Article and photo illustration by Joe Livernois
THE COSMIC PARTICLES must have connected somehow. Or maybe the intergalactic placement of planets finally aligned over Big Sur. However it happened, I was grateful to learn, via a text message received this week from Idaho, that the mystery of “Nude in Tall Grasses” has been solved.
For 20 years I puzzled over how I came to possess this particular treasure — this relic of Big Sur mystique — after discovering it at a random yard sale on a rural side road in Prunedale on a Saturday afternoon.
I told the story last year: “Nude in Tall Grasses” is an image of a lovely woman captured by the late Edna Bullock, one of the storied fine photographers of Central California. The photograph evokes a minor goddess in black and white. Bullock had gifted “Nude” to Emil White on the occasion of Emil’s 88th and final birthday. White was a Big Sur character, a fabled artist, an unrepentant libertine and an accomplished seductionist. He was also Henry Miller’s BFF. I purchased the photograph at the yard sale, aware of its provenance but mystified because it seemed so far from where it should have been.
Minor goddess or not, how did “Nude” end up at a desperate yard sale, discarded like common junk, leaning against a folding table on the dusty driveway of a modest home in Prunedale, available for a mere five-dollar bill. That was my mystery, and I couldn’t solve it until Eileen Esplin stepped forward this week.
Because I’ve told the tale already, in detail, I will not repeat it here. But if you haven’t read about Emil & Edna, or if you would like a reminder, you may find my original story here. Pour yourself a warm cup of tea and get cozy before you do, though. And if the story pleases, you are welcome to return here to learn how the mystery was resolved.
I HAD PUT THE RIDDLE TO REST about a year ago after finishing my story. Soon after the story was published, I donated the photo to its rightful place, giving it to Barbara Bullock-Wilson, so that she might add the photograph to her late mother’s collection at UC Santa Cruz. I never believed “Nude in Tall Grasses” belonged to me, even if I had purchased her fair and square. I hadn’t given her a second thought since I gave her away.
And then, earlier this week and quite unexpectedly, Eileen Esplin delivered a text to my wife Loma that explained how “Nude” ended up at that forlorn yard sale.
Esplin and Loma worked for different departments in the same county office for several years. It turns out that Esplin is Emil White’s niece.
Esplin told Loma that she stumbled across my story and remembered selling me “Nude” 20 years ago at the yard sale. Her brother, Paul White, had died suddenly and Esplin was left with the task of clearing out stuff from his Prunedale home. “Nude” was among the many pieces of art he had hoarded and that Esplin wanted to get rid of at the yard sale.
“I was left to deal with his hoarding and a life of collection,” she told me in an email exchange this week. “At the time I had no doubt the photo had value but I was more than overwhelmed (with) getting rid of all his possessions and selling his house too.”
Even then, Esplin says she ended up with a lot of Emil’s artwork and ephemera. Her parents, who died soon after her brother, also had a bunch of Emil’s stuff. She held onto most of it for 20 years. She even lugged it all with her when she moved to Idaho nine years ago. She recently realized that she needed to donate her Emil White collection to someone who might appreciate it. She knew her children wouldn’t want it, so she offered it all to her cousin, Stefan.
Stefan was Emil’s son, and the two of them had a complicated relationship. Esplin says Emil “was not kind or easy to his sons,” a notion Stefan himself articulated during an email exchange we had last year.
But Stefan did spend about a year in Big Sur in the late 1980s so he could be with his father at the end of his life. He says the two of them “did the best we could to patch up our torn relationship.” Emil died in 1989, not long after Edna Bullock gave “Nude” to him at his 88th birthday party. Stefan now lives in Austria. Edna died in 1997.
Stefan told Esplin he didn’t really want his father’s stuff, but he suggested she gift it all to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. With assistance from the Big Sur Land Trust, White founded the library in his home more than 40 years ago to honor Miller. It remains a nonprofit bookstore and research center devoted to the Bohemian author who lived along the South Coast for 18 years. The library is also one of the coolest musical venues in all of Central California.
Esplin dispatched a large box full of Emil White’s stuff to the library.
With her attention refocused on Emil recently, she discovered my saga about “Nude in Tall Grasses.”
“When I read your piece about Emil and Edna … I was compelled to resolve that (mystery) for you,” she says.
Originally from Chicago, Esplin says she spent time as a child with her uncle in Big Sur during the summers. She moved to Big Sur in 1969, at Emil’s invitation, and stayed for six years. She worked at Nepenthe for a time, and then at Ventana. She met many of Emil’s audacious friends during those years, including Henry Miller and his children.
Emil exhibited a roguish public charm that seemed to be popular with the ladies. It was a persona enshrined by Henry Miller, admiringly, in many of his literary descriptions of his friend. But Esplin says Emil was not easy to live with. When Stefan was still a young boy, Emil’s ex-wife moved herself and her children to Australia to get as far away from Emil as possible. “Family definitely cramped Emil’s style,” Esplin says.
Esplin says she’s not sure how her brother ended up with “Nude in Tall Grasses.” “Perhaps Emil gave it to him because Paul was also an ‘artist.’”
Paul White was an industrial arts teacher at Washington Middle School for many years. He was also a jewelry-making instructor at Seaside Adult School and a pottery teacher at Sunset Center in Carmel. He was also a bit of a hoarder, Esplin says. Sorting through his stuff following his death was exhausting.
It was because of that experience that she decided to start shedding her own stuff, including Emil White’s art, books, publications and ephemera. She doesn’t want to put her four children through a similar ordeal.
She says she was happy that I discovered “Nude” at the yard sale that day. “You got what you believe to be a treasure,” she says, “and I got one less piece of ‘stuff’ to deal with.”
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