After The Fall, Arthur Miller, Billy Fried, Bobby Kennedy, Bobby Miller, Connecticut, Focus, Jane Miller, Jean Miller, Ken Kesey, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Slattery, Rebecca Miller, Robert A. Miller, Robert Kennedy, Roxbury, The Crucible
Robert A. Miller, the film producer son of Arthur Miller, has died aged 74, as Billy Fried reports for the Laguna Beach Independent.
One of the privileges of hosting a radio talk show is getting to meet so many interesting personalities here in Laguna. But sometimes, serendipity reigns, and a fascinating person is plopped down right next door to you. Such was the case with Robert (Bob) Miller, who passed away on March 6, 2022, after a brief illness. It’s not easy being the son of anyone famous, let alone Arthur Miller, arguably America’s greatest playwright and third husband of Marilyn Monroe … You’d think these would be insurmountable odds for a normal life, but Bob was as humble, friendly and happy a guy as they come.
Robert Arthur Miller was born on May 31, 1947 in New York, to Arthur and his first wife, Mary Slattery, and their two-year-old daughter Jane. As Arthur Miller’s biographer, Martin Gottfried, wrote of this time, “Mary and Arthur had their bed in the living room while the master bedroom was used for ‘Junior,’ as Miller sometimes called him (at other times it was ‘Mister Robert’ after the current hit play) and the nurse … He certainly took to fatherhood, doting on little Jane while demonstrating a shamelessly conventional paternal pride in his infant son, regularly holding Robert in his arms and even feeding him.”
At the time, Arthur was enjoying his first Broadway success with All My Sons, which had opened in January. Two years later, his next play, Death of a Salesman, won the Pulitzer Prize. Mary, who had met Arthur in college, edited all of his early work and found Arthur his first publisher. Interviewed for the 2017 documentary, Arthur Miller – Writer, Robert recalled that his mother was “tough” and “spoke her mind.” He grew up in Brooklyn Heights, “back when the Dodgers were still there,” Billy Fried writes. “He would reminisce about walking the neighbourhood in summer and hearing the games broadcast out of every window, and always considered himself a Brooklyn boy at heart.”
Unfortunately, Arthur and Mary’s fifteen-year marriage would not survive his great success, and in 1955, they separated. Robert, then eight years old, remembered the “anger and tension around the house,” and was “mystified” to find Jane crying when Arthur said goodbye to their mother. Mary threw him out on his fortieth birthday, amid rumours of an affair with Marilyn Monroe – even Bobby Miller’s classmates were talking about it.
When Arthur married Marilyn in 1956, his family was thrust into the spotlight. While Bobby (his family nickname as a child) and Jane primarily lived with Mary, they often visited their father at the Manhattan apartment he shared with Marilyn, or at their country home in Roxbury, Connecticut. As Robert recalled to another Miller biographer, Christopher Bigsby, his mother “was always very scrupulous about making sure we were available and ready for those visits … However, if he’d cancel out at the last minute I would detect some annoyance or sarcasm.”
While Jane was initially wary of Marilyn, Bobby bonded with her easily. “While she could be pleasant and fun and bubbly and, you know, lovely,” he said, “she could go places that were just… she was in pain. You could see it come over her kind of in a way.” According to Robert, putting others first didn’t come naturally to his father, but Arthur’s efforts for Marilyn were tireless.
Her fondness for Bobby is evident in a handful of letters she sent him (archived on the Cursum Perficio website.) In the summer of 1957, a pregnant Marilyn and Arthur were staying in a holiday home at Amagansett, a small hamlet in East Hampton, on the South Shore of Long Island. On August 1, she was rushed to hospital in New York with severe stomach pain. It was discovered that her pregnancy was ectopic, and had to be terminated in order to save her life.
On August 9, a day before leaving hospital, she composed a letter to Bobby, who was away at summer camp. Other than to thank him for his “wonderful” cards and letters, she gave no hint of her trauma, instead focusing on the antics of Hugo, the Millers’ basset hound. “Guess what? I planted some flowers and Hugo loves them,” she wrote. “I mean, he doesn’t bother them. He doesn’t even pee on them. He just smells them … He is very lonesome for you and Janie.”
