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A story only Henry Miller could love

The much older author's obsession with a 29-year-old led to what appeared to be a completely unsatisfying marriage — for him. But ex-wife Hoki Tokuda says outsiders just don't understand their relationship.

February 22, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Hoki Tokuda plays in her Tokyo piano bar, named Tropic of Cancer after her late ex-husband's book, of which she read only three pages.
Hoki Tokuda plays in her Tokyo piano bar, named Tropic of Cancer after her… (Randi Lynn Beach, for The…)

Reporting from Tokyo — 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.

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