Kraft, Barbara. Henry Miller, the Last Days, a memoir (Texas: Sky Blue Press 2016) 203 pp.
Only a few months after Anaïs Nin’s death, Barbara Kraft attended a ‘Q & A’ talk by Henry Miller, (whose work she had always admired)… This rediscovery led to Kraft writing and reading ‘An Open Letter to Henry Miller’ on an NPR station… Miller subsequently invited her to cook dinner for him, and, of course, to engage in conversation (which led to) a mutually nurturing friendship for the last two years of his life… Paul Herron, Introduction
The Open Letter to Henry Miller (1977) appears at the end of Kraft’s paean, a moving tribute that flows like a Henry Miller watercolor and echoes as one of his favorite pieces of music, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp, Op. 53.
Kraft opens with a brief summation of Henry Miller’s life and passing before she begins with her first meeting of the famous writer as one of his many rotating cook in early 1978. “A modest man, surely the most unaffected, unself-conscious human being I have ever met.”
Readers will find no need to underline, star, mar or highlight this flawless gem that radiates the illuminating facets of a self-taught man, a writer who ranks with Emerson, Thoreau and other major authors who have received their due in American literature. However, albeit Miller was read widely during his time, he did not receive the recognition and glory he deserved and still deserves.
Kraft’s meetings with Miller seem to weave his immediate life with his passing, as though they were one. In Kraft’s Dec 26, 1979 interview with Miller, he said, “Sex is not everything. It’s the last thing in a way, in one sense, compared to love. Without love one is hopeless. One can’t live without love. It’s the spiritual food that we subsist on.”
In the same interview, he said, “I’m old-fashioned and I’m glad to be old-fashioned because I think they have misinterpreted my own words.”
Miller was wed five times and fathered three children. What the reader will discern from Miller’s final days is the fact that he continued his habit of painting with canvasses spread on his ping pong table, continued to be generous by allowing strangers and family to board in his house, and continued to be a scintillating conversationalist who did not dwell in his past. In New York in the thirties before he left for Paris, he literally begged in the streets so he could eat, a habit which ended when someone tossed coins in his face, proving to him this was not the way of a writer. Yet he still needed to eat, and in Tropic of Cancer Miller describes how he sent letters to fourteen people asking if he might lunch or dine with them one day a week.
At his home in Pacific Palisades, Miller enlisted sixteen cooks who came and created a dinner for him once a week. No doubt, Barbara Kraft was his favorite, and she stood up for him when he was neglected by his caretakers and arranged for the compassionate Bill Pickerill to stay with Miller during his last weeks, ensuring someone would be there at the end.
Of his ten year affair with Anaïs Nin, Miller wondered aloud how she could have been attracted to him, and Kraft, who was a close friend of Nin during the last three years of her life, wisely answered it was because he was “so plain and down to earth.”
She added: “You rooted her. She needed your realness, your simplicity and directness. Otherwise she might have flown off into space, given her obsession with escaping anything resembling reality.”
For Henry Miller was a free spirit and a true poet. In Kraft’s memoir Anaïs Nin: The Last Days (Sky Blue Press, 2011), readers do not detect Anaïs’s great love of literature and reading. There is a focus on forgiveness for her past. Nin had a desire for fame and the love she sought in so many men who only gave her sex. There is suffering that does not exist in Henry Miller’s last days although he was deaf and blind in one eye, frail to the point he could not even hold up his head even at dinner.
But, Miller was never a complainer, never a man who bemoaned his lack of recognition. He truly loved women, and was greatly inspired his last love, the beautiful, young Brenda Venus; he never had a need of forgiveness. He was a philosopher, unlike Nin, and also a man who, like Faulkner, no doubt believed in the indomitable human spirit. One of Miller’s adages:
“Those who think with the heart see life as a tragedy while those who perceive it with their heads see it as a comedy.”
Miller called Barbara Kraft “a writer for all time.” She truly is. Despite the chaos of going through a horrendous divorce after a lengthy marriage, she was able to immerse herself in Henry Miller’s life and death. What she placed on her mirror to buoy her spirits after Miller’s quiet death on June 7, 1980, “at home in his own bed,” are Henry Miller’s own words to uplift us all:
Paradise is everywhere and every road… One can only go forward and then sideways and then up and then down…there is perpetual movement…which is circular, spiral, endless. Every man has his own destiny; the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads… Understanding is not piercing of the mystery but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.
Reviewed by Rochelle Lynn Holt
Fifty years ago Anaïs Nin’s decades-long struggle to escape obscurity and misunderstanding came to an explosive end when Harcourt published the first volume of The Diary of Anaïs Nin. It was an instant commercial and critical smash and propelled Nin from the shadows into the spotlight, from acult figure status to fame, at the age of 63, a status she would enjoy until her death in 1977.
The Diary is noted for its character study of Henry Miller and his wife June, as well as several other notable people, and it was done in a way that left out the intimate details of Nin’s love life, which kept her husband, family, and lovers from being hurt or scandalized. Even without this aspect of Nin’s life, the Diary was hailed as a fascinating document of the inner life of a creative and incredibly intuitive woman-artist who socialized with fascinating people in Paris of the 1930s…and because it was released at the dawn of second-wave feminism and the overall “youth movement” of the 1960s, it resonated with young people, especially young women who saw Nin as a sort of feminist and free-thinking pioneer. The timing could not have been better.
What is generally unknown about the Diary is what had to be done in order to include the characters who inhabit it. Had Henry Miller declined to be in it, it probably never would have been published, or if it had, it certainly would not have been as successful. In this podcast, we find out exactly what Miller thought about his portrait, and what he asked Nin to keep or delete.
We also hear from two people important to Nin—English writer Rebecca West and cousin Eduardo Sánchez—both of whom refused to allow Nin to include them. West was one of Nin’s earliest female idols, and Sánchez was Nin’s childhood crush and her confidant during her early adulthood. Sánchez’s condemnation of not only his portrait, but the Diary itself, is astounding, as you will hear in a letter he wrote to Nin in 1965.
Run time: 12:33
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This podcast is sponsored by Auletris: Erotica by Anaïs Nin, just released 75 years after it was written.