Some Like It Hot, Some Like It Literary: A Playwright’s Life, With Marilyn
June 4, 2009 § Leave a comment
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe as a newly married couple in July 1956.
Illustrated. 739 pages. Harvard University Press. $35.
Times Topics: Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller was 35 and at the top of his career when, in 1951, he first set eyes on Marilyn Monroe. He was the author of “All My Sons” and “Death of a Salesman,” the first play to win all three major drama prizes (the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award). He would soon begin work on “The Crucible.” She was 24 and, with minor film roles behind her, virtually unknown.
The occasion was a Hollywood party in Miller’s honor. A married father of two, he was dazzled by the erotic scenery. Women were clearly on offer to him. He had, he would write, “never before seen sex treated so casually as a reward of success.”
When Monroe arrived, she was “almost ludicrously provocative,” he wrote, squeezed into a dress that was “blatantly tight, declaring rather than insinuating that she had brought her body along and that it was the best one in the room.” The director Elia Kazan caught “the lovely light of lechery” in Miller’s eyes.
Miller and Monroe would not meet properly until a short time later, on the lot at 20th Century Fox. Each was jolted awake by the other. For Monroe, meeting him “was like running into a tree!” she recalled. “You know, like a cool drink when you’ve got a fever.” But Miller — tall, Lincolnesque, a beacon of now troubled moral probity — returned to his life and family in New York. Monroe would soon marry Joe DiMaggio. She wouldn’t see Miller again for several years, and they would not marry until 1956.
The long, strange, elegiac ballad of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe — one that would end for her in miscarriages, bottles of pills and increasingly erratic behavior, and for him in a long gap in his theater career — takes up only a few chapters of “Arthur Miller: 1915-1962,” Christopher Bigsby’s sober and meteor-size new biography. But they are crucial chapters. The book moves inexorably toward Monroe’s appearance; her magnetism sucks everything rapidly toward it. Miller’s long life (1915-2005) can be cleaved neatly into B.M. and A.M. — before Marilyn and after.
Miller’s story has already been told in his own very readable autobiography, “Timebends,” and most recently in Martin Gottfried’s punchy and quarrelsome 2003 biography. Mr. Bigsby, a British academic — the back flap refers to him as “professor of American Studies and the director of the Arthur Miller Center at the University of East Anglia” — arrives with new material, notably boxes of papers, including unfinished manuscripts, made available to him before Miller’s death. He is a more sympathetic witness to Miller’s life than Mr. Gottfried, if more prone to pedantic literary and cultural analysis. But the basic outlines of Miller’s story are unchanged and as fascinating as ever.
The second of three children, Arthur Miller was born into wealth. His father, a Jewish émigré from Poland, was illiterate but a powerful businessman whose women’s clothing company employed some 400 people and sent salesmen across the country. The Miller family lived on East 110th Street in Manhattan; they owned a summer house in Far Rockaway, Queens; they employed a chauffeur.
It all came apart. Miller’s father had invested heavily in the stock market and during the Depression lost nearly everything. The family was exiled to Brooklyn, into what Miller later referred to as Willy Loman territory. The teenage Miller delivered bread each morning at 4 a.m., before school, to help the family get by.
More interested in sports than in studying, Miller got into the University of Michigan, where he began writing plays and sharpened his interest in radical politics — an interest that would lead to his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. (Miller had attended Communist Party meetings but said he had not been a member; he was convicted of contempt of Congress, a charge later dismissed, for not naming others who had attended.)
He graduated from Michigan in 1938 and moved back to New York, where he wrote radio plays until he could get his more ambitious work staged. In 1940 he married his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery. His first play to be performed on Broadway, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” was clubbed by critics and closed after four performances in 1944. Three years later “All My Sons” hit Broadway — it defeated Eugene O’Neill’s “Iceman Cometh” to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award — and Miller was off and running.
Mr. Bigsby’s book is crammed with piquant details. Miller briefly lived in the same Brooklyn brownstone as the young Norman Mailer. (Mailer would later say: “I know he was thinking what I was, which was, ‘That other guy is never going to amount to anything.’ ”) Miller drafted parts of “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” in verse. He wrote the first half of “Death of a Salesman” in a single grueling day and night. He nearly gave “The Crucible” the title “Spirits.” He viewed Dustin Hoffman, the star of a 1984 revival, as a “slightly dictatorial” Willy Loman.
Mr. Bigsby, the sympathetic biographer, does give a strong taste of Miller’s critics. More than a few saw his work as programmatic. Mary McCarthy, for one, wrote that “Death of a Salesman” was “enfeebled” by Miller’s “insistence on universality.” (Mr. Bigsby has his fun with McCarthy, writing about her dislike of Eugene O’Neill: “She was fascinated enough with him to circle around his work like a bat sending out high-pitched shrieks in the hope that some kind of echo would come back.”)
Suddenly, there is the U.S.S. Monroe on the horizon, and it’s all narrative hands on deck. She capsizes this book the way she capsized, for a while, Miller’s life. We are, like him, happily pulled under. It’s good theater.
Monroe was rebounding from her unhappy nine-month marriage to DiMaggio. Miller was preparing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his own marriage had long been troubled. As the demonically quotable Kazan had earlier put it: “He was starved for sexual relief.”
The public didn’t exactly applaud this match. Gossip columnists fixated on, as Mr. Bigsby puts it, “a red in bed with America’s snow queen.” Mailer famously snarked that “the Great American Brain” had met “the Great American Body.”
Miller would give up his career to help guide hers, and he spent years working on “The Misfits,” directed by John Huston, for which he wrote the screenplay and she would star. On the set she’d be hospitalized and, around this time, have an affair with Yves Montand. The couple got a Mexican divorce in 1961; Miller would marry the Magnum photographer Inge Morath, whom he met during the filming.
With Monroe out of the picture — she died in 1962 — Mr. Bigsby pretty much folds up this big, busy tent. Miller went on to write important plays, notably “After the Fall” (1964), but his best work was in the distant rearview mirror.