It could be argued that Arthur Miller is now remembered as much for his four-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe as for his plays, including at least one masterpiece, Death of a Salesman. But in post-war theatre, only Tennessee Williams rivalled Miller in stature. When the outspoken, liberal playwright won the heart of America’s golden girl in 1956, many predicted this unlikely match would soon fail.
Nearly sixty years later, their marriage is the subject of a new book by Jeffrey Meyers. Its title, The Genius and the Goddess, presumably signifying Miller and Monroe respectively, is lifted from a 1955 novel by Aldous Huxley. A prolific biographer and critic, Meyer’s subjects are mainly literary, and male. As the jacket copy claims that Meyer and Miller enjoyed a long friendship, it’s unsurprising that from the outset, Meyers’ study seems unfairly biased towards Miller.
However, Monroe’s life dominates the early chapters. After describing her first encounter with Miller in 1951, when she was still a relative unknown, Meyers focuses on Marilyn’s unique trajectory from Los Angeles waifdom, through servitude in Hollywood, to the giddy heights of fame. But despite her extraordinary rise, Meyers seems to perceive Monroe as somehow predestined for disaster, describing her early life as ‘sordid’ and her family as ‘crazy’.
While Monroe undoubtedly had a tough childhood, so did many other children growing up during the Great Depression. It seems rather short-sighted to imply that the daily lives of ordinary, working-class people like Marilyn and her kin were so devoid of worth and dignity.
Recounting Marilyn’s years as a model and starlet, Meyers repeats the tired old rumours that she degraded herself, working as a call-girl and undergoing multiple abortions. Such allegations have never been proved. Of course, Marilyn’s beauty and sexuality were integral to her appeal, but it does not follow that she was a mere plaything of men.
At last, Meyers’ attention turns, albeit briefly, to Miller. He dismisses Miller’s father, whom Marilyn came to adore, as ‘ignorant’. Discussing Miller’s first marriage, to Mary Slattery, he depicts her as dour and repressed, echoing Miller’s bemusement at his wife feeling disgusted when he first told her that he was attracted to another woman (not Marilyn.) Though Meyers interviewed Slattery for his book, he failed to win her confidence: ‘I told her that she’d been repeatedly characterised as a dull, sexless wife who’d been cast off when someone better turned up. Instead of defending herself, she self-effacingly said, “Maybe I was.”’
Miller’s affair with Monroe began in 1955, when she had moved to New York in the hope of escaping her punitive studio contract and proving herself as not just a sex symbol, but a ‘serious’ actress. Smitten with Marilyn, Miller left Slattery, who had supported him throughout his early career and given him two children. The theme of adultery is often touched upon in Miller’s plays, such as The Crucible where a married man is undone by his lust for a young girl who then betrays him.
Had the tide of events not overtaken them, the two lovers might have drifted. But in June 1956, Arthur Miller was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for attending communist meetings in the 1930s. He had never been a party member, and refused on principle to name colleagues and friends. In a rush of publicity, Miller announced his engagement to Marilyn and they wed later that month. Meyers rightly states that Monroe risked her own reputation in defending Miller, who was later cleared of contempt. She believed whole-heartedly in his innocence and despised ‘that whole red-baiting scene’.
But only weeks after the wedding, while filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England, Marilyn found her husband’s journal open on their dressing table, and read an entry which apparently revealed his disappointment in her as a wife.
Borne of an adulterous affair, and compounded by haste, the Millers’ relationship was never an easy ride. If Miller had idealised Marilyn as ‘some kind of angel’, it seems likely that Marilyn also had unrealistic expectations of Arthur, comparing him to her girlhood hero, Abraham Lincoln, shortly after their first meeting.
But despite these ill omens, the first year or two of their marriage seems to have been relatively calm and settled. Photographs taken by Sam Shaw in the summer of 1957 seem to show a couple still deeply in love, but Meyers devotes barely more than a paragraph to this happy period.
Considering their personal connection, Meyers has little insight to offer on Arthur’s true character. The overall picture is of a rather passive, ineffectual man, overwhelmed by his wife’s growing sadness. This is hardly a flattering picture, and may not tell the whole story. Miller was certainly capable of influencing Marilyn’s decision-making, as shown by the dissolution of her business partnership with Milton Greene. Her independent company was thereafter managed by Arthur’s lawyers, and never produced another film.
As a series of miscarriages led Marilyn into a growing despair and dependence on prescribed drugs, her marriage to Arthur began to flounder. As Meyers shows, Marilyn eventually tired of the role of country wife. On more than one occasion she goaded Arthur publicly, and in private he was becoming less of a companion than a helpless bystander as her health continued to slide.
