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