Finding the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and Henry Miller

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By Charles Rotmil

In 1958, I was living in a room on 10th Street in Manhattan between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. I was paying $6 a week, and a fellow named Dan Balaban collected the rent for the landlord. Each week residents in the building gathered downstairs in Dan’s apartment, a large living room on the ground floor, and played poker for our rent, trying to win it back. (The rents on that street now average $4000 a month.) I was recently separated from my wife who had taken off with another man. We tried to reconcile our differences; we had three children, but to no avail. After almost going crazy, I adapted to what I eventually saw as a new freedom and a chance to start living again. I got a job working for Wolf book binding company for 90 cents an hour. Everyone in my apartment building seemed to be a writer. Vera M. floated from room to room, including my own, to make love with no strings attached. I may be wrong about that; you will have to check with her. 

At the time, I read whatever I could get my hands on by Henry Miller. A close friend of mine used to read Miller out loud (we did that with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which I finally got to see with Bert Lahr in the title role) and started a correspondence with him. Miller wrote back and said he did not have time for us to visit him, as he was so busy that even if Jesus himself came to the door, he would be unable to answer. 

One morning Vera M. came to my door and said her boyfriend, the one she was closest to, Howard Kanovitz, was going to drive to Los Angeles. Would I like to come along? When, I asked. Tomorrow morning. Yes. 

I packed a small attaché case with some underwear, t-shirts, a French Grammar book, and my Nikon S2 rangefinder camera. That was it. I returned an oboe I had been renting from Sam Ash on 46th Street in Manhattan, and I was ready to go. I showed up the next day at Howard’s loft. Larry Rivers kept a studio in the same building. I got into the car, a large convertible bathtub, and we started out of Manhattan to find Route 66 and drive all the way to Los Angeles. By the time we got into Pennsylvania, Howard asked me to drive a bit. I told him I did not have a license and could barely drive. (My only real experience was driving a tractor on a farm in Saratoga Springs in 1947, as part of a summer job.) He was shocked but did not kick me out of the car. To add insult to injury, I barely had any money. I had applied for unemployment and I had to wait for the checks, at that time it would have been $35 a week. This required getting to California to apply for an out-of-state claim.

In the car, there were four of us. Another young woman sat in the back with me, but she kept her distance. Of course, I was dying to know her better but no such luck. I slept chastely in the back seat with her, while Howard and Vera slept in motels. Eventually we got to the Midwest after a seemingly endless drive through nowhere. We actually drove through a ghost town, where the mine had run dry. Some people stood still as specters as we drove by. We kept going west. 

We looked at the map and saw Terre Haute, so we asked someone where it was. I kept pronouncing it “Terre Haute” as if it was in French, and he could not understand me. We showed him the map and he said, “Oh you mean Terry Howdy!” We were still miles away from the Grand Canyon, an anticipated stop. We finally did get there and we gaped at the giant hole. I did not know what to make of it. It was a natural wonder to be sure, but I could not see why it attracted so many people.

We eventually drove past Needles, one of the hottest spots on earth, and arrived in Los Angeles, after a week of travel covering nearly 3000 miles. Howard stopped the car in Hollywood and said, “Okay, here we are.” I got out of the car and said, “What am I going to do?” He shrugged, “I have no idea.” He did give me the phone number of a friend he and Vera were seeing and suggested I give them a call. Maybe we could get together. 

I stood there in the street on Wilshire Boulevard under a hot, blazing sun, not realizing the Strip was 30 miles long. There was no way could I walk anywhere very far. So I went to a bank and cashed a check I carried as a safety net and asked around for a place to rent. I found a house that had a rental sign and an elderly woman came to the door with a Chihuahua. She told me she was renting out the back porch, a make-shift, screened in bungalow for $6 a week. I took it. It worked out fine. I got a job working for Alcoholics Anonymous as a coffee cup washer. No joke!! My job was to clean coffee cups for the many meetings. One day I took a bus all the way to one of the beaches, walking around all day exposed to the sun. Coming from New York, I had no clue about the intensity of the sunlight in LA. When I got back to my room, I had a horrible case of sun poisoning. It took a week before it healed.

