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

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Hollywood was a company town, and Miller was anything but a company man. In his one stint in corporate America during the 1920s, Miller spent five years as the highly corrupt employment manager for Western Union in New York City. He used his position to seduce women, pocket kickbacks, and shake down messengers for their tips. Still, Miller had fans in Hollywood’s high places and, after settling in at the Green House, he landed an agent quickly. But for all his big plans, when it came right down to it, the hard-boiled writer wasn’t sure he could do the work that his agent described as “just plain shit wrapped in cellophane.” Miller wasn’t the first writer to feel that way. William Faulkner worked on more than fifteen screenplays over the course of his contentious twenty-year relationship with the film industry. Continually drawn back to Hollywood by the money, Faulkner admitted that he “whored himself” to Hollywood as a script doctor. Although his movie work paid him so well that he was able to buy a large Mississippi estate and even his own airplane, he would later write of Hollywood, “I don’t like the climate, the people, their way of life.”

After a few months in Hollywood, Henry Miller felt much the same. He was disillusioned by Hollywood; moreover, he was poorer than he had ever been. But it was these adversities that would provide the impetus for a major life change. As he would come to see it, “Who knows what is good for man in this life? Poverty is one of the misfortunes people seem to dread even more than sickness . . . But is it so dreadful? For me this seemingly bleak period was a most instructive one, because not being able to write for money I had to turn to something else to keep going. It could have been shining shoes; it happened to be watercolors.”

Boats on Water, 1932

Henry Miller had always loved art. He first began painting after seeing some Turner prints in a Brooklyn department-store window. There was only one minor drawback: he couldn’t draw. But his best friend, Emil Schnellock, could, and Miller became his disciple. It wasn’t long before he realized that what he lacked in draftsmanship, he made up for in color and composition sense. He discovered watercolors in 1928, shortly before leaving for Europe, a time during which, as he later wrote, “My writing was getting me nowhere fast, my domestic life was a shambles, and my ability to panhandle had become nil. When I found what the left hand can do — ‘the left hand is the dreamer’ — I became active as an ant. I painted morning, noon, and night, and if I ran out of paint, I used crayons, pencil, or hunks of coal.” Painting became Miller’s release and he returned to it almost fifteen years later, at a time when nothing else worked. Miller would later claim that he “could have had a good-paying job in the film industry. It wasn’t that I despised the handsome salary, but simply couldn’t pretend to kill time, which was part of the bargain.”

Whether a handsome salary had really been offered on this second sojourn in Tinseltown, we will never know, but we do know that Miller had recognized a fundamental truth about himself: he could never write for others. And so, much as he had begun writing as a form of panhandling in New York, churning out short pieces and sending them to potential patrons, Miller painted watercolors and began sending them to friends and, eventually, even to strangers.

It started at an art shop in Westwood run by a man with the unlikely name of Attilio Bowinkel. Miller went in one day to buy two tubes of paint, asking for the cheapest brand the proprietor had. When Mr. Bowinkel had filled the order, he politely asked if that was all his customer needed. Whereupon Miller quite frankly told him that it was all he could afford. Intrigued by Miller’s honesty, Bowinkel engaged him in conversation, at the end of which he said, “Choose what you like … paper, paints, brushes, whatever you need. It’s a gift.” A few days later, Bowinkel came up to the Green House to see his new friend’s work, and when he left he took a few paintings with him. When Miller next passed the shop, he was surprised to see them framed in the window. He was even more surprised when they were sold to MGM producer Arthur Freed, a collector of modern European paintings.

Vincent Price

Taking heart from Bowinkel’s sale of his paintings, Miller next sent out a letter to the actor Vincent Price, a noted art connoisseur, who had recently opened a gallery in Beverly Hills. With his connections to the Hollywood glamour set, the European expatriate crowd, and the New York art world, Price was known for bringing adventurous new work by both American and European artists to the West Coast. Frequent gallery guests ran the gamut from Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo to Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, and Aldous Huxley. When Price opened Miller’s missive, he found a loose, primitive, and very vibrant watercolor that had clearly been influenced by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. The letter stated that, if he liked the piece, he had only to send a tube of vermillion paint and a pair of socks in return. When he reached the bottom of the letter and read the signature, Price was thrilled. As a young man in the 1930s, he had traveled to Europe and eagerly smuggled back Miller’s books to the United States. And, as a man with an adventurous eye for art, he immediately liked Miller’s bold style. Soon a regular socks-and-paint-for-art exchange was flourishing between Price and Miller.

Price collected twenty or so Miller watercolors, and began showing them both to his clients and to other dealers. In December 1943, Price interested the Contemporary Art Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard in having a Miller show. As Margaret Nieman recalled, “It was just a wonderful time for him to experiment and to explore with watercolors. Henry always gave the paintings away except when Vincent Price got interested. Then it got to be more fun, and he sold a few.”

By the end of 1943, Miller had developed a happy routine with his painting. As he described it, “Catering to my clients in my own sweet way was quite different, it seemed to me, from accepting a handsome advance of a commercial publisher and getting tied up in knots struggling to produce the pap which they expect … I earned just enough to keep my head above water. It was like writing songs and getting paid to whistle them. They went fast, my little jobs. Some must have been absolutely frightful, no question about it. Even Vincent Price, generous and indulgent as he was then, balked at some I offered him. On the whole you might say that a happy atmosphere prevailed.”

Miller & Margaret Nieman, by Man Ray

Miller & Margaret Nieman, by Man Ray

The happy atmosphere included many new friends who supported Miller in his work. Margaret and Gilbert Nieman kept a roof over his head and food on his plate. Artists such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger supported Miller’s increasing dedication to his watercolors. Actors such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hollywood moguls like Arthur Freed, and wealthy women such as Melpomene Niarchos, wife of the shipping magnate, were patrons and frequent visitors to the Green House. Even the LA police chief once drove up in a limousine to introduce the director of a famous art museum. Soon Miller was selling his brightly colored paintings, with subjects ranging from clowns and fantastical creatures to nudes and landscapes, for what seemed to him an incredible sum of fifty dollars each.


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 →