It is possible that Marilyn needed a more dynamic partner who could boost her fragile self-esteem. Perhaps she and Arthur were, finally, incompatible; not intellectually, as has often been assumed, but on an emotional level. People who knew Arthur well have described him as reserved and ill-equipped to express his feelings, and the acutely sensitive Monroe may have interpreted this as rejection. But Meyers will not allow for a more balanced analysis, and barely mentions that Miller was also in treatment for depression at the time.
Less attention is devoted to the quality of Monroe’s acting than her behaviour on the set. However, he does praise Some Like It Hot, her most successful film, and The Misfits, which was written by Miller.
The Misfits (1961) would be Marilyn’s last completed movie and boasted a stellar cast, including Clark Gable (another of her idols) and Montgomery Clift. John Huston, the director, had given Marilyn her breakthrough role in The Asphalt Jungle ten years before. Miller had intended his story of a lonely divorcee, who befriends a group of cowboys in Reno, as a ‘valentine’ to Marilyn. However, Monroe had grave misgivings about the story, and her role. By the time filming began, the Millers’ marriage was all but over. Her performance was nuanced and mature, and The Misfits was an artistic triumph for Miller, though not, at first, a commercial success.
Reflecting on the script, Meyers seems not to fathom why Marilyn felt so uncomfortable at the very specific references to her traumatic past in the dialogue – her mother’s mental illness is alluded to, and risqué pin-up shots from her modelling years are shown in another scene. It’s quite possible that Marilyn felt Miller had betrayed her trust.
Meyers describes Monroe as Miller’s ‘tragic muse’, and certainly her presence can be felt in much of his later work – most notably in After The Fall, first staged in 1963, a year after Marilyn’s death. Many felt that Miller’s portrayal of ‘Maggie’, a pop singer mired in addiction and depression, was a cheap shot at Monroe. On the other hand, Miller’s own guilt at failing to ‘save’ his wife is powerfully evoked in After The Fall’s other main character, ‘Quentin’.
During their marriage, Miller published very little, and Meyers speculates that Marilyn, with all her personal troubles, was ‘devouring’ him creatively. In fact, she had supported Miller financially, as well as emotionally during his long court battle, and it was her own money that helped to fund The Misfits in the planning stages.
Soon after divorcing Marilyn, Arthur married the photographer Inge Morath and seemingly found lasting contentment. During his early years with Marilyn, friends like Norman Rosten spoke of how Arthur had ‘opened up’, as if Marilyn’s warmth and vitality had a positive, and lasting impact on him. For her part, Marilyn later said ‘Arthur Miller taught me about the importance of political freedom in our society’. Unfortunately, this legacy is not reflected in Meyers’ assessment of their marriage, and he also snipes at the fond memories people like Carl Sandburg and Edith Sitwell had of Marilyn.
‘This book is based on a substantial amount of new information’, Meyers claims on his acknowledgments page. There is an appendix and bibliography, and a rather superfluous list of Monroe’s medical procedures (though, predictably, not Miller’s). Curiously, he even names the people who declined to be interviewed. Meyers’ text is padded out with long quotations, and some interesting commentary, but there is little here that hasn’t been covered in previous publications.
Some of his more lurid allegations about Monroe come from controversial sources, such as Lena Pepitone, Monroe’s maid whose ghost-written memoir first appeared in 1979, plus Ted Jordan and Jeanne Carmen, whose alleged association with Marilyn is still contested by some fans.
Arthur Miller, like Marilyn, is sometimes treated as more of a monument than a human being. Lionised by the Left and demonised by the Right, Miller’s own privacy was invaded posthumously, when in 2007, a Vanity Fair article revealed that, in 1962, he fathered a disabled son whom he never acknowledged. But though in reality Arthur Miller may sometimes have fallen short of his own moral standards, nonetheless he still deserves the highest praise for his unique dramatic vision and political courage.
The Genius and the Goddess is a solid compendium of existing material on the Monroe-Miller marriage, but unfortunately it does not deliver the truly ground-breaking insights that Meyers promised. Due to his blatant subjectivity towards Miller and against Marilyn, it also leaves a bitter aftertaste.
For Arthur Miller’s own account of the marriage, I recommend his autobiography, Timebends, and for a more objective view, Martin Gottfried’s 2005 biography, Arthur Miller: A Life is worth reading. In her 2006 ‘biography of biographies’, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Churchwell analyses the conflicting perspectives on Monroe’s life, and offers a feminist reappraisal of her persona.