A story only Henry Miller could love
For Hoki Tokuda, the whole crazy affair was like an inside joke her ex-husband, the late author Henry Miller, would have found irresistible — if it weren’t all true.
He was the literary satyr of his generation, a famously virile writer riding high on the U.S. publication of his latest scandalous novel, penning passionate letters to a woman nearly five decades his junior.
He described his late-night longing for her: “I am truly at the end of my rope. I can’t work, I can’t sleep; my mind is on you perpetually, without let-up. It’s not a sickness anymore, it’s a mania. I am obsessed and possessed.”
But here’s the part that still makes Tokuda smile: The pursued wasn’t impressed with her pursuer’s fame or steamy prose. She never even read many of the amorous letters that were later published as a collection, “Letters From Henry Miller to Hoki Tokuda Miller.” And she could get through only three pages of his classic novel “Tropic of Cancer.”
Stranger still, she says, is that during 11 years of marriage, following her stipulations, they never made love or even slept together. “I kissed Henry just once and he was a terrible kisser,” Tokuda says now, her mouth crooked, like she’s just tasted a lemon. “It was not romantic. It was all … " she pauses, “wet.”
Yet for the three decades since their breakup, the joke has been on Tokuda: Miller’s fifth and final wife has been called a shameless gold digger who married him for money, fame and a ticket to U.S. citizenship. Most Miller scholars relegate her to a self-serving footnote to the personal history of a major 20th century writer.
Tokuda begs to differ: She says the two were mismatched kindred spirits who shared a sweet give-and-take that outsiders will never understand.
“If Henry had been my grandfather, it would have been perfect. He was funny — I laughed all the time, and he liked my sense of humor,” she recalls. “But he always pursued me — that’s what made it complicated.”
These days, Tokuda owns a Tokyo piano bar called Tropic of Cancer, named after the groundbreaking 1934 novel that later led to 1960s obscenity trials in America.
Now she’s in her early 70s — Miller’s age when he aggressively pursued her as a 29-year-old Los Angeles lounge performer. A petite woman with short, graying hair, she takes requests at the piano, between songs telling stories about her Henry.
They’re intimate tales delivered in a cozy setting with a lineup of black-and-white photos of Miller along with many of his watercolor paintings — a memorial to a man whose heart, Tokuda says, she eventually broke.
When a patron requests the song “My Funny Valentine,” Tokuda says, “Did you know that was Henry’s middle name? He named his daughter that too.” Another asks for an even older song. “Why would I know that one?” she teases. “Just because I married Henry Miller, everyone thinks I’m an old woman.”
Tokuda’s stories begin in 1966, when she was playing piano at a Sunset Strip restaurant called the Imperial Gardens. An aspiring actress, she often went to parties to meet attractive young men.
One evening at a get-together, she played pingpong against an older gentleman named Henry Miller. Tokuda didn’t know him, but she disliked him immediately.
“He was a dirty player — a cheater,” she says. “He leaned over the net; hit the ball with his free hand. I was so mad. I thought he was an old fool, but everyone seemed to respect him.”
That night marked the onset of Miller’s relentless pursuit of a woman without the English skills to appreciate his work. Tokuda later wrote to her father in Tokyo to request Miller’s translated novels so she could better fathom this strange man.
At the time, Miller was at the height of his American notoriety. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that “Tropic of Cancer” was not porn but a work of literature. His health becoming more fragile, he left his beloved Big Sur and moved to a Pacific Palisades estate, where he lived with his two children, an army of staffers and assorted hangers-on — a lonely man, made wealthy by his books, surrounded by people.
It wasn’t, perhaps, the best environment for a happy ending.
“Overall, it was a very, very sad relationship,” says biographer Karl Orend, who is writing a new Miller book. “With most women, Henry would take and take. With Hoki, he didn’t get anything and he wasn’t going to get anything. But he always justified to himself that his efforts had always been made in love.”
For Tokuda, the pairing wasn’t sad; it was insane.
“Henry started asking every week to meet me,” she says. “I realized he just wanted a Japanese woman to add to his collection, and I would always ask myself, ‘Why me?’ Soon after we met, he started telling people he was going to marry me.”
He sent countless letters — many left unopened — not just to Tokuda but to her parents. Some arrived by mail; others were delivered by courier to her piano at the Imperial Gardens.
Tokuda wasn’t impressed: “I was annoyed — I wanted to meet young, dashing men. But I never got the chance. Henry stuck to me.”
Her opinion didn’t change when she finally opened a copy of “Tropic of Cancer.” “I couldn’t read him, even in Japanese,” she says. “It was very difficult. After three pages, I just gave up.”
Yet Miller’s obsession only increased, especially when Tokuda revealed that her birthday was Nov. 14. The opening of “Tropic of Cancer” describes how the protagonist had lost track of time since “the 14th November last.”
Miller called their meeting fate, writing a note that he said took all his courage to send: “For with this goes the last ounce of pride I possess. I have to know, I must know, whether you really love me or not. I have been in absolute torture for months now. I can’t hold out much longer.”
But Tokuda wouldn’t budge. “I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t want to hurt him,” she says. “I knew he was too old for me, but he was so much fun. He took me to famous restaurants and always let me bring my girlfriend with me.”
Then, in 1967, Tokuda learned that an expiring visa would force her to leave the country. She met with Miller to ask what he would do if she left. “He said he would die if I left,” she says. “He promised to follow me to Tokyo.”
A year after they met, the two struck a deal: They would have a platonic marriage, live together in Miller’s mansion, but keep separate bedrooms.
Over the years, the two were rarely together. Tokuda recalls never telling Miller she loved him, instead traveling abroad, leaving the ailing writer to pay her bills and keep her Jaguar running. He channeled his angst over her absence into his book “Insomnia.”
“I would wake up at night, off my rocker with love, rage and jealousy — she was having a good time with some other guy — and I dashed off letters to her that I never mailed,” Miller later told an interviewer. “I wrote on the walls. I made faces in the mirror.... I was love-crazed.”
The couple divorced in 1978. Historians say Miller finally threw up his hands and decided to move on; Tokuda insists it was her idea, that she realized the marriage was too much of a strain on Miller. She says she didn’t demand much in the settlement. Later financial troubles eventually forced her to sell many of Miller’s letters, Tokuda says.
Still, the writer’s death in 1980 brought a crash of negative publicity. Miller’s friends and family snubbed her. There were countless stories calling her a greedy party girl who set a trap for a gullible and aging famous author and who continued to demand money until the day he died.
At first she gave interviews, wondering if anyone was listening. Then, after running a bar in L.A., she moved back to Tokyo in 1986. Even in Japan, the press was hungry for scandal, seeking her reaction to the scornful things that Miller wrote about her in published letters during his last years — her supposed selfishness and infidelity.
“We had our arguments,” she says. “But Henry was a writer and he exaggerated things to make them look sadder.”
Over time, Tokuda stopped trying to rewrite literary history, but she has remained a Miller supporter, donating the use of his watercolors to art shows here. Some Miller experts have become more sympathetic to Tokuda’s role in the emotional jigsaw puzzle that was their relationship.
“The biographers say that Hoki used Henry — many consider this a pathetic chapter in his life,” says Magnus Toren, director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. “But who are we to judge? She’s telling her story.”
At her piano, Tokuda’s version of events prevails. On a February afternoon, she sits at her bar dressed in a pair of leopard-print pants and splashy earrings and considers the future.
She never married again but would like to meet a man with whom she could travel the world. “I’m almost at the age Henry was when he met me. Maybe I’ll get somebody really young, like he did.”
She pauses. “No, just kidding.”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.