Joan Maxine Miller was born to Augusta Barnett, a schoolteacher and housewife, and Isidore Miller, a Polish immigrant and clothing manufacturer, in Manhattan in 1922. She was their youngest child and only daughter, joining her older brothers, nine-year-old Kermit and six-year-old Arthur. While Arthur was his mother’s favourite, Isidore doted on little Joan. “After waiting so long for a girl,” she recalled, “there I was, this pretty angel … I was like a doll.”
“I was caught between Joan, who had clearly taken my place as chief baby, and my brother, whose stature I could not begin to match,” Arthur Miller wrote in his autobiography, Timebends: A Life (1987.) “Joan also introduced a new element of competition between Kermit and me, for it quickly developed that two boys could not hold the same baby at the same time, and there were constant outbreaks of fighting between us, as there would be for years to come.”
On June 1st, 1926 – Joan’s fourth birthday – her future sister-in-law, Norma Jeane Mortenson was born in the charity ward of a Los Angeles hospital. Unlike Norma Jeane, Joan grew up in a secure, loving environment. Despite having a large extended family, however, the Millers were somewhat reserved. “It’s not like most Jewish families,” Joan told Arthur’s biographer, Martin Gottfried (from Arthur Miller: His Life and Work, 2003.) “We didn’t celebrate birthdays, not even with birthday cards. Nobody would presume to break in on the other person’s privacy.”
The Millers’ prosperity was shattered after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when Isidore lost much of his wealth due to bad investments. Like many other Americans during the Great Depression, the family were forced to move to a more modest home, in Brooklyn. “Arthur carries scars from that time,” Joan said. “It doesn’t take a great observer to notice that. It is a memory, in his nerves, and in his muscles, that he just can’t get rid of.”
For Joan, however, the change was less tangible. “As long as there was food in my body, I didn’t know the difference, and I never missed a meal,” she remembered. “My mother was the kind of balabusta [homemaker] that, even if there was just a can of tuna fish, all of the relatives could come visiting unexpectedly and there would be a banquet.” She never missed a day at school, and brother Kermit helped with her homework.
Joan would later describe Kermit as “the warmest human being you could ever imagine,” but her relationship with Arthur was more distant. “Arthur was not very demonstrative with me or most people,” she admitted to the Huffington Post. “I had two brothers, and they were very different. My older brother was more like a parent, he guided me through my teen years, and the closeness was there.”
“When we were kids living in Brooklyn, my parents had Arthur take piano lessons,” Joan said (as quoted in The Times.) “They couldn’t afford me taking lessons too. One day Arthur’s piano teacher was over and Arthur wasn’t. He was probably out playing touch football. My mother said: ‘Well, we can’t waste the money. Joanie, you take the lesson.’ I began playing. I wanted to be a concert pianist after that. I changed direction only when I realised I would never be a great pianist and discovered that I loved the theatre.”
While studying at the University of Michigan in 1936, Arthur wrote his first play, No Villain, which won him a $250 Avery Hopwood Award. The play was contemporary and heavily autobiographical, focusing on two brothers, one of whom, ‘Arny,’ a political radical, goes to college, while his more conservative brother stays at home and helps to rebuild the family business – just as Kermit had done. There was also a younger sister, ‘Maxine,’ after Joan’s middle name.
Arthur’s first Broadway play opened in 1944. Meanwhile, Joan was nursing her own ambition to become an actress. “But from the time I was a little girl I had the stage bug,” she told the New York Times. “It was like a big dream, like kids who want to fly to the moon today.”
When her fiancé was serving in the US Army during World War II, Joan followed him to a military base in Texas, and took a job as a pianist for a local radio station. Then in 1945 she made her professional acting debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and soon after played another Shakespearean heroine, Desdemona, in an off-Broadway production of Othello.
“Maybe on the surface it doesn’t make sense, but I think I would have gone into theatre anyway because my interest in acting goes back to when I was a young child, and that was well before Arthur turned to playwriting,” she revealed to the Southampton Press. “I didn’t think of acting as a way to make money. It was a dream, and only crazy people actually put their dreams to work.”
A year later, she married George J. Kupchik, a bacteriologist and environmental engineer. “When I decided to enter show business, I didn’t want Miller, for obvious reasons; I did not want to trade on my brother’s name,” she explained. “And you’ll have to admit that Kupchik is not a great stage name. So I went to the phone book to get a sound like ‘kup’ something. The closest I turned up was Copeland. Anyway, I like [Aaron] Copland’s music, even if I spell his name with an ‘e’.’”