“We haven’t played badminton since you left because nobody plays as well as you – not even Norman,” she continued, referring to a close family friend, the poet Norman Rosten. “Your Daddy loves you very much and so do I. Sometimes Hugo is thinking of you. I can tell because he smiles.”
On August 22, Marilyn wrote again to Bobby from her apartment on East 57th Street. This sweet and funny letter was written in the voice of the notorious Hugo, who confessed that he had chewed one of Bobby’s baseballs and torn down the badminton net. “I am sorry I did this Bob,” the letter reads. “Daddy and Marilyn were away when I did these things. It was just because I was lonesome for all of you … The trouble is, I think, I miss you and Janie so much that if there is nothing to do here I tend to get into mischief.” The letter is signed, “Love from your friend and ankle-chewer …”
In May 1958, Bobby received a student report from the Little Red School House on Bleecker Street, one of New York’s first progressive schools. “Amiable and warm,” the report read. “Is well liked by all, in fact one of the most popular boys. Can’t always sit still, however …”
On July 16 Marilyn wrote to Bobby from Los Angeles, where she was taking ukulele lessons in preparation for her role as jazz singer Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot. “Maybe we can learn something together – you on the guitar and me on the ukulele,” she wrote, adding, “Don’t forget to write to your Dad. He hasn’t anyone to talk to except Hugo and Ebony (their horse) … I’ll write again, leaving you with this thought – Hugo can only get brighter as he gets older – he might even get smart enough to go camping.”
In 1959, Marilyn wrote Bobby another short note in the voice of her cat, ‘Sugar Feeny’ (one of Arthur’s nicknames for Marilyn.) She also sent a Hanukkah card to Bobby and Jane. Arthur and Marilyn separated in late 1960, shortly after filming The Misfits, which Arthur had written for her. In January 1961, as their divorce was finalised, Arthur took his children to the film’s premiere, which Marilyn also attended with her co-star, Montgomery Clift.
Marilyn’s last, and longest, letter to Bobby was written on February 2, 1962, in Los Angeles. She began by addressing her recent offer of a Christmas gift. “I don’t quite understand why it didn’t work out, and I am very sorry,” she told him, “but remember that in a few years you will be able to do more things that you want. What I am trying to say is that you will be growing up and having your own responsibilities (even though I still think, and agree with you, that it would be fun to have a phone and I can’t see any harm in it …”)
It seems that Robert was on vacation at the time, and her direct, pragmatic tone – less playful than before, but no less intimate – shows her sensitivity towards him as a teenager finding his way in the world. “That pool table you told me about in that Danish hotel sounds great,” she wrote. “Did I ever tell you that I can really play pool? I learned when I was about sixteen and it is something you never forget. I don’t understand why they didn’t let you in to play pool. Do they think you are some kind of delinquent just because you like the game?”
“I am going to get that book you recommended; is it ‘Lord of the Flies’ or ‘The Fleas’?” she teased. “I would love to read something really terrifying.” She then turned to recent developments in her own life. “Bobby, I have the best news: I have just completely bought my new house,” she revealed. “As I told you, it is an authentic little Mexican house, but it’s got a gigantic little swimming pool, and it looks just like Mexico. You would love it … You remember how much you liked California – well, it’s still here, and what I want you and Janie to know is that you are always welcome.”
The most frequently quoted part of this letter referred to Marilyn’s first meeting with another ‘Bobby’ at the Santa Monica home of actor Peter Lawford and his wife, Patricia Kennedy. Always keen to improve her knowledge in any field, Marilyn had prepared questions in advance with another young friend, Danny Greenson, a college student and son of her psychoanalyst, Dr. Ralph Greenson.
