Marilyn Monroe and the Miller Tale

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller

Marilyn and the Miller tale
Christopher Bigsby

December 07 2008 04:48 AM

IT was in 1951 that Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan climbed aboard the Super Chief passenger train in New York, heading towards Los Angeles. Though the writer and his director had high hopes for their new screenplay, The Hook, it was something more than a business trip. It was a chance to get away from New York, from the daily routine of writing and, in Miller's case, from his tense marital life with Mary, his wife of 10 years. "For a man of 35," he lamented, "I seemed to have done nothing but work... When, I wondered, does one cease to work and start to live?" The answer, it seemed, was now. Miller first met Marilyn Monroe on the Fox lot. He and Kazan watched her at work on the set of As Young as You Feel. It was a nightclub scene and she was required to walk across the floor in a black open-work lace dress, swaying her hips in a way that Miller would later insist was natural to her (her footprints on a beach, he explained, "would be in a straight line, the heel descending exactly before the last toe print, throwing her pelvis into motion"). Others, less emotionally committed, spoke of her lowering the heel on one shoe to create the effect. When the shot was over, she crossed to Kazan, who had met her once before with the agent Johnny Hyde, tears in her eyes, still upset by Hyde's death. "From where I stood, yards away," Miller wrote in Timebends, "I saw her in profile against a white light, with her hair coiled atop her head; she was weeping under a veil of black lace that she lifted now and then to dab her eyes. When we shook hands, the shock of her body's motion sped through me." It was at a party a few days later that the relationship between Miller and Monroe seems to have started. The party was thrown for him, and a number of young women were invited. The two of them danced together. He remembered a comment made at the time by the actress Evelyn Keyes, ex-wife of John Huston: "They'll eat her alive." It made him feel protective towards her. That Marilyn Monroe should prove so disturbing to Miller is not surprising; that she should have been attracted to him, not part of the Hollywood power system and with apparently little to offer in the way of advancement to her career, would be surprising only if she saw relationships purely in such terms. In some ways, the attraction seems to have come precisely from the fact that he was outside the system. Certainly, she was to say of this encounter that it "was like running into a tree! You know, like a cool drink when you've got a fever." Miller talked to her into the early hours. He was impressed by her sensitivity and her sense of reality; she responded to his gentleness. He spoke to her of the theatre and suggested that she go east for actor training, insisting that she could have a life in the theatre. No one had taken her seriously as an actress before, and now a famous writer was suggesting that she had the talent to succeed on Broadway. Later, she recalled the meeting and its impact on her. "I didn't see him for about four years. I used to think he might see me in a movie and I wanted to do my best because he had said he thought I ought to act on the stage. People who were around and who heard him, laughed, but he said, 'No, I'm very sincere.'" Speaking in the early 1990s, Mary Miller confessed that she knew something had happened on her husband's trip west. He was restless, she recalled. He was, though, for a while, seemingly reconciled with his wife, to whom he dedicated his next play. But there were, he acknowledged, "parched evenings when I was on the verge of turning my steering wheel west and jamming the pedal to the floor". He took to riding his bicycle aimlessly around Brooklyn, as he had in 1949 when he was "looking for something real" or simply preparing for some imagined escape. Monroe, meanwhile, after her first encounter with Miller, had been inspired to sign up for a University of California extension course in literature and art in February 1951. He sent her a reading list. Condescended to by movie moguls and seen as a commodity, she seems to have genuinely worked at a regimen of self-improvement. Now, though, she had an added incentive. She had fallen for a writer. The Seven Year Itch finished shooting on November 5, 1954. In December, she flew to New York, announcing, "In leaving Hollywood and coming to New York, I feel I can be more myself. After all, if I can't be myself, what's the good of being anything at all?" Then, in April, she sub-leased an apartment in the Waldorf Astoria Towers. At the suggestion of Cheryl Crawford, one of its founders, she enrolled in the Actors Studio, whose alumni included many of the best-known names in the American theatre and cinema. Monroe, who had made the acquaintance of Paula Strasberg in Hollywood when Strasberg was visiting her actress daughter, Susan, effectively became the Strasbergs' protegee, and a relationship began that Miller was not alone in regarding as destructive, whatever it may have done for Monroe's confidence as an actress. