Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Sid Essen" And The Elkus Family

"How I wish I could change places wih you! I'm a roughneck, as you know, but I do love art, every form of art." --- "Sid Essen" in Henry Miller's Nexus, p. 259

After a four-month adventure in Europe, Henry and June arrived back in America on November 8, 1928. While being processed as they de-boarded the S.S. Leviathan, the Millers listed their New York residence as “116 Willoughby Ave” in Brooklyn. I just wrote about this the other day, and wondered who could have lived at 116 Willoughby, because it was not familiar to me as a Miller address. Thanks to Christopher Nesbit, who has discovered the address on the 1930 Census records for Brooklyn, we now have an answer: Abraham Elkus and family.

Abraham Elkus is portrayed as Sid “Reb” Essen in Miller’s novel, Nexus. According to Miller, his new friend was living a miserable existence, and felt envy and admiration for Miller’s artist lifestyle and apparent freedom. “Reb Essen” is portrayed as someone who wanted to live through Miller and, as such, offered his moral and financial support for his ventures, in 1928 and in 1930 when Henry relocated to Paris. According to an old letter of Miller's, he sent some of his “best letters” from Paris to Elkus in the early 1930s [1]. June also maintained a relationship with Abe Elkus and his wife Ester, while Henry was in Paris in the 1930s and their marriage was collapsing.

Does this all mean that the Millers had in fact stayed at the Elkus house upon return from Paris? Based on the Nexus account of the Elkus family hospitality, it seems a possibility. But it seems equally possible that they simply gave that address to the immigration authorities to not seem suspiciously without a permanent residence. Either way, it’s a solid bookend to the tale of the 1928 Europe excursion, because Abe wass befriended shortly before the couple left for Europe and was there for them upon their return.

Around the time that June told Henry that their Europe money was coming from an admirer called “Pop,” the Millers went on a stroll to get cigarettes from a neighbourhood corner store. Here, they met Abe Elkus (“Sid Essen”), a Jewish man playing chess with the shop owner. Sid, “a heavy man with grey hair and a huge cap pulled over his eyes,” [2-187] takes an immediate liking to Henry and June, and suggests that "Mr. Miller" come visit him some time at his “gent’s furnishing” shop on Myrtle Avenue.

Miller, intrigued by Elkus (especially by his Jewishness), takes him up on the offer. The Myrtle shop is “forlorn,” like a “morgue”; its sidewalk window is “crammed with shirts faded by the sun and covered with fly specks" [2-206]. Soon Henry makes it a habit to pop in on Abe at his shop, where he is usually found seated at the back, reading or playing chess to kill the time not filled by tending to (non-existent) customers. They develop an easy rapport that strangers might observe and mistake for lifelong friendship. [2-197]

Abe insists on giving Henry driving lessons, and has him practice by driving him out to Long Island to collect rent money from predominantly African-American tenants of properties he owns. In Miller’s “Schema for Nexus,” he notes: "Trips to negroes Long Island with Elkus..." [3].

Although Abe Elkus runs his own businesses, they are not lucrative and Abe seems to be a miserable and lonely man trapped by his obligations. He laments that he is in a loveless marriage in which he and his wife life in different worlds [2-259]. Henry and June witness for themselves how there’s “nothing between them” when they are invited to have dinner at the Essen house. This visit takes up several pages in Nexus (227-237). Here we meet “Mrs. Essen” (Ester Elkus) who is a good cook and a "good soul," but a “trifle too refined.” As Abe gets drunk, she chastises him for his foul language and talk of things like wrastling.” We also meet the two (unnamed) teenaged Elkus kids, including the awkward and precocious son who shares the observation that his father “wants to live,” suggesting he go on a vacation.

Myrtle Ave. at Washington St., Brooklyn, circa 1928. Abe Elkus' "gents' furnishings" shop was located "a block or so away [from the corner store] ... on Myrtle Avenue" (Nexus, 187). Photo from the NYPL Digital Gallery, Image ID: 707318F, Record ID: 365823 - Creator: Empire Photographers.