Soon after, I called the number Howard had given me and they invited me to come over. On the way, I bought some bikini underwear, having never seen them before, thinking they would be great for travel, and some Guerlain soap made from whale blubber. Thus equipped I showed up at Howard’s friend’s house. The man of the house told me he worked for the Defense Department on some secret research that he could not discuss with me. His wife was a bit flirtatious with me telling me that her friend was coming over, who she wanted me to meet. She warned me ahead of time to have no expectations, as she was a high-priced call girl. She had clients like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, as well as someone who took her to Mexico for a week of fun. After an hour or so, this amazingly beautiful woman showed up.

All three of us were in the living room and I told them about the soap I had bought, a box of three cakes, and the underwear. “Could we see it?,” they asked. Sure. I took my pants down and gave them a look. Then I was left alone with Gwen P., the friend’s professional name. She told me she only worked on dates set up by phone from a madam somewhere in L.A. She was not working now because she had “the rag on.” I had no clue what she meant by that but she explained it. Then we started to play some cards. All we did was cut the deck to see who had a higher card. She won several times and I told her I would give her something. I took my box of Guerlain soaps and gave her one of the cakes. She said she could not accept it. She never took gifts from men. I begged her to take it, as I wanted her to have it. It had a wonderful scent. Then she said she had to go home. It was late and the buses had stopped running. Everyone begged her to take me home; she hesitated and then finally said “Fine, come along.” 

We got into her VW bug and drove to Hollywood. We were stopped by a police car and the cop asked her if I was a trick. I had no clue what he meant by that. She explained I was just a friend and she was driving me home. On the way back we spilled out our life stories. For me this comprised the war years, my recent separation and so on. She told me she was married to a scientist who also worked for a secret military project but had quit because of moral reservations. She was now the breadwinner. She told me her husband thought of her as Joan of Arc because of her sacrifice. Some day they would retire, buy a hotel on an island, and live happily ever after. Her previous husband was now in a mental institution. When we got to my bungalow, she parked the car. Then suddenly we started to make out. As it happened I had a terrible toothache. She told me she would make love to me but could not this week. I told her that was fine.

She said, “Let’s go in the house and get some aspirins.” I found some, and we went to my room and resumed fooling around. Then she slithered down and said, “Slow or fast?” Again I had no idea what she meant. I said it did not matter. I quickly cried out “Slow down!!!” When she was done, she got up and called her husband to say she was delayed and would come home soon. That was the beginning of a two month affair. Sometimes I would wait in her car while she was with a john. She said lot of them just wanted to talk. 

One day she asked me if I wanted to go on a camping trip. Her husband hated camping. I agreed. We would go to a campground in Big Sur. I objected: Why not just go into the woods and pitch a tent?. 

So we took off one morning and went up Route 1 all the way to Big Sur, a spectacular drive along the coast high up over steep cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. We walked into the woods and pitched the tent. I was fine with that, except she warned me of rattlesnakes. That was no comfort, but she said that they do not strike at night, it was too cold, and I believed her. The next day we walked along the rocky coast and there were natural springs where one could just dip in, like a spa. The clouds were literally below us and stretched as far as the eye could see; it was like being in heaven. We visited a man whose house was photographed in Edward Weston’s The Family of Man. At the very beginning of the book, there is a shot of a nude, looking like a child born of the earth itself. Gwen knew the model, another call girl. At the house, I caught a shot of Gwen in a mirror and later on of myself. I shot Gwen in the shower, not a great shot, but she seemed to me at the time to be a truly amazing woman.

We saw the Nepenthe Inn but did not eat there, a scenic place perched on a cliff, still there I believe. We did not see Esalen, it did not exist then. Now it is more of a corporate retreat utilizing Gestalt and even nude therapy. When we were there it was nothing like that: just the Inn and some people who lived in shack-like houses and the natural springs and rocky wild coast. 

