Henry Miller in Lotos Land: Paint as You Like, and Die Happy


Thinking back on his first stay in Hollywood, Miller often reminisced about the Green House, “where I made so many watercolors, sold them for a song or for an umbrella I had no use for, but where I also made and found friends I never knew existed.”

On Henry Miller’s first evening in Hollywood in the summer of 1941, he arrived at the home of a millionaire in a “handsome black Packard,” having accepted a dinner invitation from a complete stranger. He did not know his host’s name, nor did he ever find it out. He would later write of the soirée, “The first thing which struck me, on being introduced all around, was that I was in the presence of wealthy people, people who were bored to death and who were all, including the octogenarians, already three sheets to the wind.” The dinner party went downhill from there, but Miller was nonetheless initially enthralled by the town in which “everyone thought he was a marvel.”

Hollywood was forty-nine-year-old Henry Miller’s last stop on the cross-country automobile journey that would lead to his quirky travelogue, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. A New Yorker by birth, Miller had moved to Paris in 1930. There he finally escaped the surreal series of love affairs, failed marriages, and degrading jobs that had been his dismal life and dead-end career to become a writer with one of the most distinctive voices in the English language. The three semi-autobiographical novels he penned in Paris in the 1930s — Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and The Black Spring — were acclaimed by such literary lights as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Aldous Huxley for their raw sexuality, unflinching honesty, and chaotically spirited language. He was hailed as the twentieth-century Walt Whitman, an uncompromising genius both of the written word and of the libido.

Miller not only found his voice and his calling in Paris, he found a home. He came to be regarded as the living incarnation of the Left Bank bohemian lifestyle. He knew every nook and cranny of the City of Lights, and he embraced Paris just as it embraced him. But when war clouds began to loom ever more ominously over the Continent in the late 1930s, the Brooklynite decided to return to safety across the Atlantic.

Henry Miller, 1946

Henry Miller, 1946

Safe though Miller might have been in New York, he was also poor and virtually unknown. The books that had made Miller a literary sensation in Europe had been censored in the United States by virtue of the Comstock Act, which forbade the circulation of obscene literature. Indeed, in his home country, if Miller was known at all, it was as an author of “dirty books.” The only way to get a copy of the Tropics or Black Spring was to smuggle them in from Europe or to purchase them from an underground press. Not surprisingly, Miller’s American agent was unable to drum up any buyers for his latest work, The Colossus of Maroussi, a lyrical book about Greece. But when the restless writer decided to travel across America and record his impressions of the homeland to which he had finally returned, Doubleday decided there was enough interest in this literary prodigal son to offer him a five-hundred-dollar advance.

Miller promptly purchased a 1932 Buick and headed west in the fall of 1940. For the next nine months, he wandered around the country, staying with friends and fellow authors and recording his adventures. The result, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, is a disjointed, cranky view of an America that Miller regarded as oppressive, warped, and cruel:

Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this is a sane activity? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle.

Miller completed his petulantly disillusioned opus in Hollywood, where he arrived on May 12, 1941. Moving from hotel to hotel, Miller hoped to find his way in California by contacting his many admirers in the film community. Having spent most of his twenties and thirties borrowing money from both friends and strangers, he saw this as merely a more elevated round of panhandling. Erotica had always been popular in the film community, and Miller’s books were an underground sensation. At least two bookstores, the Hollywood Book Shop and the Satyr Book Shop, did heavy trade in pornography, and many of the top actors and directors were known to have extensive collections of international erotica of all kinds.

Victoria Price is the owner of Victoria Price Art & Design, and she has written for the New York Times and many other national magazines, newspapers, and television programs. She's the author of Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography. More from this author →