Joan was one of the first to join the Actors Studio in 1948, and appeared in their inaugural Broadway production, Sundown Beach, directed by Studio co-founder Elia Kazan, who had recently overseen her brother’s success with All My Sons. “Arthur was hopeful in the early days and introduced me to a TV director, but he wouldn’t ask someone if I could be in their play,” she said. “Arthur was encouraging and had admiration. He didn’t lead me to [acting], but warned me it was tough. The work has to fit you. You have to go through the experience of losing and learning. You have to have the energy and willingness to be shot down.”
She then appeared in Detective Story, a gritty police drama starring Ralph Bellamy, later adapted for the big screen (with Cathy O’Donnell taking Joan’s role.) In 1951, her son, Eric Kupchik was born. At the same time, many actors, writers and directors were being blacklisted as anti-communist panic gripped America – a subject Arthur would address in The Crucible (1953.) “I wasn’t influential politically, like Arthur,” Joan recalled, but “because I was related to him, I was associated with the blacklist. My career suffered a lot because of it. At the time, I didn’t know that’s why I wasn’t getting work in television and radio. It was a disastrous happening to culture. Theatre was different; it was not affected as drastically.”
In 1954, Arthur was invited by the Arden, Delaware summer theatre to direct a revival of All My Sons, with Joan playing Ann Deever, the ‘truth-bearer’ of the story. However, it was not an experience he cared to repeat. “It was unsettling to find actors investing me with authority,” he wrote, “and less than ever did I want to be a director …” A year later, he escorted Joan to the New York premiere of The Rose Tattoo – an Actors Studio benefit – and was seen chatting with Marilyn Monroe at the after-party.
At first, Joan did not believe the gossip that Arthur – then married to Mary Slattery, with two children – was having an affair with Marilyn. “Unless I see evidence of hanky-panky, I just don’t believe it,” she explained. “I would hear snippets of rumours but I’d just pooh-pooh it because when you’re in that position of celebrity, people are going to say and write all sorts of terrible things about you. So I was guarded against any kind of malicious rumour. I didn’t ask Mary or Arthur about it. But Marilyn would search me out at the [Actors] Studio and we’d have lunch, talk about scenes. I guess she was trying to curry my favour, or maybe she just liked me.”
“Marilyn was already a Hollywood star but she wanted to be a complete actress,” Joan said. “She was rather shy, and after a while began sometimes to nod at me and smile … She didn’t think of herself as a fully-qualified actress. She felt out of her depth at the Actors Studio, though she shouldn’t have.” Arthur did not share their high regard for the Studio’s Svengali-like chief, Lee Strasberg. “I knew little of Strasberg beyond a nod and a handshake and the pervasive tales of his terrible temper,” he wrote. “Actors I respected, including my sister, Joan, revered him, although Monty Clift, a most astute analyst of acting and its problems, thought him a charlatan.”
By early 1956, Arthur’s marriage was over and his relationship with Marilyn was making headlines. “It was particularly difficult for Janie [his daughter],” Joan said of this period. “At twelve years old, imagine your father leaving your mother for this goddess.” They were married in July, and Joan joined them again in December, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for another Actors Studio fundraiser, celebrating the release of Baby Doll.
“She wanted to be part of our family,” Joan told Charles Casillo (author of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon.) “My mother made it comfortable for her, and my dad did. I did. So now she was in heaven because she had a nice boyfriend, she had a father, and a girlfriend. So it made her feel like an ordinary person. A real person who has a family … She loved being in the family, and the idea of having a family was sacred to her.”
“When she’d come to my parents’ place in Brooklyn, all the kids in the neighbourhood would gather outside the house,” Joan added. “They’d bring chairs and stools to stand on and get a good look at Marilyn as she was coming and going. They’d wait for her to come out. My mother would come to the door and yell, ‘Go away, children. Go away!’ She’d try to scare them away. Marilyn loved it.”
Joan often spent June 1st – their shared birthday – with Marilyn at the Millers’ home. “My father had the same birthday too, so we would celebrate it together,” she recalled. “My mother did the cooking and my father, Marilyn, and me, did the eating.” In the summer of 1957, Joan visited Marilyn and Arthur in their beach house at Amagansett. “It was right on the dunes. There are people in the area who still remember encountering them. That was my introduction to the East Hampton area. The house I bought there 30 years ago is very close to where Arthur and Marilyn lived.”
