Born in Minnesota, Nan was the daughter of a mine engineer. After graduating, she moved to New York and became a children’s radio host. She gave up her career on marrying Frank Taylor, who was then a publisher and editor to the playwright Arthur Miller.
In the late 1940s, the Taylors moved to Hollywood with hopes of bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, Tender is the Night, to the big screen. However, this project failed to get off the ground, and by 1952 they had returned east with their four sons.
After Taylor’s client, Arthur Miller, married Marilyn Monroe in 1956, he bought a farm in Roxbury, Connecticut, close to the Taylors’ home at Belle Haven, Old Greenwich. In his 1969 biography, Norma Jean: The Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe, author Fred Lawrence Guiles remarked that ‘to Marilyn, the Taylors were by far the liveliest and most convivial of Miller’s married friends. She came in time to confide in both Frank and Nan Taylor…’
Marilyn loved children, and made a great fuss of the Taylor boys, Mark and Curtice, who often came to the farm when Miller’s children, Bobby and Jane, were visiting.
Mark Taylor, then 14, recalled walking out with Marilyn one morning, when they came across Miller’s tenant farmer and his helper, loading a bull calf into a small truck. When Marilyn realised that the calf was being driven to the slaughterhouse, she became distraught. Her sensitivity to animals formed the basis of Miller’s short story, Please Don’t Kill Anything.
The Taylors sold their riding horse, Ebony, to the Millers, but the horse was skittish and Marilyn rode him ‘no more than two or three times’.
Another of Miller’s stories, The Misfits, was published in 1957. (Both are published in a recent collection, Presence.) He decided to write a screenplay based on it, and created a female lead for Marilyn to play. It was then proposed that Frank Taylor should produce the film.
Despite Miller and Taylor’s enthusiasm, it seems that Marilyn had misgivings about the script, and her character, ‘Roslyn’, from the outset. In her 1998 biography, Marilyn Monroe, author Barbara Leaming wrote of an incident when the Taylors visited Roxbury. Arthur read his screenplay aloud while Marilyn remained upstairs, unseen but noisily vacuuming.
By the time The Misfits began filming in Nevada, July 1960, the Millers’ marriage was strained. Marilyn’s health was delicate as she battled chronic stomach pain, plus insomnia and painkiller addiction. Nan Taylor arrived at their hotel room after one sleepless night. Miller was clearly exhausted, but reluctant to leave Marilyn. So Nan booked him a separate room and watched over Marilyn while he rested.
Over the course of the shoot, Nan Taylor witnessed many bitter arguments between the Millers. In August, director John Huston decided that Marilyn was unfit to work and temporarily closed down production. Feeling scapegoated by Huston (who reportedly spent each night at the gambling tables of Reno), Marilyn was furious, and according to Barbara Leaming, she then lashed out at Nan Taylor, who was unlucky enough to have broken the news.
The Misfits was a labour of love, ending in divorce for the Millers and the death of Clark Gable. It seems that Marilyn’s friendship with the Taylors also drifted at this time, and they attended the film’s premiere with Miller while Marilyn kept her distance. Her years with Miller, which had promised so much, had ended in disillusionment.
In January 1961, Miller heard that his ex-wife had been committed to a psychiatric ward. Desperately worried, he telephoned Nan Taylor for advice, but she told him to stay away. This proved to be the end of an era, and Marilyn died of an overdose less than two years later.
Nan Taylor dedicated herself to her family, and the local community. ‘My generation was the one that went for domesticity,’ she said in 1986. ‘But we became an army, a national corps of volunteers.’
In 1975, the Taylors divorced and Nan married psychiatrist Richard Abell four years later. Frank Taylor died in 1999. Nan managed a community information line, campaigned for education, and organised volunteers. In 1980, she went to Washington as a delegate to the White House Conference on Families.
Friends remember Nan Taylor Abell as a warm, caring and energetic woman, who loved to read the New York Times for hours on end. These are all qualities that Marilyn would have admired, and Nan’s memories of The Misfits are now a minor, but important part of Hollywood history.