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1955, Miller and Monroe met regularly, unknown to almost everyone. In an interview in July that year, she said that she was thinking of buying a house in Brooklyn. The interviewer noted an English bicycle by the kitchen on which, she explained, she cycled in Central Park and on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. What she did not reveal was that the man who cycled with her was Arthur Miller. On June 10, the gossip columnist Walter Winchell announced: "Playwright Arthur Miller, reported next husband of Marilyn Monroe, will get his marital freedom tomorrow. Next stop trouble. The House Un-American Committee subpoena for Arthur Miller will check into his entire inner circle, which also happens to be the inner circle of Miss Monroe, all former communist sympathisers." Once in Washington, Miller conferred with his lawyer who, famously, passed on an offer from Francis Walter, chairman of the committee, to waive the hearing if Monroe would pose for a photograph with him. As Miller later remarked, "That's how dangerous he really thought I was. When I heard this, I said no. He then got back on his horse and acted as though I really was a danger to the country. They were headline hunters, that's all." Monroe's opinion of the committee was unequivocal: "The bastards, I won't let them do it to him. He's got to tell them to go f--- themselves, only he can do it in better language." It was before the committee that Miller announced his impending marriage. In answer to a question about his planned travel to Europe, he replied: "I have a production, which is in the talking stage in England, of A View from the Bridge, and I will be there with the woman who will then be my wife." This was a surprise to Monroe. On the evening of June 29, Miller and Monroe were married in a civil ceremony. Two days later they married again, this time in a Jewish ceremony in Waccabuc, Westchester, in the home of his literary agent, Kay Brown. "Marilyn had a yearning to belong," Miller said later. Monroe's conversion began and ended with the wedding ceremony, though she did once help Miller's mother prepare chicken soup and matzo balls. There were some 30 friends and relatives present. Miller had to borrow his mother's ring (buying a new one the following week, inscribed, 'A to M, June 1956. Now is forever'). Two weeks after marrying, on July 13, 1956, they left for London. This was to be a working honeymoon, shooting The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier, and Miller's real introduction into what life with a filmstar wife would be like. They travelled with 27 suitcases and excess baggage charges of $1,500. For Olivier, Monroe was schizophrenic, charming and aggressive by turns, wishing to be liked, yet doing everything to alienate those with whom she worked. Sure that he was fated to have an affair with her when they first met, he was barely able to speak to her when they finished filming. By degrees, familiar problems began to emerge -- familiar, that is, to those who worked with Monroe, if not yet to her husband. If movie-making was her profession, it was also a kind of agony for her, as she tried to learn her lines and win what seemed to her necessary battles with those she believed belittled her. One scene, in which she had to eat caviar, took two days of shooting, 34 takes and 20 jars of caviar. Olivier suggested that she should simply mime, rather than actually eat it, but she refused. She also refused to allow the substitution of apple juice for the champagne she was supposedly drinking. As a result, she began to slur her lines. After two weeks of filming, Miller flew back to New York, via Paris, to see his children, using an assumed name to avoid press interest. Monroe was not pleased and called a halt to filming, claiming to be suffering from colitis but in fact, it was assumed, she was resentful at being deserted at a time when she was feeling vulnerable. There was, however, another reason. She had been told in late August that she was expecting a baby. She lost it almost immediately. With Miller absent, the third director, Colin Clark, had assumed the unlikely and hardly credible role of comforter and adviser. He had stayed in her room one night when she awoke in pain, confessing that she was having a miscarriage: "It was Arthur's," Monroe said, between sobs. "It was for him. He didn't know. It was going to be a surprise. Then he would see that I could be a real wife, and a real mother." Asked how long she had been pregnant, she replied, "Just a few weeks, I guess. I didn't dare mention it to anyone, in case it wasn't true." From Monroe's point of view, if Olivier seemed to lack sympathy as a director, as an actor he was trying to vie for screen attention with her, and that was something she believed she understood. In his autobiography, Miller noted that she came to think that Olivier was "trying to compete with her like another