In the Beginning: Marilyn and Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller: American Witness, a new biography by John Lahr, will be published by Yale University Press on November 1st, as part of their ‘Jew­ish Lives’ series – and is available now via Kindle. (Previous subjects include Ben Hecht, ghostwriter on Marilyn’s unfinished memoir – see here.)

In ‘Along Came Marilyn,’ an article for Airmail, Lahr traces the origins of Arthur’s most dramatic relationship.

“Of all the requirements of biography—knowledge, style, interpretation, perseverance—perhaps the most underrated is luck. Mine was a four-page single-spaced letter Miller typed to his parents and circulated to his elder brother, Kermit, and his younger sister, Joan, at the time of his divorce in 1956, elaborating on his dead marriage and on his courtship of Monroe. (The letter was provided by Miller’s nephew Ross Miller, himself a university professor, who knew Miller well enough to speak at his funeral.) 

When they were first introduced, in Hollywood, Monroe was [Elia] Kazan’s squeeze; she was also his intended date to the producer’s party being thrown in Miller’s honour. But, due to a business meeting, Miller was Kazan’s courtly stand-in. When Kazan finally arrived at the party, he could see ‘the lovely light of desire in their eyes.’ ‘I was never alone with her for five minutes—although Mary [his first wife] never believed this and is incapable of believing it,’ Miller wrote about their first encounter to his parents on May 9, 1956.

‘She was unknown then, having appeared in a few pictures but not a star. I had certainly never heard of her. To everyone else, apparently, she was the sexy dame. To me she had a face bathed in tears, was scared to death, and could barely talk above a whisper. For reasons I have never understood I told her what I thought—which was that she would be a great star.’ He added, ‘I saw her three or four times over a period of three days, but never alone.’ That was it. Monroe kept a photo of Miller at her bedside; he returned to New York to work at his vexed marriage, but he kept Monroe’s paradoxical radiance forever in mind. ‘She wrote me twice and I replied, and said that she had to go her own way,’ Miller wrote to his parents.

By the time they re-met, in April 1955 in New York, where Monroe had moved to study acting at the Actors Studio, she had married and divorced Joe DiMaggio, become an international star, and was in the process of setting up her own production company … ‘She has more courage, more intimate decency, more sensitivity and love for humanity than anyone I ever knew in my life,’ he told his parents, announcing his love, adding, ‘We have had little continuous time together, really, and, while I want to marry her some day I can’t say now when it will be.’ Fifty-four days later, on June 29,1956, Miller and Monroe were married. It was a rookie mistake. As the letter reveals, Miller hardly knew his bride.

Although the media ballyhooed their differences—THE EGGHEAD AND THE HOURGLASS, THE GENIUS AND THE GODDESS, THE GREAT AMERICAN BRAIN AND THE GREAT AMERICAN BODY—both of them inhabited climates of loss; each saw salvation in the other. To Miller, who had lived so long in an emotional desert, Monroe was a kind of oasis. ‘I have come alive at last and I mean to keep myself that way,’ he told his parents. To Monroe, who was rudderless and ‘went for the drug of reassurance,’ as Kazan put it, Miller was a contact high—some kind of anchor, a father figure (she nicknamed him ‘Papa’), a teacher, and a talisman of her transformation and worth … But it was only when he accompanied Monroe to London and saw her at work on the crisis-torn set of The Prince and the Showgirl that Miller encountered for the first time the deep, anarchic currents of what she called her ‘terror beyond fear.’

‘I’d say out of five we had two good years,’ Miller said. ‘But her addiction to pills and drugs defeated me. If there was a key to her despair I never found it.’ The bond of trust between them had been broken within those first four months of their celebrated union. Monroe’s madness and his own stupidity were traumatising and indigestible.

In his subsequent work After the Fall, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, Everybody Wins, and Finishing the Picture (his last play, in the year before he died), Miller was still trying to make sense of it. His idealising letter to his parents is a rare demonstration in private of Miller’s emotional naïveté; something he could never quite admit in public. The closest he came was in a cut line from After the Fall: ‘Innocence kills.'”

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