A short time later, Abe visits the Miller apartment, seeking advice from Miller about how to live, afraid that his son views him as a failure: “I want to live again,” states “Reb,” to which Henry suggests he just be himself, even if that means being careless [2-260]. Reb is inspired, and soon helps collect some passage money for the Millers, as a gift from some of his African-American tenants (whom we are told are fond of Henry [2-296]). Reb/Sid/Abe Elkus also offers to help them financially if they are stuck in Europe.

Shortly (a day or two?) before his ship is ready to set sail, Henry makes a final visit to Abe Elkus: “Paying my last respects to the dead.” Elkus suggests that Henry look up Maxim Gorky and Henri Barbusse while in Europe. In the closing pages of Nexus, within a list of parting salutations to Brooklyn and America, Miller adds: “Thank you Reb, I shall pray for you in some ruined synagogue!” [2-305].

Although Miller’s description of “Sid” gives the impression that he’s fairly old, the age listed in the 1930 census suggests that Abe was only 43 in 1928 (to Miller’s 36). This explains why, on p. 259 of Nexus, Henry says to him “You’re almost like an older brother.”
On April 5, 1930, the census taker visited the families on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, in Kings County [4]. At #116, she found Abraham M Elkus, age 45, and his wife Ester, age 42. They had been married in 1911. Abe had been born in Russia, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1887, when he must have been 3 years old. Abe’s daughter, Rhoda was 18 and his son Bruce was 15. His in-laws, the Franks, appear to have lived with them in 1930.

While in Paris, Henry and June wrote to Abe’s kids, Rhoda and Bruce Elkus, at least once, as it evidenced by an original letter that was on sale online in 2006. Gerard A.J. Stodolski’s online catalogue of historic manuscripts and letters makes reference to—and provides a large excerpt of—a letter, signed by “June and Henry,” which is clearly in response to two letters sent to them by Rhoda and Bruce. The letter is undated, but the manuscript seller has estimated “1930.” Judging by the fact that it is signed by Henry and June, I would offer that this is actually 1928. (however, June did visit Henry briefly in October 1930, so a 1930 date is not impossible).

In the letter, reference is made to a “cookbook incident” in which it seems the Elkus teens found some of their father’s “pornographic” stash hidden away. The Arab immigrants living in Europe are described, as are the shops, aperitifs and wines of Paris (most of which they are unfamiliar with and have no real “taste” for (“the less I pay for the wine the better I like it.”). Worth noting is the fact that the letter is signed "June and Henry," in that order. The writing seems to be Miller's (you can also see a snipet of the actual letters on the website--it looks like Henry's hand). The placement of June first, then, suggests to me that she had the stronger relationship with the Elkus offspring.

Read the sections of this letter here. If you've got the interest and the cash, you can send them a query to see if it’s still available for sale ($4,400).

While living in Paris in 1930 and onward, Henry Miller maintained a correspondence with Abe Elkus, no doubt allowing him a vicarious glimpse into his bohemian life in France. In April and May 1930, Miller’s letters to Emil Schnellock reveal that he was asking Schnellock to share his letters with Elkus, and vice versa [5]. When June popped in on Henry in Paris in October 1930, she arrived with the shirt on her back, while her remaining wardrobe was being shipped to France by Abe Elkus [11].

On November 18, 1930, Miller wrote to Elkus to ask him to raise $100 for a cheap passage for him back to New York [6]. Miller did not return to New York in 1930, but I can’t tell if this was for lack of raising funds or not. A year later, Henry would lament that his American friends are not replying to his letters; even “Elkus is silent” [7]. Another year later, in October 1932, as the Millers were heading for divorce (Miller in Paris, June in New York), June wrote to Henry, asking that he “write me care Elkus” [8]. In December 1933, when Anais Nin was his love and June Mansfield a memory, Henry began to have morbid thoughts—“a premonition of imminent death.” With this in mind, he wrote to Anais with concern about “a faint recollection that before leaving for Europe one of my friends (A.M. Elkus) induced me to draw up a will leaving everything to June. I now withdraw that…” [1]. Earlier that year, he’d also panicked that his contributions to posterity--his letters and other writings--were at threat of being lost. He imagined June throwing everything into a fireplace; he adds, “Elkus too has a wealth of material from me” [9].

