When Miller was 22 and, at his mother's behest, working in his father's tailor shop, he began taking piano lessons from an attractive young woman more suitable for courtship than the divorcee Pauline Chouteau. Beatrice Sylvas Wickens was an amateur pianist who had been raised by a maiden aunt after her mother remarried. Her convent education had left her conflicted and puritanical about sex, a feature of her character that caused Miller considerable frustration and resentment. Their dates would end with heavy petting in the hallway of her apartment that always stopped short of consummation. Beatrice finally yielded, but Henry had to penetrate her through her nightgown, a contraceptive with humorous overtones.
After the United States entered World War One, Miller left his father's tailor shop to take a job in Washington as a clerk in the War Department. A confirmed pacifist, he hoped that this position would exclude him from the draft, but when he received a notice ordering him to register, he returned to New York to marry Beatrice and qualify for a deferment. They honeymooned at Niagara Falls, after which Henry again went to work at his father's tailor shop. He took up a life that in its conventionality and dreariness mirrored the empty life of his parents. Beatrice's frigidity continued into their marriage, further aggravating him. Soon the atmosphere of their relationship turned toxic, Miller responding to her coldness with contempt and philandering. Following a visit they made to Beatrice's mother in Delaware during which Miller carried on an affair with the mother, Beatrice became pregnant. A daughter named Barbara was born in September 1919. In 1920, after Heinrich Miller was forced to close his tailor shop and hire himself out to other tailors, Henry took a job as the employment manager of Western Union at a salary of $240 a month. He quickly became a rowdy and unscrupulous executive, hiring pretty female assistants with whom he carried on affairs and skimming the messengers' carfare allowance into his own pocket.
In the fall of 1921, Beatrice moved to Rochester, New York to live with her aunt, taking Barbara with her. After Miller wrote Beatrice an affectionate letter and visited them, Beatrice decided to return to New York to resume their marriage, but the dynamics of their relationship had not changed. Twice Beatrice became pregnant, and twice abortions were arranged. Their loveless marriage continued until Miller met a young woman who turned his life in a radically new direction that propelled him towards becoming a writer.
]While staying away from home to avoid his family and its unwanted responsibilities, Miller had become a frequenter of the dance halls that clustered around Times Square. One evening in the summer of 1923 he had a fateful encounter with a beautiful taxi dancer who would become the central character of four of his autobiographical novels: Tropic of Capricorn, and Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus (collectively called The Rosy Crucifixion). Miller bought a string of dance tickets and quickly fell under the spell of this beautiful, mysterious, mercurial, dark-haired woman who called herself June Mansfield. By year's end his marriage to Beatrice was over. Miller joined June in her tawdry street life, living rent free with her at a succession of friends' apartments where they made love through the night until Miller, sleepless, would drag himself off to work at Western Union. In June 1924 they were married at City Hall in Hoboken, New Jersey in a ceremony witnessed by strangers recruited from passing pedestrians. Miller was plunged into a passionate but chaotic existence with June that scoured him emotionally and psychologically.
\Miller mythologized June as Mara/Mona in his autobiographical novels. Who was she really? Her given name was Juliet Edith Smerth. She was born in 1902 in Romania, a Jewish gypsy. Her family came to America as unskilled immigrant laborers and struggled to survive. At odds with her father (was she sexually abused?), she left home, dropped out of high school, and supported herself working in dance halls. She took the name June Mansfield because she thought it sounded glamorous, and tried to reinvent herself as a low-grade courtesan in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village by gold digging and dispensing favors to a wide circle of men she referred to as "admirers." She denied selling her body, and insisted to Miller that men only paid her to listen to their conversations. Miller willingly accepted this transparent fabrication. June was skilled at deceiving herself and others about who she was and what she had done, and from her Miller learned the possibilities of mythmaking, of turning one's own life into a fiction that one could enter and then live through. In Plexus, Miller admiringly acknowledges June's talent for inventing her life: "In the realm of make believe she was thoroughly at home. She not only believed her own stories, she acted as if the fact she had related them was proof of their veracity." The same could be said of Miller's books.
Although Miller recognized that June was mentally unstable, perhaps even psychotic, he was fascinated by her ability to survive on illusions and surrendered his will and his reason to her fantasies. For her part June recognized, on some intuitive level, Miller's need to become a writer, insisted that he embrace this destiny, and charged him with redeeming her through his writing. Miller found himself as a writer by living out June's idea of him, and if this does not make her his muse, what would? June became for Miller the embodiment of chaos and a symbol of the impenetrable mystery of life.
Miller and June began their married life together in a luxurious Brooklyn apartment they could not afford but that June insisted would provide Henry with the environment he needed in order to write. She quickly ran up debts pampering him with fancy gifts and expensive clothing. Soon Miller was calling in sick to Western Union and closing his office early in the day to return home. He contemplated writing projects, spent hours doing research, but produced nothing that could be published. Before his superiors could fire him, he resigned his job and stopped his alimony and child support payments to Beatrice. June's earnings as a waitress in a speakeasy did not cover their expenses, and they fell behind on their rent. Miller sent out futile queries to magazine editors seeking assignments, and borrowed money from his friends. They were evicted from their apartment and took a succession of temporary lodgings in increasingly shabby neighborhoods. Thus began their steady descent into destitution and, for Miller, near madness.