woman, a coquette drawing the audience's sexual attention away from herself." Indeed, looking back, he was inclined to think that Monroe was correct in her belief that Olivier hated women. Once the film was in the can in November, the Millers left, after a public farewell with the Oliviers designed to squash rumours of discord. It was a carefully staged performance, lacking in sincerity. Both Monroe and Vivien Leigh, Olivier's wife at the time, were in a delicate mental state, while Miller and Olivier were acutely aware of the fragility of their marriages. For Miller, the trip, the Peter Brook production of A View from the Bridge aside, had been a disaster. As he was to remark, "England... had humbled both of us." Determined to start afresh, they went on a two-week delayed honeymoon, to Ocho Rios in Jamaica -- though, oddly, with his cousin Morton Miller and his wife. They walked on the beach and watched as the fishermen landed fish, though the sight of those fish gasping for air distressed Monroe. On returning to the city from Idlewild (now Kennedy) airport they came across the body of a dog, run over by a car. According to Morton, "Marilyn shut her eyes, covered her face with her hands, and shrieked." She was, Miller conceded, "over the top about animals, children, old people. She could be fierce about protecting them. She would get absolutely outraged that somebody had killed a fish. Although she ate fish, she didn't want to see them murdered." It was this kind of sensitivity that Miller would see again later that year and which he would capture in The Misfits, but it did not always extend to people. Not only was she peremptory with those she encountered on the movie set, but when a maid failed to follow orders to her satisfaction she was immediately fired. Miller and Monroe found respite on Long Island, where they spent the summer of 1957 at their farmhouse at Amagansett. Monroe walked around the wooden-floored house in shorts and a polka-dot shirt. There was a badminton set and they swam together, driving along the beaches and back roads in a jeep. Photographs show Miller, in baseball cap and swimming shorts, fishing, while Monroe, in a white costume, runs in the surf. In one picture they lean on one another as they walk through the shallows. For a while Monroe embraced domesticity, learning how to cook, hanging home-made pasta over the backs of chairs and drying it with a hairdryer. England now seemed no more than a bad dream. Their new relationship was apparently secured by another pregnancy. Friends later recalled that she was voluptuously overweight, lying in the sun. She was transformed by the possibility of a child. Here, it appeared, was what both had sought. He was no longer under the immediate threat of imprisonment. Hollywood was distant. They were together and now with the prospect of a child. They had a momentary if limited immunity. The summer idyll on Long Island, which had done so much to heal the wounds opened up in England, suddenly came to an end on August 1. While weeding the garden, Monroe doubled over in pain and had to be rushed to hospital, a journey of four hours. The pregnancy was soon revealed to be ectopic and, as a result, had to be terminated. It was not the first time she had lost a baby; it would not be the last. As Miller explained, she had gynaecological problems and "had treatments with a very good doctor in New York, but he finally couldn't manage it", adding, "In a way I'm not sure how good it would have been for her to have a child. It would have been an additional problem." Whether it was the miscarriage itself or a continuing depression, she resorted more and more to drugs, and the tension between them grew. There was a profundity to her despair that he seemed unable to penetrate, and she taunted him with his failure to rescue her. One evening, Miller came across Monroe collapsed in a chair from an overdose of sleeping tablets and called the emergency services. On another occasion, their friends and neighbours, Norman and Hedda Rosten, received a 3am call from Monroe's maid. They rushed over to find her stomach being pumped after an overdose. There was no publicity. All she could say was, "Alive. Bad luck." The director of The Misfits was to be John Huston, who had directed Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle, before she earned her reputation for awkwardness; he had no qualms at the idea of working with her again. They began to assemble a cast that might seem to guarantee success: Clark Gable, Monroe's childhood hero, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter. The ironies surrounding the shooting of the film were soon to become apparent. It was set in Reno, which boasted that it had processed 5,000 divorces the previous year. For Miller, it brought back memories of another failed marriage. Miller and Monroe rarely spoke to one another on location. Huston took him aside and urged him to try to get his wife off drugs or he would feel guilty as long as he lived, only subsequently realising the extent to which Miller had already exhausted