“She was very fond of my dad,” Joan said. “She was drawn to him immediately and they just had an instant connection. She liked my mother too – my mother would teach her to cook – like borscht – but she adored my father. And he adored her. When she called the house she would say, ‘Is Dad there?’ She loved saying ‘Dad.’ She felt it was such a privilege. That was so sweet and poignant.”
Once when Marilyn and Arthur went to visit the Millers for Sunday dinner, Marilyn asked Isidore – an expert in tailoring – if he liked her new suit. He assured her that he did like it, but Marilyn wasn’t satisfied. “But Dad what do you really think?” she pleaded, and the family watched in bemusement as she took her elderly father-in-law’s hand and ran it up down her waist and thigh to get a good feel of the fabric. “To an observer it looked sexual,” Joan admitted. “But Marilyn didn’t mean it in an erotic way. She was acting naturally and completely unaware of it. I mean, I saw her do provocative things deliberately, but this time it was in all innocence. Although it did raise my mother’s eyebrows.”
“When my son went into hospital with cerebral palsy,” Joan recalled, “Marilyn went to the hospital and she brought him an enormous television set for the children’s ward. And it was a big, big thing. She said, ‘This is for Eric and the other children.’ And it was so sweet … She stayed there and played with them until they had to close up the children’s ward. She kissed them all. It was hard for her to leave them. She was such a sweet person. And she loved children. She wanted to have them.”
In retrospect, Joan felt that some of Marilyn’s happiest moments were spent with the Miller family. “But that didn’t last too long,” she said. “A lot of good things in her life didn’t last very long. I think that’s another side of her character. She was always searching for something that she never did find …”
Many years later, Joan would find a letter from Arthur, sent during this happy period. “Just the other day I was going through correspondence, and I found this particular letter,” she said. “I was interested in reviving an old Noel Coward play with music titled Conversation Piece. I didn’t know how to go about getting the rights. I asked Arthur, who told me he had never met Coward but he would find out where he was and write him a letter. One of the things he wrote in this letter was, ‘You know, as I know, as any writer knows, that what really matters is what’s on the stage, not how close or distant you are from the work. I’m writing this because I think my sister is perfect for your material.’ It was very cut and dried: Arthur believed that as an actress I could do the Coward play. That meant a great deal to me.”
Marilyn, Arthur and the Millers would all attend the opening night of Conversation Piece, followed by a party at the Barbizon Hotel in November 1957. Earlier that year, Joan’s husband George Kupchik was among a group of Arthur’s associates who joined the board of directors for Marilyn Monroe Productions, the independent company Marilyn had initially formed with photographer Milton Greene.
Then in 1958, Joan made her big-screen debut in The Goddess, a thinly-veiled portrait of Marilyn by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Starring another Actors Studio alumni, Kim Stanley as ‘Rita Shawn’, the film drew upon Marilyn’s unhappy childhood, her struggles in Hollywood, and inner turmoil. Joan was cast as Rita’s aunt, ‘Alice Marie.’ How Marilyn felt about her sister-in-law’s involvement is unknown, but her lawyers had threatened legal action against the producers in 1957.
Chayefsky’s biographer, Shaun Considine, has suggested that he wrote the screenplay after Marilyn backed out of the screen adaptation of his play, Middle of the Night – she had attended the play’s opening in 1956 – and that she also rejected The Goddess, supposedly on Arthur’s advice (from Mad as Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky, 1994.) Marilyn’s only public comment on the movie was to praise Kim Stanley’s “marvellous” performance. Joan would also appear in the 1959 movie of Chayevsky’s Middle of the Night, starring Kim Novak. In 1960, she played barfly Cora in a television adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Arthur and Marilyn were divorced in January 1961, but Joan met Marilyn again that March, at Augusta Miller’s funeral. She was also at Madison Square Garden in 1962, at a 45th birthday gala for John F. Kennedy, when Marilyn sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President.’ Less than four months later, Marilyn was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills at home in Los Angeles. On Sunday morning, August 5th, Eric Kupchik was staying with his grandfather in Brooklyn and told him the shocking news, which Isidore did not believe until Joan confirmed it.
