Heights History (A Slight Return): Henry Miller’s Henry Street Hellhole

Over the years, Brooklyn Heights has been home to enough writers, actors, musicians, and visual artists to rival its not-too-distant neighbor Greenwich Village as a Bohemian community. Many, including novelist Norman Mailer, playwright Arthur Miller, and sculptor John Rhoden, seem to have liked living here. Horror fiction master H.P. Lovecraft, by contrast, found the neighborhood “decrepit” and may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his stay at Clinton and State streets in 1925-26. For novelist Henry Miller, things started out well in the Heights, but came to an unfortunate conclusion.

Miller, perhaps best known for having pushed the First Amendment envelope with his autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer, was born in Manhattan of German immigrant parents who moved to Brooklyn shortly after his birth, and raised in Williamsburg and Bushwick. He moved back to Manhattan as a young man, went through an unsuccessful first marriage, then in 1924 married his second wife, June Mansfield and, as told by Saskia de Rothschild in her Brooklyn Ink story “Becoming Henry Miller: How Brooklyn Fired a Writer’s Imagination”, moved to the Heights, taking an apartment at 91 Remsen Street. According to de Rothschild, it “was a beautiful space, all made out of wood” that Miller called “the Japanese Love Nest”. Unfortunately for Miller and his wife, the rent was too dear for their income, and they were evicted after living there a year and six months. According to the chronology at the bottom of de Rothschild’s story, their next move was to Garden Place, which in 1925 evidently didn’t have the cachet it does today, not to mention lower rent. Nevertheless, they were ousted by a “racist landlord” who objected to their socializing with a neighboring Syrian couple.

At this time, June’s affections were drifting away from Miller and toward another woman, Jean Kroski. Faced with this, and with his inability to find secure employment, Miller, according to de Rothschild, felt that he “was slowly going mad.” When he and June moved to their final Heights home, a basement apartment at Henry Street and Love Lane (the site now of CVS, formerly d’Agostino’s and before that Bohack), Kroski moved in with them. Miller described this place as “a lunatic asylum, only worse.” After his wife and her lover left, Miller moved to Paris, where his literary career would later begin in earnest. As de Rothschild summarizes Miller’s time here: his “darkest years were paradoxically spent in clean and proper Brooklyn Heights.”

This piece originally ran in March 2011.

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  • David on Middagh

    At first I thought the girl in the shower was his fifth wife, but the credits gave the lie to that.

  • jivika

    who knew… a scene from one of my favorite movies (henry and june) unfolded just down the block! thanks for re-running!