and I'd sneak looks at the "sex parts." I soon realized the writing was pretty darned interesting, and wound up reading them all of the way through.

Henry lived in Big Sur, dealing with the hordes of fans showing up at his door, and hanging out with admirers such as Jack Kerouac, Emil White, and Jean Varda. He saw June only once more in 1961, although he sent her money her entire life. He was shocked at her deteriorated appearance, as she'd spent many years in boarding houses and sanitariums, receiving electric shock treatments, and having broken some bones after falling off one such table. Henry died at the age of 89, after divorcing his fifth and final wife, Hoki, a Japanese woman 47 years his junior, smoking cigarettes and living it up until the end.