“She was very alluring,” Joan said in 2012. “She had a delicacy to her, a vulnerability unlike anyone I’d ever met. If you knew her well, it would not be too hard to get to her. The problem was if you didn’t like her, it was easy to hurt and damage her.” Joan was amazed by her former sister-in-law’s enduring fame. “Who would ever dream that there would be this enduring fascination fifty years later! I’m reminded of the hold Rudolph Valentino had on my mother and her generation. Now, people whose parents weren’t yet born when Marilyn was a big star are crazy about her, and she wasn’t a big star that long because she died so young.”
In 1963, Joan was an understudy to another troubled star, Vivien Leigh, in the musical Tovarich, eventually taking her place when Leigh (who won a Tony award for her performance) left on short notice due to illness. Joan was also a ‘standby’ for Katharine Hepburn in Coco, a musical about Coco Chanel.
Her years of hard work bore fruit in 1970, when she co-starred with Danny Kaye in the Richard Rodgers musical, Two by Two. Then in 1976, she starred in a touring production of Pal Joey (playing the role made famous by Rita Hayworth in the 1957 movie.) She had numerous roles in television soap operas including Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, and One Life to Live. Her return to the big screen came in 1977, with Roseland, a Merchant-Ivory portmanteau film set in New York’s Roseland Ballroom, as a widow who enlists the services of a gigolo (played by a young Christopher Walken.) And in 1978, she revisited the blacklist years in an off-Broadway play, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, cast as playwright Lillian Hellman.
Joan worked with Arthur again in one of his later plays, The American Clock (1980), playing Rose Baum, a character based on their mother. “It’s autobiographical, to a degree,” Arthur told the New York Times. “It’s also a return to a situation, a state of mind … As for the role of the mother, Joan had a completely different attitude about it than I have.”
“Don’t forget,” Joan responded, “I was a girl, Arthur was a boy. We see our mother differently. I saw my mother as very encouraging to all of us, as described in the play. There was a kind of competition between us … She did not talk about the family problems to me. I play her … well, I at first played her as I remembered her. But now I’ve got to play Arthur’s Rose Baum, not my Rose Baum. At first I approached her through my own knowledge of her. But Arthur keeps on saying that the way I played her was not the woman as he wrote her. She had more control over things. ‘Play it like any role, the way it’s written. Remember that no two siblings have the same parent,’ Arthur keeps telling me. So … y’know … now she’s an amalgam of how I see the role and how Arthur and the director see the role.”
Alongside Vera Simpson in Pal Joey, Rose Baum was Joan’s favourite role. “Arthur didn’t write the part for me but it’s one of the few roles I didn’t have to audition for my brother,” she recalled later. “I’ve had to audition for several of his plays and he always treated me as an actress, not a sister.” In 1983, she played another matriarch in a national tour of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
A few years after winning a Drama Desk award for The American Clock, she joined Arthur for the play’s London opening. “Just walking down the street with Arthur was like walking down the street with the Queen Mum,” she said. “People practically fell down on their knees. You don’t know how they even knew who he was, and it wasn’t just in Mayfair, or the theatre district. Wherever you were, people would just come up to him, just enthused.”
George Kupchik, Joan’s husband of more than forty years, died in 1989. Two years later, she won an Obie award for her performance in Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan. Set in the Catskills in 1960, the play was about the relationship between a controlling widow (Copeland) and her awkward daughter, played by Joan’s niece, Rebecca Miller – Arthur’s daughter by his third wife, photographer Inge Morath. Joan continued working onstage and played supporting parts in films such as The Peacemaker (1997) and The Object of My Affection (1998), plus a recurring role as a judge in TV’s Law and Order.
At Arthur Miller’s funeral in 2005, Joan delivered a speech from The American Clock. One of her last movie credits was The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee (2009), which Rebecca Miller wrote and directed, and Joan also appeared in her niece’s documentary, Arthur Miller – Writer (2017.) In her final years, she remained vital and glamorous, performing songs and talking about her life onstage in Joan’s Show. She was also a loyal supporter of her brother’s legacy, attending the Broadway revival of his masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 2012.
“I was brought up to be a success as an actress in theatre,” she reflected. “There was an emphasis on theatre then, now the emphasis is on television and film, and it’s not always the highest grade. The level of output in television and films is lower than it used to be. The measure of success now is how much money you make, or how many hits on the internet you get … Wanting to be an actor takes hard work, dedication and suffering. You have to be willing to march down that road. The goal is different now; it should not be to become famous or rich. People used to want to be artists.”
Joan Copeland died at her home in Manhattan on January 4th, 2022, aged 99.