Book Review: “What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller” by Twinka Thiebaud

(About a 6 minute read)

Note to Readers from Paul Sunstone:  This is a re-post from a now defunct blog of mine that will soon be deleted.  It was originally posted in December of 2011.  I think it still might be of general interest to people, so I’m re-posting it here to save it.

Henry Miller was seventy-one years old when the teenage Twinka Thiebaud met him.  Of course, Miller had not only long been famous as one of the Century’s greatest novelists: He had also long been famous as one of the Century’s greatest pornographers and dirty old men.

The labels of “pornographer” and “dirty old man” came courtesy of the American press, which had (inevitably) discovered itself scandalized by the raw sex scenes in Miller’s novels (Naturally, we Americans are not actually happy about raw sex scenes unless we feel scandalized by them — and the more scandalized, the happier).

Miller’s novels had been at first banned in the US, which caused them to be smuggled into the country as contraband.  The bans were eventually overturned in an historic 1964 Supreme Court decision.  Yet, though the Court ruled Miller’s books “literature”, that did not stop the press from casting Miller as a lecherous old man. And Thiebaud was quite aware of Miller’s nasty reputation the day she met him.

Thiebaud describes herself on that day as an “seventeen year-old virgin” swamped by “intense anxiety” at the prospect of meeting the “salacious beast” Henry Miller. The very last thing she expected to find was a charming old grandfatherly man who showed no signs of wanting to seduce her, and who instead took simple delight in her company. But that is exactly what she found.

A few years after their first meeting Thiebaud moved into Miller’s home as his cook and housekeeper.  She describes her rapport with Miller (pp. 17):

Henry was one of the most open people I have ever known.  I knew what was going on in his head as well as his heart nearly all the time.  He did not keep many secrets and, like me, his emotions were written all over his face.

I get the impression that when Thiebaud walks into a room, the first things she notices are the people.  After that, she notices the art on the wall, then the furnishings, and then the diamond sparking on the table.

Moreover, I could be wrong about this, but I get the impression her interest in people often dominates and restrains her natural human inclination to judge people. That is, she simply takes folks as they are without trying to change them because she is so gawd awful interested in them.

If any of that is true, then it seems significant to me because Thiebaud has written a book.  A book that demands and requires its author to be a keen observer of people.  And namely, a keen observer of Henry Miller.  As well as of herself.

Miller had a gift of gab and loved to entertain his household and his guests over supper.  At some point, Thiebaud took to keeping a journal in which she would write down her recollection of the evening’s conversation before bed.  What Doncha Know ? About Henry Miller  is the product of that effort.

The book mostly focuses on Miller’s recollections of, and reflections on, the people and events in his life. But it does touch a little bit on Twinka herself.  An especially revealing passage about Twinka concerns her relationship with Warren Beatty — whom she met through Miller.

Imogen and Twinka (1974)

Imogen and Twinka (1974)

Warren courted Twinka in 1975, after seeing the famous photograph of her with Imogen Cunningham. He won her over, and the affair lasted until Twinka tired of Warren’s sleeping with women too numerous.

Of course, when such things occur — when a woman discovers there is a long line of other women beyond the door to her lover’s bedroom — the moment is a delicate one.  Anything can happen.  It is common enough for the woman to denounce her lover as a jerk.

Twinka reveals herself to possess thoughts and feelings that are just as graceful as her pose in the photo with Imogen. She broke off her sexual relationship with Beatty, but did not discard her appreciation for him as a superb lover (pp.34):

He was always graceful, mannered, relaxed and confident, never mussed or awkward and never out of line. Even though I was one of many, when we were together, Warren knew exactly how to make me feel absolutely extraordinary.  Now that’s a great gift!

For that and many other reasons, the passages in this book that deal with Twinka herself are just as engaging as the passages that deal with Henry Miller.

Apparently, Miller himself was not a great lover of women in Warren Beatty’s sense.  For one thing, most of Miller’s loves were never consummated.  And it seems he did not always leave his lovers much better off for having known him. But Miller knew several great truths about love, and he practiced them.

For one thing, Miller knew sex was not a necessary ingredient in great loves — the kind of loves that inspire, affirm, and renew us.   To love and to be loved in that way is to be reborn.  And I suspect that such loves are especially valuable to artists and other creatives, for they seem to be associated with great bursts of creativity.

That was one kind of love Miller had experience and insight into.  Another, and perhaps for Miller, a more important kind of love, was the one-sided affair — the love that longs, yearns for an impossible to obtain lover.

Unrequited love is also associated with great bursts of creativity.  But it is a darker creativity, born more from the suffering and angst associated with thwarted desire than from the love itself.

  • Miller (pp. 169): “Love is the most important theme in my life because it has provided me with almost all my creative fuel.  I could’ve written volumes on the subject of unrequited love.”
  • Miller again (pp.170):  “I was in love with many women, but I haven’t really written about love with a capital L.  I wrote about sex!”
  • And later on (ibid): “I’ll sacrifice everything, anything — money, jobs, wives, children — all for love! And always for the love of an unattainable woman, an elusive woman.”

From those and various other things said in Twinka’s book, I get the impression Miller was more at home with a one-sided love than with a mutual love, although he experienced both in his life.  But regardless of what kind of love he was at home with, Twinka’s book makes it clear love was, in Miller’s eyes, a — or even the — motivating factor behind his writing.

As I was reading her book, I hoped for more details of her relationship with Miller. There wasn’t quite the dept of description I wanted, and too few anecdotes, so I was a bit disappointed. But that’s probably just me.

Twinka’s book is fun.  In it, Miller tells a charming/sad/funny/revealing story about the revolutionary, Emma Goldman, that I thought taken alone was probably worth a third of the book’s $15 price.  There are several other precious little stories like that one, too.  Overall, the book is a quick, easy read, and you will probably not drink yourself to death out of regret if you read it.

By the way, I have emailed Twinka a few questions, and I will be posting her answers soon.


Readers interested in the famous Imogen and Twinka photo by Judy Dater can find a post on it here.  The comments section contains a response to the post by Twinka.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: “What Doncha Know? About Henry Miller” by Twinka Thiebaud

  1. Pingback: Café Philos: an internet café

  2. Pingback: An Interview with Twinka Thiebaud | Café Philos: an internet café

  3. Pingback: Imogen and Twinka | Café Philos: an internet café

I'd love to hear from you. Comments make my day. Please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s