June - A Biography
According to the family's naturalization record, June's father was Wilhelm Smerth, born in 1878 in Galicia, Austria. He married her mother, Francis Budd, in Buckovina, which was then part of Austria. They had five children: Maria Augusta, Herman, June, Sigmund, and Edward. June, the second daughter and third child, was born on January 28th, 1902.
In 1907, when June (at left) was 5 years old, the family left Hamburg on the "Batavia" and emigrated to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island on July 10th. They took up residence in New York City, where Mr. Smerth found work as a presser in the clothing industry. The family name was Americanized to Smith and the family became American citizens on January 23, 1923.
June, a precocious and original girl, with ambitions of becoming an actress, dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a taxi dancer in a Broadway dance hall. Around this time, she changed her last name from Smith to Mansfield, and was generally known by this name from this point onwards. The reasons behind this change are not clear; it is suspected that the change was prompted by the death of the writer Katherine Mansfield, who had by this time become a cult figure in Greenwich Village. June herself later offered the macabre explanation that as Smerth means "death" in Polish, Mansfield was the nearest English equivalent of "cemetery."
It was while working as a taxi dancer on Broadway in New York City that June first met Henry Miller. Miller, married, employed at Western Union, and generally dissatisfied with his life, was soon dancing with Mansfield. The impact of this initial encounter on Miller is apparent in his later writing, where it has been written and rewritten. Miller claims to have seen June gliding by with other men, and overheard her talking about Strindberg and some of his other favorite writers. He bought a string of tickets and danced the rest of the night with her, meeting her at a Chinese restaurant across the street after the dance hall closed. From this very first meeting, Miller was intrigued by June's labyrinthine mind and frustrated by her evasion of his questions. June remained evasive as Miller's infatuation grew; he left his wife in order to wholeheartedly dedicate himself to his pursuit of June.
Finally, on June 1, 1924, Henry and June took the train to Hoboken, New Jersey to get married. The day was not without its trials; at one point June, doubting Henry's affections, got off the train, and later, the friends who were to serve as witnesses failed to show up, necessitating the hiring of two strangers to fill the role.
One of these admirers took center stage in June's life in October 1929 when, after returning to the apartment after a three day absence, all her talk focused on her new friend, Jean. Jean Kronski, a 21 year old artist and poet, soon moved in with Henry and June. Tension rose as Henry was suddenly forced to compete with a woman for his wife's affections. Miller later wrote obsessively about this period in his life, about living in chaos with the two women and finally being abandoned by his wife. Without any warning, June and Jean left for Paris in April 1927, leaving Miller to put together the pieces. June was soon cabling Henry, asking for money. By late May it became apparent that June and Jean had quarrelled, and Jean had left France. June finally returned to New York, and her life with Henry, in July 1927.
In 1928, June and Henry went on a lengthy tour of Europe, using funds secured from "Pop," one of June's admirers. Each week she visited Pop and presented pieces of Henry's writing for Pop to peruse, passing them off as her own in order to gain his financial support. Their situation did not improve after their return to New York City and in 1930 Miller, desperately poor and disillusioned about his ability to write, returned to Paris alone. Communication with June was scarce, and her unfulfilled promises to send Henry money left him struggling to survive.
June herself arrived in Paris in December 1931 for a brief visit, during which time she was introduced to Henry's new friend Anais Nin (left). The two women were immediately transfixed by each other; Nin, like Miller, was mesmerized by June's mythical nature, as is evident in much of her later writing. By the time June left Paris in late January 1932, she left behind 2 writers tormented by her engimatic personality. Miller and Nin wrote obsessively about Mansfield in subsequent months, sharing their perceptions of this evasive woman.
June returned to Paris in October 1932 and a complicated emotional struggle erupted. In June's absence, Nin and Miller had grown close, and June faced the loss of the two most important people in her life. The resulting scenes were frightening; the violent emotional eruptions culminated in June asking Henry for a divorce before leaving Paris for the final time in late December 1932. They were divorced by proxy in Mexico in 1934.
WITHOUT A TRACE: THE REMAINING YEARSFollowing her return to New York City in December 1932, the details of the remainder of June's life are sketchy. Despite her monumental role in Nin and Miller's later writing, interest in her waned after direct contact with the writers ended. She married Stratford Corbett, a U.S. Military officer and moved around the country with him before he left her. She then returned to New York City, where she was employed as a social worker in Queens. These years were marked by ill health and poverty.
She only met with Henry Miller once after the 1932 separation; on a trip to New York in the 1960s, Miller visited his ex-wife. He was astounded with the scene he encountered; ill and destitute, June was a withered fragment of the powerful women who had dominated his lifelong writing. June was still living in New York in 1969, but this is the last mention of her that I have been able to locate.
For an exploration of June's later years, I strongly recommend reading James M Decker's June Miller: Remnants Of A Life, published in the Nexus journal #3.
Incidentally, my postings on June seem to get more internet traffic than anything else I've ever posted. We all seem to be as fascinated with her as Henry was.
Also see my posting about June's employment at The Pepper Pot in Greenwich Village, as well as references to her in my on-going annotation of Miller's novel, Nexus.
The relationship between June and Anais Nin is explored on anais-nin.de.
The film stills used on this posting are of Uma Thurman and Fred Ward as Henry and June, in Philip Kaufman's 1990 movie, Henry & June.