Henry’s letters (at least some) to Abe Elkus would end up in the private archive of Celia Conason [10]. Not only would Emil Conason maintain a relationship with the Elkus’s, but June seems to have as well, right into the late 1940s. In 1947, it was through Ester Elkus that Emil Conason heard that June was struggling in poverty [12].

At left: 116 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, as it looks today (Photo © 2009 The Corcoran Group, Inc.)

116 Willoughby Avenue, near Waverly, still exists, and has been recently sold. The Corcoron real estate listing includes several photographs of the interior----very atractive, but completely renovated from what it must have looked like in 1928.

If you’re the one who bought the house, you can proudly claim that “Henry Miller ate here.” And maybe, just maybe, it is reasonable for you to suggest that Henry and June slept there as well.
[1] Miller, Henry and Anais Nin. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-53. Gunther Stuhlman, ed: pp.228-229 - letter dated Dec. 6, 1933; [2] Miller, Henry. Nexus; [3] "Schema for Nexus," Pacific Book Auctions - PBA Galleries listing, Item 81: link; [4] I take this date from that listed on the census form, in a statement that beings "Enumerated by me on..." The census is for Brooklyn, Kings County, Ward G.D. 11, Block C, p.127, Sheet # 9A. This census document was sent to me by a third party, so the source is unclear, but probably from an online database of public records; [5] Miller, Henry. Letters To Emil, pp.40 + 53 (April 1930; May 10, 1930); [6] ibid, p.66; [7] ibid, p.89 - Nov 1931; [8] Martin, Jay. Always Merry And Bright, p. 268; [9] Miller, Henry. Letters To Emil, p.112 - January 1, 1933; [10] Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life, footnote 9, chapter 9: he references a letter from Henry to Abe, dated October 20, 1930; [11] ibid, pp.172-173; [12] ibid, p.310.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Millers Return From Europe, 1928

When I took a look at the ship manifest for Henry and June’s return voyage to New York from France in 1928, I thought it would confirm two things at least: when they arrived back and where they lived at the time. Instead, I’m a bit confused. What follows is a post in which I try to work through this confusion and come to some conclusions. But this will no doubt raise more questions than provide answers.

In 1928, Henry Miller and his wife, June Mansfield, went to Europe for an extended stay. For Henry, it was his first time in Europe, first time in Paris. In future references, Miller would call this his “one year” in Europe [1]. However, there seems to be a generous rounding-up of numbers by Miller. By my estimation, the Millers left for Europe in July 1928 and, as the ship manifest indicates, returned in November 1928: a total of four months.

Just by comparing the Big Three biographies of Miller (Martin’s Always Merry And Bright; Dearborn’s Happiest Man Alive; Ferguson’s Henry Miller: A Life), I already see conflict: Martin says they left in April 1928 [2-149]. Dearborn, however, says July 1928 [3-114] (Ferguson says “summer” [4-164]). I side with Dearborn and Ferguson on this, for reasons I laid out in my posting about the Millers’ vacation in Quebec in 1928; the reason being that Dearborn establishes, from a letter to Emil Conason, that they were in Quebec in April, making a simultaneous ocean-crossing to Europe impossible.

More confusing are the accounts of the return of Henry and June to America. Ferguson says “early in 1929” [4-164]; Martin says “January of 1929” [2-160]; and Dearborn says “January 1929” [3-116]. Miller’s contemporary account would help clarify this fact. However, for someone who wrote so thoroughly about his own life, there is not much written about the first trip to Europe. Nexus ends as he’s about to depart. Nexus II (which had only ever been published in a small batch in French) was never completed, so it ends in mid-tour. The only letters that appear to cover this period were to Emil Conason, and that correspondence seems to be in a private collection (to which I have no access).

