Henry and Hoki: last word in love
Interview with Hoki Tokuda. The Australian newspaper
Entertainer Hoki Tokuda, the last wife of author Henry Miller, is alive and well and managing the exclusive Tropic of cancer nightclub in Tokyo. Mark Roeder tracked her down.
Norman Mailer idolised Henry Miller and described him as ‘the writer’s writer. The greatest llving writer of his time.’ He even wrote a, book devoted to Miller’s work called Genius and Lust.
But when good Ol’ Henry, by now in his 80s, was asked to comment on this 576 page ode to himself, he said. “I can’t understand it. Mailer’s a clever guy but his writing reminds me of a peterade, a French word for a series of little farts.”
Miller had a habit of puncturing egos. The bigger the ego the deeper he plunged his sword, and the sword became sharper with age.
One person who avoided Miller’s barbs during the twilight of his life was Hoki Tokuda, his last wife and last love. This beautiful Japanese-born singer and piano player was married to him from 1967 until she finally plucked up the courage to ask for a divorce the year before his death in 1980. She, perhaps more than any other living person, was close enough to witness how the ravages of age affected one of the more iconoclastic literary spirits of our time.
Today Hokl owns and manages an exclusive nightclub in Tokyo called the Tropic of Cancer, named after the book that catapulted Miller to international notoriety in 1934.
Tropic was a landmark book that caused an uproar. A marvelously fecund romp in the cosmos of sexuality that teetered on the brink of blatant pornography and brutal honesty. It was immediately banned in the United States, Great Britain and all other English speaking countries. Miller himself was banished from Britain as an undesirable.
Over the next 40 years Miller followed it with a series of autobiographical books that relentlessly poured more fuel on to the great bonfire that he said was needed to *burn the dross and purify the human spirit’. His critics were relentless too, continuing to brand him a pornographer, relegating him to the lower worlds of hedonistic pulp fiction.
For most of his life Miller and his work were much maligned and misunderstood. But he always had his women to help him break through. Anais Nin – who figures in the movie Henry and June now showing around Australia ~ was one of the first. It was she who acted as a creative midwife when he gave birth to Tropic of Cancer.
She was his confidante, colleague and lover. Perhaps in a similar fashion many decades later, Hoki Tokuda helped smooth Miller’s final departure from his earthly existence. And of course. there were all the women in between.
Hoki first met Miller in 1965 at the Imperial Gardens Club on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where she worked as an entertainer.
“Before and after the show, a few of us played ping-pong and someone asked me if I could beat this man called Henry Miller. I was introduced to him and I saw his old hands and his frail body … he was 75 then. And I said, sure I’ll play him,’ says Hoki.
Immediately Hoki was accepted into Miller’s tightly-knit circle of friends. She was exotic, in her early 30s, had a pretty clown’s face and could play good ping-pong. Within days of their meeting Miller became infatuated with Hoki and started pursuit. For the next 18 months he made himself an ever-present fixture near the stage where she sang and played piano.
‘He always invited me to be with him and his friends at their table,’ she recalls. ‘Then one night he said, Hoki, I am old and I won’t see another birthday. Will you marry me?’
“I said no. And I kept on saying no for weeks. But his friends…they were so persuasive too: they would tell me I had nothing to lose. Henry would be gone soon. Why don’t you make him happy. So I finally said yes.’
The seemingly oddly matched couple were married on September 10. 1967 in Beverly Hills, and Hoki moved into Miller’s house at Pacific Palisades, an upper middle-class conservative neighborhood north of Los Angeles. A home Miller liked to describe as his ‘giant friendly womb. A home with a capital H.’
Here, Hoki and Miller entertained an endless procession of guests, fans, business associates and friends, including Erica Jong, Lawrence Durrell and Jack Nicholson. When the then governor of California, Jerry Brown, paid a surprise visit, Miller greeted him in true ‘flashing daggers’ style with: ‘If you’ll pardon my honesty Governor, I’ve always held the opinion that politicians are rather at the lowest rung, at the bottom of humanly, so to speak.’
