IN GETTING FROM STOCKHOLM TO BIG SUR Magnus Toren took the long way around. Having considered a career in medicine as a young man, in 1975 he found himself teaching English at elementary and math at middle school. Then, one day in a Stockholm pub a friend invited him to join a small group and sail around the world. As he put it to me, “I dropped everything and went sailing.”
When the boat left Stockholm, Toren found a copy of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi on his bunk and devoured it. Later that year, 1977, he left his sailing mates in Barbados for a “land trip” and flew to New York. There, another airport arrival, a stranger called Stephen Duffy, offered him a lift into the city. It was late at night at the short end of the year. “I wound up staying with him for ten days.” A knowledgeable jazz fan and artist, Duffy introduced his young new friend to the jazz scene in Greenwich Village. “He had carte blanche at all the jazz clubs,” Toren recalls. “I couldn’t have imagined a better introduction to the US.” When Duffy took him to Central Park to play softball, “I thought I had walked into a Simon and Garfunkel album.”
In 1978, Toren hitchhiked through Big Sur. Then “picked up the boat in Panama.” They got as far as Tonga when, in the night, the boat broke loose from its moorings and crashed and sank on a reef. “After that I stopped sailing for seven years.”
Toren moved to Big Sur in 1984. A bit footloose, he noticed a young woman from a distance. “It was impossible to get her attention,” he says. “I was smitten.” Then one fateful day, “I had a motorcycle accident just south of Fernwood [Big Sur resort] and she came with me in the car to the hospital. It was our first date.” Now, thirty-two years later, Magnus and Mary Lu Spigarelli make their home on Partington Ridge.
From the beginning, “I took an interest in the natural environment and history of the area,” Toren says. “I only got to know about the personal life of Henry Miller from Emil White.” It was White who founded the Henry Miller Memorial Library after Miller’s death in 1980. “He hadn’t planned this until Henry died,” Toren told me. Miller once described White as “one of the few friends who has never failed me.” White himself was a talented artist and bigger-than-life personality in the Big Sur community. “He owned the house that became the Henry Miller Memorial Library,” Toren said. “He opened the library in 1980 as a memorial to Miller and also to himself.”
Initially, the Big Sur Land Trust partnered with White to maintain the property and provide a gallery where local artists could display their work. Before his death in 1989 White devoted his life “as director of the institution which evolved into a local center for the arts,” as the HMML website puts it.
Toren took the job of executive director in 1993. Five year later, “we decided to separate from the Land Trust and go our own way as an independent non-profit with our own bylaws and new board members.” Toren immediately recognized the allure that Big Sur offered to artists and writers, and soon realized that among writers were those whose own work reflected Miller’s influence. He made writers’ workshops part of the library’s mission. “Some of them believe Miller changed their lives,” he says.
(Anyone who knows Toren today will recognize that his photo, above, is several years old.)
Today, the HM Memorial Library remains an arts magnet within the Big Sur community, and beyond. Toren cites White’s vision as the driving force behind the live concerts, films, poetry events and book signings, both indoor and out on the deck and lawn that separates the library from busy Highway 1. In recent years, famed composer Philip Glass has sought to make a home for his Days and Nights music festival in Big Sur. But limitations of space to accommodate visitors to high profile events has inhibited the growth Glass has hoped for. “We have space for 120 to 150 people at best,” Toren says. And parking has been a real headache.
Moreover, Toren’s challenges include securing grants to make many events viable. “It hasn’t been so much an outreach as a few individuals who have made many of our performance events so extraordinary,” he says.
And there’s an even bigger concern. He speaks of the entire Big Sur community when he says, “We are having significant difficulty maintaining our services which are under threat of being overused,” he says. “Quantity is impacting quality to the detriment, in some cases, of the landscape, and also the symbolic experience of our community lifestyle. Our land use plan emphasizes the extraordinary visual beauty of Big Sur. At this point we are suffering from overuse.”
As a consequence, Toren sees a growing conflict, “personally and for the library to balance the need for visitors with the commercial. We don’t want to lose the essence of Big Sur.” Yet he admits, “I don’t have an answer. The visitor experience is eroding and the landscape is wearing down. I think we have to deal with it as a community.” Instead of lying awake nights worrying, and while also managing a boatload of responsibilities for running the HMML, Toren allows himself some time off by playing and singing (backup he says) in a country rock band that performs at Barmel in downtown Carmel. “I’m the lost friend who went to America to sing in a country band,” he jokes. “I’ve finally arrived.”