This poster of the S.S. Leviathan which Henry and June sailed on for their return to New York in 1928, is posted at, at which you'll find many real photographs of the ship.

Maybe they know something I don’t. Keep that in mind. But official documentation seems to state that Henry and June had in fact returned to New York on November 8, 1928.


This ship manifest originates from Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957: (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls); Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- National Archives, Washington, D.C. It can be accessed on paid public record websites such as

Which brings me to the ship manifest. On November 2, 1928, the S.S. Leviathan departed from the port at Cherbourg with Henry and June Miller on board. The Leviathan was originally a German ship until the Americans got their hands on it during the war and made it their own. In 1923, it was launched into passenger service by the United States Line. Although Prohibition turned it into a dry Atlantic cruise, by the late 1920s, they permitted alcohol once US waters were cleared. [history at The Great Ocean Liners; Wikipedia; and Ocean Liners].

The bottles must have been locked up behind the bar as the S.S. Leviathan re-entered American waters, heading for New York City, where it arrived in port on November 8, 1928. They missed the federal election by two days: Herbert Hoover’s Republicans had been given the green light to take over America once Coolidge’s term ran out in March. But Henry and June’s two missing ballots would hardly have made a difference in native New Yorker Alfred E Smith's Democrat, anti-Prohibition campaign: Hoover was up on him by six million votes. (but who says they would have voted Democrat? Or voted at all? There’s a subject for debate.)

The ship manifest for the S.S. Leviathan clearly identifies Henry Miller, born December 26, 1891 in New York, and June Miller, born January 28, 1906, also in New York. It’s got to be them! And the date is November 8, 1928.

Here’s a mystery for which I have no answer or even clue. Henry and June’s address in the United States is listed as “116 Willoughby Ave., Brooklyn.” I know nothing about them ever having lived this address. I am guessing that it was a friend’s address—but I have no access to the 1928 Brooklyn city directory to see if I recognize the name.
UPDATE Oct.10/09: Thanks to Christopher Nesbit for locating Willoughby Avenue on the 1930 U.S. census: the tenant at 116 Willoughby Ave. is Abraham Elkus and family, including Jacob Frank and Rose Frank (the Elkus in-laws). Using this info, I think I've got a connection. Please see my following post about Miller and the Elkus family.

Before leaving for Europe, the Millers had been living in a furnished apartment on Clinton Avenue [2-149]. Mary Dearborn writes that their friends had “smoked them out of” that apartment [3-114]. There may be further detail somewhere (I can’t find one in Nexus), but I will venture that the financially-challenged Millers were probably without a permanent address in advance of their voyage across the Atlantic. Any New Yorkers out there willing to look up the 1928 Brooklyn directories to see whose couch they surfed upon, on Willoughby Avenue?

Dearborn writes that the Millers stayed briefly on Decatur before finding a place in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood [3-116]. Martin says they moved into an apartment at Fulton and Clinton upon their return [2-160]—my understanding is that they were living at 180 Clinton before Miller took off for Paris in 1930 [5]. Both Clinton and Willoughby appear to be in Fort Greene (or so my random Google search seems to suggest).

How’s that for inconclusive?

[1] See, for example, the chronology on the inside flap of Miller's My Life And Times: "Toured Europe for one year with June on money given to her by an admirer"; [2] Jay Martin's Always Merry And Bright: The Life of Henry Miller (1978); [3] Mary Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller (1991); [4] Robert Ferguson's Henry Miller: A Life (1991); [5] This is what I posted in my list of Miller's New York addresses (to 1930)...but at this moment, I can't remember where I got that information--which is why I've since been trying to annotate everything a lot more vigorously.