As Hoki talks, her eyes are constantly darting around her nightclub. It is 2am and the club is still busy, but it was the only time she would agree to an interview. The air is thick with smoke and her team of beautiful, provocatively dressed hostesses are busy chatting up and making eyes at the wealthy Japanese businessmen, making each of them feel like they are the only male on Earth. The game is ego massage— the more adept the girls are at it, the more $250 bottles of Scotch are consumed.
On the opposite wall is a brightly lit, oversized neon-coloured photo poster of Miller walking along the beach near Big Sur in California. To the left are three of his childlike watercolours, of which he produced nearly 4000 since he first picked up a paintbrush in 1927.
Although the finish of the club is expensive, the impression is one of gaudiness. Hoki’s dress of colourful tropical flowers and large ivory earrings enable her to blend into the background. She can remain invisible, or become intrusive when necessary. Every so she breaks off the interview to greet a favoured guest, then quickly returns to resume where she left off.
‘Henry was the most important thing in my life. But I don’t know if I really loved him. We had so much fun and we laughed all the time…but love, I don’t know. He sent me more than 300 love letters and his words were so passionate. I know he was in love with me. He could love with all his heart and soul…but, you know, he could not make love to me. He couldn’t do it. He was not a good lover. No sex in all our years of marriage. He had an operation on his back and he was incapacitated and…’
Not a good lover! It seemed too incongruent, too preposterous, that this man who had elevated himself to a literary demi-God in the realm of sex, who had spent it a lifetime plunging head-first into a swirling vortex of carnality, could spend his latter years devoid of experiencing his driving obsession.
‘Are you sure? You didn’t make love, not once?’
‘No. And it didn’t bother me or Henry,’ she elaborated. ‘He used to like touching me though. That was okay. But he was always very jealous. He always worried when I spoke to other men. But he shouldn’t have worried because I was not sleeping with anyone.’
I was beginning to wonder whether it was her matter-of-fact delivery or the content of what she was saying that shocked most. ‘Are you surprised when I say these things.’ she continued, ‘but why should you be? Henry was old. Sure, his books were full of sex, and when he was younger I think he was very active. He said he could love me without having sex.’
Indeed, some months before his death, Miller said: ‘I found I can go without sex like a camel can go without water. Sex is a drop in the bucket when you consider the whole of a relationship. Some of the greatest love affairs in history were completely devoid of sex. I’ve found that my relationships with women that didn’t include sex were just as gratifying as the ones where sex was the main course.’
Hoki breaks off the interview to ask one of the girls for a drink. ‘I never read any of Henry’s books. He only told me about them. He was very proud of them. He said he wrote about life. Not only his life, all of life. But he got angry when people thought his works were only about sex. He hated being thought of as a pornographer’.
Miler’s books are also known for his harrowing tales of personal suffering in the realm of love. He professed that he instinctively knew he needed to suffer at the hands of women in order to evolve. It had always been this way for him. Of his relationship with one of his earlier wives, June Edith Smith, whom he married in 1924, he said: ‘June was of another world, another planet, a femme fatale. I was doomed to suffer from the start. You suffer when you try to possess her because you rob her of her mystery the very thing that attracted you in the first place. But her belief in me opened up my ‘new’ life as a writer.’
What kind of world did Miller hope to enter through his relationship with Hoki? Where did this last stepping-stone lead? Perhaps, the best description of the world he hankered for may be found in an essay he wrote in 1972:
“I am forever surprised, shocked and delighted by the admixture in the Japanese of cruelty and tenderness, of violence and ugliness. In the Japanese this ambiguity exists more sharply and poignantly. In their art the aesthetic and emotional approach are always perfectly blended. ‘A thing of horror can also be a thing of beauty … A woman whose heart is broken, a Japanese woman I mean, a woman in utter despair and defeat may yet exhibit a smile which only an angel of mercy could summon.’
Miller never saw that smile in Hoki.
To do so would have meant he had conquered her, thereby relinquishing his ticket to the next world of his imagination. A ticket he had already paid for.
NB: This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper in October, 1990