Through it all Miller watched, passively and helplessly, as June drew them deeper and deeper into depravity with her scheming and lies. It was as though he wanted to discover how far he could fall. The nadir was reached when June brought to their home a lesbian lover, Jean Kronski, whom she had met at a café in Greenwich Village. A ménage à trois ensued that filled Miller with rage and despair, bringing him to the brink of suicide. When Henry came home one day to find a note from June announcing that she and Jean had sailed for France, he broke all the furniture in their apartment and alarmed his neighbors by howling piteously into the night like a dog.
This abandonment was a turning point for Miller. It set him on the path to becoming a great writer. When June cabled him for money from Vienna, and told him that Jean had split from her to go to North Africa, Miller, in a fever of inspiration, wrote a thirty page typewritten outline of the novels that would become Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion. Out of his suffering as a man, Miller would be reborn as a writer.
June returned from Europe without Jean and resumed her gold digging. She found a "patron" who offered to pay her for writing a novel, pages due weekly for his review. Miller wrote this novel, which was published after his death as Moloch. Writing it for money, with June as midwife, delivered him as a writer. In 1930, having ensnared another wealthy "admirer," June sent Miller off to Europe alone, convincing him that in Paris he would find himself, and promising to send him money. June's promise of support for Henry's European adventure, like so many of her narratives, proved fictional, but Miller found in Paris a new muse, Anäis Nin, another fabulist and fabricator who had known many men. Nin helped him give birth to his breakout novel, Tropic of Cancer.
Nin was the daughter of a famous Spanish concert pianist, Joaquin Nin, and a Cuban mother, Rosa Culmell y Vigaraud. Her father deserted the family when she was eleven, and Nin wrote him a yearning letter that became the first entry in her diary. She used the diary to explore her inner life, to comment on the culture around her, and to record the dramas of her numerous love affairs. When Miller met her in the fall of 1931 she was married to Hugh Guiler, an officer in the Paris branch of an American bank, and living with him in a charming house in Louveciennes, a suburb of Paris.
Miller was introduced to Nin by Richard Osborn, another employee of the bank where Hugo worked. Osborn, knowing of Miller's interest in the writer D.H. Lawrence, told Miller that Nin had written a study of Lawrence. Miller obtained a copy, read it, and asked to meet Nin. Their relationship began as a literary friendship. Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, and he showed Nin pages of the manuscript. She encouraged him, and showed him pages of her diary. They became lovers, and Nin helped Miller financially, giving him money from her household allowance.
Back in New York, June got wind of their affair and came to Paris to intervene. Nin and June were immediately attracted to each other, and quickly another romantic triangle developed, unnerving Henry. But June recognized that Nin had supplanted her as Miller's muse and emotional support. She returned to New York, and after Tropic of Cancer was published in Paris in 1934, she divorced Miller by proxy in Mexico. She subsequently married one of her admirers, Stratford Corbett.
Nin played an important role in the publication of Tropic of Cancer. She steered the manuscript to an agent who placed it with Jack Kahane, an Englishman publishing erotica through Obelisk Press. When Kahane, citing financial difficulties, stalled issuing the book, Nin borrowed $330 from another lover, the psychiatrist Otto Rank, to pay the printing costs. She also co-wrote the preface to the book with Miller.
When the war erupted, Nin and her husband returned to New York. Miller followed, after a short stay in Greece with his friend Lawrence Durrell. Miller wanted Nin to leave Hugo and marry him, but Nin saw the impracticality of this. Neither she nor Miller had any inclination to work for a living, and Hugo was content to tolerate the numerous romantic intrigues that provided fodder for her diary. After Miller turned down a screenwriting job at a Hollywood studio that would have supported them (at the time, Nin was writing pornography for a dollar a page and sending Miller the money), she broke with him. Miller moved on to a life in Big Sur, California. They stayed in touch through letters and continued their friendship after they both moved to Los Angeles.
Miller never forgot his debt to Nin, and advocated vigorously on behalf of her diaries. Before leaving Paris for Greece, he wrote to an American friend, "I owe nearly everything to Anäis Nin... Had I not met her, I would never have accomplished the little I did."
June also stayed in Miller's life. After she was abandoned by her second husband, she became destitute, living in New York on a skimpy welfare payment. Miller learned of her plight, sent her small sums of money, and arranged for friends in New York to help her rebuild her life. Miller avoided Beatrice, always fearful she would pursue him for back alimony, but in 1954 he was reunited with his daughter Barbara, then living in Pasadena, California. He involved himself in her life, gave her money and advice, and wrote her into his will.