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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

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."

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