Oh Bobby, guess what: I had dinner with the Attorney-General of the United States, Robert Kennedy, and I asked him what his department was going to do about Civil Rights and other issues. He is very intelligent, and besides all that, he’s got a terrific sense of humour. I think you would like him. Anyway, I had to go to this dinner because he was the guest of honour and when they asked him who he would like to meet, he wanted to meet me. So, I went to the dinner and I sat next to him, and he isn’t a bad dancer either. But I was mostly impressed with how serious he is about Civil Rights. He answered all of my questions and then said he would write me a letter and put it on paper. So, I’ll send you a copy of the letter when I get it because there will be some very interesting things in it because I really asked many questions. First of all he asked if I had been attending some kind of meetings. (Ha ha!) I laughed and said ‘no, but these are the kind of questions that the youth of America want answers to and want things done about.’ Not that I’m so youthful, but I feel youthful. But he’s an old 36 himself which astounded me, because I’m 35. It was a pleasant evening, all in all.
She signed off, having told Bobby that she was flying to New York for a week, and would call him when she got in. Whether they met again is unclear, and Bobby would never have the chance to visit her in Los Angeles, as on August 5th, 1962, Marilyn died. In one of her final interviews, for Redbook magazine – headlined ‘A Long Good Look at Myself’ – she spoke with journalist Alan Levy about her three stepchildren – Robert, Jane, and Joe DiMaggio, Jnr.
I take a lot of pride in them. Because they’re from broken homes … I can’t explain it, but I think I understand about them. I think I love them more than I love anyone. I’ve always said to my stepchildren that I didn’t want to be their mother – or stepmother – as such. I wanted to be their friend. Only time could prove that to them and they had to give me time. But I love them and I adore them. Their lives that are forming are very precious to me. and I know that I had a part in forming them.
“I didn’t try and keep quiet about Marilyn in the same way Jane did,” Robert told Christopher Bigsby in 2002. “I was a little bit more naïve as to what all the fuss was about – certainly in the beginning at least. I think as time went on and I began to get the hang of it, I developed a better sense of discretion – if that’s the right word. To some degree I suppose I enjoyed some of the newfound attention it brought to me, but that rather quickly evolved into a somewhat healthier and realistic sense of scepticism as to how much of the fuss was really about ME.”
In 1962, Arthur married photographer Inge Morath. Their relationship would last for the rest of their lives, and they had two children, Daniel and Rebecca, who would later become a writer and filmmaker. Reflecting on the differences in their upbringing, Rebecca told Christopher Bigsby that Robert was raised when Arthur was “rocketing up with the kind of self-absorption that he had … which was much more than it is now. That must have been difficult for a son.”
“Life is work to him,” Robert said of his father in a Los Angeles Times interview. “I always felt he was there for me and he was my dad, but he wasn’t too hands-on in the day-to-day routine.” Robert’s favourite Miller play was After the Fall (1964), a starkly confessional work which dealt with the fallout from his first two marriages.
During the 1960s, Robert followed in his father’s footsteps by studying at the University of Michigan. “Bobby has the shaggiest mop of hair and the longest sideburns this side of the Beatles,” a bemused Arthur wrote to a friend. Robert later dropped out and worked as a roadie for the Lovin’ Spoonful in Greenwich Village. In 1967, he was hired as a production assistant on Up the Down Staircase. Set in a crowded New York high school, the film’s cast included Eileen Heckart, who had previously appeared with Marilyn in Bus Stop (1956.)
“But the film that changed Bob’s destiny was The Producers,” Billy Fried writes. “It didn’t hurt that Mel Brooks was already Bob’s comedy idol, and that part of Bob’s job was to drive Mel to and from work. Which resulted in a lot of dinners at Max’s Kansas City, the hippest spot in New York at the time.” Robert also worked on Midnight Cowboy (1969), John Schlesinger’s classic outsider drama, which made stars of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voigt.
Like many young people in this heady period, Robert was fascinated by the emerging counterculture. He travelled westward, living in a barn at the Oregon home of novelist Ken Kesey, and set up a film production company, Far West Action Pictures, making a concert film for the Grateful Dead’s Sunshine Daydream fundraiser in 1972. He later married Jean, a “fellow seeker” who had travelled on Kesey’s Magic Bus with the Merry Pranksters, and the couple would raise three children after moving to Los Angeles in 1974.
