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

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In 1944, Miller produced a limited-edition, oversize book called The Angel Is My Watermark, which included an original watercolor, photographs of the artist at work, and an “Open Letter” in which Miller requested supplies and clothes in exchange for his work. He even provided his measurements and noted that he “loved corduroys.” Miller was working at a fevered pace, but he was not writing. The ardent, personal voice he had discovered in Paris remained lost in America. But he was painting, and in painting, he soon realized, he had found his passion. In The Angel Is My Watermark, he wrote of the solace he managed to discover in art, even with the world at war: When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing as the making of a watercolor you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad. Whether you paint flowers, stars, horses, or angels, you acquire respect and admiration for all the elements that go to make up our universe. You don’t think of flowers as friends and stars enemies, of horses as Communists and angels Fascists. You accept them for what they are and you praise God that they are what they are.

At the end of 1944, Miller left Hollywood for Big Sur, on the central coast of California. There he would make his home for twenty-one years, finally write the books that would bring him an American audience, and even succeed in getting Tropic of Cancer published in the United States. When he finally returned to Southern California in 1965, it was as a rich, successful, and celebrated author, who lived among movie stars such as Ava Gardner and Gloria Swanson, in a colonial-style house in the opulent community of Pacific Palisades. But just as he had done two decades earlier, he spent his days painting watercolors for his friends. 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.” The fame and fortune Miller had envisioned for himself in Lotos Land never came to pass during that first sojourn in Southern California. But his time in Hollywood did prove idyllic, for it was there that he began to paint and, as he put it, “to paint is to love again, and to love is to life life to the fullest.” By making watercolors, “turning them out like a madman,” Miller began “wriggling out of the straitjacket” of writing for others instead of for himself. And the love he found in painting led him to the joyous new voice with which he wrote as “the sage of Big Sur.” Far from the angry, avant-garde writer he had been in the 1930s, in the second half of his life Miller was known as a mild-mannered man with the spiritual air of a guru, a genius writer, a passionate painter. By painting as an amateur in the truest sense of the word — one who loves what he does — Miller finally became the person he had always dreamed of becoming. As he put it in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, “Whoever uses the spirit that is in him creatively is an artist. To make living itself an art, that is the goal.”

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Postscript

To the end of his life, my father, the actor Vincent Price, spoke with wonder about his first encounter with Henry Miller and their ensuing friendship. In the early 1940s, my dad was a rising star at Twentieth Century Fox who desperately missed the intellectual and creative stimulation of the New York art world. Educated at Yale and the Courtauld Institute in London, he was a well-respected art historian and collector. So, to stave off boredom in the company town that was Hollywood in those days, he and his friend, the fellow actor George Macready, started the Little Gallery in Beverly Hills.

During the war years, the Little Gallery was the place to see and be seen, as well as to enjoy the work of a wide range of new and established modern artists. My dad knew everyone in Hollywood, from Thomas Mann to Tallulah Bankhead. But when he received a letter one day from a man named Henry Miller, containing a vivid watercolor, he was tickled with the idea of meeting the celebrated author of “those dirty books, the real thing, an American legend.”

The friendship that ensued involved the exchange of dozens of Miller’s watercolors, and my father did much to launch Miller’s career as a painter. Their close relationship was relatively short-lived, however, as Miller, known for his short-fused temper, one day took offense at something my father could never remember having done. After Miller’s temper calmed, the two men remained on good terms, but were never again close. But to the end of his days, my dad treasured his interactions with Miller. And he particularly treasured his watercolors. He never sold them, but instead gave them away to close friends and family members. He gave me three. The first is a very primitive painting of a man in a house, dedicated to my father. It has never been reproduced, and now hangs in the Vincent Price Gallery at East Los Angeles College. The other two can be seen in the retrospective book on Miller’s artwork. “Ice Creatures” is a fluid, watery world filled with ghostlike figures. It, too, hangs at my father’s gallery. The last, “Agape,” is a colorful triptych of three nude women that I absolutely adore. It hangs in my home, where I enjoy it every day. It always serves to remind me of Miller’s credo: “Paint as you like, and die happy.”

[This essay was originally published in issue #6 of Tin House.]

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 →