Article and photo illustration by Joe Livernois
The cosmic particles must have been connected in some way. Or perhaps intergalactic planets were eventually placed over Big Sur. However, I was grateful when I learned, via a text message I received this week from Idaho, that the secret was there ““Naked in the tall grass” issue has been resolved.
For 20 years I’ve been at a loss as to how I came into possession of this particular treasure—this relic of Big Sur magic—after discovering it at a random yard sale on a rural side road in Bruneidale on a Saturday afternoon.
I told the story last year: “Naked in the Tall Grass” is a portrait of a beautiful woman taken by the late Edna Bullock, one of the best photographers in central California. The image evokes a little goddess in black and white. Bullock had dedicated the song “Naked” to Emile White on the occasion of Emile’s 88th and final birthday. White was a Big Sur, a legendary artist, an unrepentant libertine, and an accomplished seducer. He was also Henry Miller’s best friend. I bought the picture at a yard sale, I knew where it came from but I was confused because it looked so far away from where it should have been.
Little goddess or not, how did “Nude” end up at a desperate yard sale, discarded like common junk, leaning on a folding table in the dusty driveway of a modest home in Brunydale, available for just a five-dollar bill. This was my puzzle, and I couldn’t solve it until Eileen Esplin stepped forward this week.
Because I have already told the tale in detail, I will not repeat it here. But if you haven’t read about Emil & Edna, or if you want a reminder, you may find my original story here. Pour yourself a warm cup of tea and warm up before you do. And if the story was interesting, you’re welcome to come back here to find out how the mystery was solved.
I solved the puzzle about a year ago after finishing my story. Shortly after the story was published, she donated the photo to its rightful place, giving it to Barbara Bullock Wilson, so she could add the photo to her late mother’s collection at UC Santa Cruz. I never believed that Naked in the Tall Grass was mine, even if I had bought it fair and square. I haven’t thought about her again since I left her.
And then, earlier this week, quite unexpectedly, Elaine Esplin texted my wife Loma explaining how “Nude” ended up at that miserable yard sale.
Esplin and Luma worked in different departments in the same county office for several years. It turns out that Esplin is Emil White’s niece.
Esplin told Loma she found my story and remembered being sold “naked” 20 years ago at a yard sale. Her brother, Paul White, died suddenly, and Esplin was left with the task of removing items from his home in Brunnedel. “Nude” was among the many pieces of art he had stored that Esplin wanted to dispose of at a yard sale.
“I was left to deal with his hoarding and collecting life,” she told me in an email this week. “At the time I had no doubt that the picture was valuable, but I was overwhelmed with getting rid of all his possessions and selling his house as well.”
Until then, Esplin says she eventually acquired a lot of Emile’s artwork and ephemera. Her parents, who died shortly after her brother, also owned a collection of Emil’s items. I’ve kept most of them for 20 years. She even carried everything 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 kids wouldn’t want that, so she offered everything to her cousin Stefan.
Stefan was Emil’s son, and the relationship between them was complicated. Emil “wasn’t nice or easy with his sons,” Esplin says, an idea that Stefan himself made clear during our email exchange last year.
But Stefan spent 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 “did our best to mend our fractured relationship.” Emil died in 1989, shortly after Edna Bullock dedicated “Nude” to him at his 88th birthday party. Stefan now lives in Austria. Edna died in 1997.
Stefan told Esplin that he didn’t really want his father’s things, but he suggested she gift them all to the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur. With help from the Big Sur Land Trust, White established the library at his home more than 40 years ago to honor Miller. The nonprofit bookstore and research center remains dedicated to the bohemian author who lived along the South Coast for 18 years. The library is also one of the coolest music venues in all of Central California.
Esplin sent a large box filled with things of Emile White to the library.
Recently refocusing her attention on Emil, she discovered my story about “Naked in the Tall Grass.”
“When I read your article about Emil and Edna… I had to solve this (puzzle) for you,” she says.
Originally from Chicago, Esplin says she spent time as a child with her uncle in Big Sur during the summers. I moved to Big Sur in 1969 at Emil’s invitation and stayed there for six years. I worked in Nepenthe for a while, then in Ventana. She met many of Emile’s enterprising friends during those years, including Henry Miller and his sons.
Emil displayed a public, scandalous charm that seemed to be very popular with the ladies. It was a character Henry Miller devoted, with admiration, in many of his literary descriptions of his friend. But Esplin says it wasn’t easy getting along with Emil. When Stefan was still a young boy, Emil’s ex-wife moved herself and their children to Australia to get away from Emil as much as possible. “The family certainly narrowed down Emile’s style,” Esplin says.
Esplin says she’s not sure how her brother ended up “naked in the tall grass.”“. “Maybe 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 teacher at Seaside Adult School and a pottery teacher at Sunset Center in Carmel. He was also a bit chunky, Esplin says. Sorting through his things after his death was exhausting.
Because of that experience, she decided to start getting rid of her own things, 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 because I was discovered “naked.”“ At a yard sale that day. “I’ve got what you think is treasure, and I have one less piece of ‘stuff’ to deal with,” she says.
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