Robert produced numerous television commercials, and music videos for ZZ Top (and Randy Newman’s ‘I Love LA.’) After moving back east, he directed plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and was a Distinguished Master of Arts in Residence at Point Park University, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctoral of Arts degree.
In 1990, Arthur Miller regained the film rights for The Crucible, his 1953 play about the Salem Witch Trials. Robert urged his initially reluctant father to write a screenplay. “Arthur had not had good experiences with films,” Robert explained. “He always said, ‘You’re nuts if you want to make movies. It takes forever and you’re at the mercy of so many elements that you have no control’ … He had no reason to believe in me, but I kept pushing, and as I began to verbalise why I thought this could be a movie, he got more excited. I think this is the most cinematic of all his plays. It’s less introspective and more linear than most of the others.”
With Arthur’s blessing, Robert optioned the play and took it to Twentieth Century Fox (Marilyn’s former home studio.) The film became something of a Miller family affair, with Rebecca joining as the unit’s stills photographer. She would meet her future husband, actor Daniel Day-Lewis, on the set. The Crucible was released in 1996, earning Arthur Miller an Oscar nomination. “Arthur hadn’t really any experience of me as an adult,” Robert told Martin Gottfried. “Our relationship was more or less the way it had been since I was 21. We needed something to glue it together. The film was the completion.”
Robert and Jean had returned to California in 1992, making their home at Laguna Beach. He worked with Arthur again on a film adaptation of his 1945 novel, Focus, about a mild-mannered New Yorker persecuted for his Jewish appearance during World War II. It had been Marilyn’s favourite work by Miller. The 2001 movie, starring William H. Macy and Laura Dern, was co-produced by Robert in partnership with business tycoon Michael Bloomberg (who would be elected Mayor of New York a year later.)
Arthur Miller died from heart failure in 2005, after battling cancer. He was 89. “My father’s foremost intent and hope was that he could get back home before he died, that he could drink a last sip of Roxbury water, breathe a last sip of Roxbury air,” Robert told Bigsby. “He had the biggest smile on his face when he arrived.” A memorial service was held at the Majestic Theatre in New York, with Robert reading from his father’s 1956 letter to the House Un-American Committee, explaining why he would not name names.
Robert also attended a less formal memorial meeting in Roxbury, alongside a hundred local residents. He recalled people coming to their first home in the Connecticut town to cook food when Hurricane Diane hit in 1955, “a party that lasted for days.” He also remembered Arthur repairing his mailbox on a spring day so cold that he accidentally hammered the nail through his gloves and hand – and, because he had dropped the hammer out of reach, had to wait for the mail lady to release him.
Robert’s mother Mary died at Laguna Beach in 2008. In later years, he and Jean enjoyed gardening, playing tennis, and travelling together. Bob Miller is survived by his wife and three children, Jessica, Kate and Zach; his grandchildren Luke and Eli; sisters Jane and Rebecca, and brother Daniel. “We’ll miss you Bob,” Billy Fried writes, “but thankful you are a free spirit flying free again …”
When I spoke to Bob’s youngest daughter Kate (a film editor herself), I could feel the deep love between them. She described her dad as an inveterate people person, engaging everyone he met, and bringing out their best selves. He had an infectious laugh and was a grand storyteller. And what stories he had! A noteworthy memory was having Marilyn Monroe get on the floor to play with him, undoubtedly making him the envy of every man in America.
I’ll miss hearing the Grateful Dead drifting from their house to ours, imagining Jean and Bob trading stories of concerts, tours and endless shenanigans in an era of mind expansion that only those keen or lucky enough to ‘be here now’ or ‘been there then’ have experienced. Or just seeing the guy who so resembled his dad, rumbling up his driveway in his beloved two-tone Buick ’55 Super convertible, cigar in his mouth, massive smile on his face, waving to his neighbours.