himself in the effort to help her. On one occasion Monroe abandoned him in the desert where they were filming rather than allow him in her car. He was rescued by Huston. In 1981, Miller began work on a brief memoir entitled Reno -- '60 in which he recalled something of these events. He remembered, in particular, a telephone conversation with Paula Strasberg on the evening of one of the Nixon-Kennedy debates in the run-up to the presidential election. The phone rang in his room. She had called, she said, to tell him that Monroe was asleep. He asked whether Strasberg was with her at all times because he had been told Monroe had been seen wandering around the hotel, naked. (She had permanently moved out of their room.) After a few moments Strasberg admitted that Monroe had in fact been in the hotel elevator, travelling up and down, in the nude. His response was to settle down with a bottle of whisky. It was a new experience to be drinking alone. One day Miller was led into Monroe's bedroom by Strasberg in time to see a doctor looking for a vein in which to inject the sedative amytal. She screamed for him to leave. He retreated to continue work on the script of The Misfits. He made many small alterations, rewriting scenes overnight. In particular, he revised the ending. Since it had been designed in part as a fictional projection of a personal hope that the gap between himself and Monroe could be closed, he could not bring himself to allow it to end ironically, with the misfits left to go their separate ways. As the film edged towards its conclusion, the strain -- between husband and wife, actress and director, director and drama coach -- became ever more obvious. For Miller, the experience was "both sad and happy". What's very sad, he explained, "is that I had written it to make Marilyn feel good. And for her, it resulted in complete collapse. But at the same time," he added, "I was glad it was done, because her dream was to be a serious actress." Monroe returned to New York and every day for a week went through the hundreds of still photographs taken by Magnum photographers back in Nevada. She seems to have been in a strange frame of mind. The photographer Eve Arnold, who viewed the pictures with her, recalled that during this week Monroe had an interview with a European editor and asked Arnold to stay while she was interviewed. Monroe, when she opened the door for the woman, was wearing a black diaphanous robe with nothing underneath, and she had a hairbrush in her hand. She asked the woman, while she was getting her tape-recorder ready, whether she minded if she brushed her hair. No, of course not, said the woman. When she looked up, the actress was brushing her pubic hair. In the immediate aftermath of the filming Miller felt confused and exhausted, full of contradictory emotions, but -- in retrospect, somewhat astonishingly -- his despair lasted for only a short time. By December 14, just a month after separating from Monroe, he was with Inge Morath, the Magnum photographer he met on the set of The Misfits. On the afternoon of August 4, Norman and Hedda Rosten received a telephone call from Monroe. She was "bubbly, happy..." they recalled. "She spoke to both of us, an hour of talk, we passed the phone from one to the other. On the surface it was a happy exchange of news and hopes for the future: she was in great shape [not true]; she was planning to begin a film in the fall [fantasy]; her house was almost furnished [never to be]; she planned to come to see us and then take a gala trip to Washington for the opening of Irving Berlin's new musical, Mr President; she was getting film offers from all over the world [doubtful]... then she repeated How were we? How was I? And over and over... Then a rush of new thoughts: it was time to put the past behind and begin to live, let's all start to live before we get too old; why don't I fly out for a visit and talk about the old days of Brooklyn?" Just hours later, in the early morning of August 5, 1962, Monroe was dead, face down on her bed, an empty bottle of Nembutal tablets beside her. She had, reportedly, been planning to remarry Joe DiMaggio and left a letter to him expressing the hope that she would be able to make him happy. The letter broke off in mid-sentence. It was 20 years before Miller could cry at the thought of her death. Despite the bitterness between them, Monroe kept all the letters he ever sent her. They were found bundled together on her death. Asked by me, in 2002, what mementos he retained from their relationship, Miller could list only four or five letters. Otherwise, there was nothing to show for 12 years that had turned his life around. Then he stopped and pointed through the house they had planned together to the garage, which opens off the back of the kitchen, and added, "Those [letters] and her bicycle. It's been hanging up in there for 40 years." © Christopher Bigsby 2008. Extracted from 'Arthur Miller' by Christopher Bigsby, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, price €51.97

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