BIG SUR--The year was 1944. Henry Miller was living in a three-room shack on Beverly Glen Boulevard and he could not write.
“He found no inspiration in Los Angeles at the time and was very frustrated,” longtime friend Emil White said. “The people didn’t inspire him, and the atmosphere of the city didn’t inspire him.”
Miller visited a friend in Big Sur and was awed, he wrote later, by its “grandeur and eloquent silence.” He immediately decided he had found a home.
Miller wrote to White, a painter who was living in Alaska at the time, that he had “discovered a place better than Mexico.” White joined Miller and during the next two decades the two men are credited--or blamed--for precipitating the first wave of tourism here and popularizing Big Sur.
A year after Miller died in 1980, White transformed his rustic Big Sur cabin, set in a meadow surrounded by a grove of redwoods, into a shrine to Miller. His living room is filled with photographs of Miller; the hallways are covered with the author’s primitive paintings, and a bedroom is filled with Miller’s first editions, letters, treatises and drawings.
White, 87, calls his home the Henry Miller Memorial Library. On a recent morning, as White finished his breakfast, tourists milled about, pestering him with questions about Miller’s writing habits and girlfriends. When asked why he gave up his privacy and turned his home into a Miller museum, White said, “Because I missed him.”
When Miller and White moved to Big Sur, it was still a “remote, inaccessible paradise,” White said. Only 66 people lived on the 70 miles of coastline from San Simeon to the Carmel Highlands, White said, and because of World War II, gasoline was rationed and visitors were rare.
“When we heard a car, we’d run out and wave. . . . That’s how few people came out here,” White said. “And most of those weren’t rubbernecking, like today. Their first question usually was: ‘How long is this goddamn highway?’ ”
At the time Miller moved to Big Sur many of his books were banned in the United States--until 1961--because they were considered too salacious. But in Europe, where he had lived during the 1930s, he was well-known and his works were widely read. Miller began gaining notoriety in the United States after World War II when American tourists returning from France began smuggling copies of “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” into the country.
Then, in 1947, an article appeared in Harper’s magazine that supposedly was an expose of the libertine life style of Miller and his bohemian followers. The headline, worthy of the National Enquirer, was “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy.”
“Pretty soon newspapers and magazines from all over the country were following up on the story,” White recalled. “The Hearst newspapers in San Francisco were calling him a ‘sex anarchist.’ The American Legion and other patriotic groups wanted to drive him out.
“These articles brought a lot of people looking for this so-called cult of sex. There were the curious and the tourists. And some people,” White said, laughing, “came looking to join.”
The mystique of Big Sur had reached Middle America.
But, White said, the articles bore little resemblance to reality. Miller was actually living quietly with his wife and young daughter in a small cabin, painting and writing.
In fact, one of Henry Miller’s greatest passions at the time was table tennis.
Miller frequently played spirited matches with the owner of Nepenthe, the landmark Big Sur restaurant, and then repaired to the bar, which served as a salon for the handful of artists and writers who were visiting or lived along the coast. The scattered artistic community grew over the years as admirers of Miller, the patriarch of the group, descended upon Big Sur.
White recalls many bibulous evenings spent at the Nepenthe bar with Miller and artists Man Ray and Benny Bufano and writers Anais Nin and Eric Barker. There was plenty of drinking and the occasional affair among the artistic crowd, but, White said, he is still looking for the cult of sex and anarchy.
In addition to the articles about Miller and his friends, he and White contributed to the Big Sur mystique by their own writing. Miller’s “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” chronicles his early years in the area. Although White was a painter, he wrote a number of guidebooks about Big Sur when he was short of money .
“The people I couldn’t abide,” Miller wrote, “were the visitors, the ones who came from nowhere and everywhere to analyze, to ask silly questions, or to discuss burning topics of no consequence. It’s true, I must admit, that I myself was largely responsible for the invasion of these idiots. Had I not written about Big Sur no one would have been the wiser.
‘Advertised the Place’
“Emil White is also responsible in that he advertised the place to the world. . . . “
White was Miller’s closest friend during the 17 years he lived in Big Sur, according to Miller’s biographer, Jay Martin.
“White became the central friend that Henry was always seeking. . . , " Martin wrote. “He relieved Henry of some of the chores which had kept him from writing. Emil often lugged supplies up the hill and brought news of the outside world. . . . He even began to help Henry out with his correspondence and packaged and mailed out Miller’s books and pamphlets that people all over the country were ordering directly from the author. . . . Above all, he was a good man, a kind soft-spoken person who put himself at Henry’s disposal. . . . “
White, whose paintings never received widespread acclaim, is known primarily as a result of his friendship with Miller. But White does not resent his fame by association and cheerfully answers endless questions about the life and times of another man. White, who has recently been confined to his house by Parkinson’s disease, is genial and self-effacing and he appears to genuinely enjoy reminiscing about his years in Miller’s shadow.
And he takes great pride in the importance Miller placed on the friendship. Miller dedicated his book of Big Sur remembrances to White: “One of the few friends who never failed me.”
The book was published in 1957--a decade after the sex cult article ran in Harpers--and revived the media interest in Big Sur. Another spate of magazine articles celebrated the area and featured photo spreads of Miller and his family.
Miller’s notoriety attracted to Big Sur Beat Generation writers Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Kerouac and his sidekick Neal Cassady.
‘Was Too Drunk’
“These Beat writers all wanted to meet Henry, but by then he was not drinking much so they didn’t spend that much time together,” White said. “Kerouac was supposed to come by three or four times to meet Henry, but he never showed up. He was too drunk.”
By the time the beatniks had been eclipsed by the third wave of bohemians--the hippies--Miller had moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to his children from a previous marriage.
The man who was celebrated for the sexual exploits in his life and his work left his home in Big Sur, White said, because his wife left him for his next-door neighbor.