A couple of days later, Gwen said, “Let’s go see Henry.” I said, “Henry? Henry who?” “Miller,” she said. It blew my mind. As I mentioned earlier, I had a correspondence with Miller and so did a friend of mine, Gerhardt. We were both devotees of everything Miller had written. Gerhardt was a bibliophile like no other. He built an entire addition to his house for his books running the length of a small warehouse. Once he told me he had the works of Knut Hamsun in Norwegian!

Yes, Henry Miller. She had known Miller for years, hinting she knew him in more ways than one. She was not sure if he would let us in to see him. He lived up a mountain. So we got into the VW Bug and slowly made our way up. When we got to where he lived, Gwen parked the car and walked to the small fenced-in gate. Miller was a short distance away working on his garden with God knows which wife, a Japanese woman. Gwen went inside the gate, walked up to Miller and talked to him. She came back and said he was so busy he could not see me if I was Jesus. That sounded familiar!! I thought there was no way I could come all this way and not meet my idol.

I yelled out “Monsieur Miller!” in my best French. “Monsieur Miller!!!” He looked up from what he was doing, ears perking up, and almost ran over to me. When he got to the gate I told him I was French. I had written him many times and come come across the ocean and a whole continent just to see him. He welcomed me and Gwen in. We sat in the dining area, near the kitchen, and talked about anything and everything. Then he showed me his watercolors. We were in a sun-filled room and I looked at them but could not comment on them except to say that they were nice. 

We got back to talking about his books, especially the Tropic series. He commented: “Those are not my favorites. The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch are my favorites.” His wife was silent in the background, walking with a broom. “We have problems with rattlesnakes and we always have to sweep them away.”

He then got up and walked to the back wall, which was really comprised of false panels. He slid them open, and there, in all their glory, were his books. At the time most of them were banned in the United States, and they had to be kept hidden away. He took out the Rosy Crucifixion books, the Tropics, the Smile, Big Sur, and inscribed them all to me, saying how happy he was to have met me. 

I was literally in heaven when I left him there. He was a saint in my book.

Gwen and I went to the edge of the sea, our feet dangling over the cliffs, with the clouds beneath our feet, as far as the eye could see. The sunset was magnificent. I do not remember what Gwen said to me, but I told her that sometimes it was better not to talk during sunsets. That remark ended the relationship. 

When I got back to Los Angeles my unemployment checks had arrived, totaling nearly four hundred dollars. I decided to say goodbye to everyone and take off for Mexico. 

I hitched a ride to Phoenix and slept on a pile of haystacks off the side of the road. At dawn, I saw a car in the distance and ran to the roadside and thumbed it down. Two Mexicans were going deep across the border and would give me a ride if I paid them ten dollars. They drove me all the way to Guadalajara. But that is, as they say, another story. 

P.S. When I returned to New York City, I loaned out all the inscribed Miller books and never got them back. They are no doubt once again hidden somewhere possibly behind a false wall, in someone’s collection of stolen books.

Photographs of Route 66 and Big Sur

Charles Rotmil, Howard Kanovitz at the Wheel

Charles Rotmil
Howard Kanovitz at the Wheel

Charles Rotmil, On Route 66

Charles Rotmil
On Route 66

Charles Rotmil, Boy in Front of House near Henry Miller's House

Charles Rotmil
Boy in Front of House near Henry Miller’s House

Charles Rotmil, Same Window as Family of Man

Charles Rotmil
Same Window as Family of Man

Charles Rotmil, My Reflection in Big Sur House

Charles Rotmil
My Reflection in Big Sur House

Charles Rotmil, Gwen's Reflection in Big Sur House

Charles Rotmil
A Woman’s Reflection in Big Sur House

Charles Rotmil, Gwen in Shower at Big Sur

Charles Rotmil
Woman in Shower at Big Sur

Words and photographs by Charles Rotmil. Published by RealityStudio on 23 September 2012. Text and images © Charles Rotmil 2014.

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