When Arthur Miller met Marilyn Monroe, she was crying. Or at least that’s the story he always told her, the one she repeats in footage used in the new documentary Arthur Miller: Writer: “As he describes it, I was crying when he met me.” As he describes it.
They met on the set of the 1951 movie As Young As You Feel. At the time Marilyn was broken up over the recent death of her agent and paramour Johnny Hyde, and she was also casually involved with Miller’s friend Elia Kazan. When he first shook Monroe’s hand that day, Miller later wrote, “the shock of her body’s motion sped through me.” Having watched a few of her takes, he told her he thought she should act on the stage. “People around heard him say it,” Marilyn recalled, “and they laughed.” But she suddenly felt she could tune them out: Here was someone seeing a side of her she had always wanted to be seen, a woman not just with luminous beauty but a potential to become a serious artist when her other powers inevitably diminished. She wrote about their encounter in her diary: “Met a man tonight … It was, bam! It was like running into a tree. You know, like a cool drink when you’ve had a fever.”
Though their fates would soon reverse, in 1951 Arthur Miller was more famous than Marilyn Monroe. He’d just won a Pulitzer Prize for Death of a Salesman and was enjoying a celebrity most writers can only, well, write about; Monroe was still a star on the rise, best known for scene-stealing supporting roles in All About Eve and TheAsphalt Jungle. They parted ways for several years—Marilyn weathered a rocky union with Joe DiMaggio, Miller tried to work on his failing marriage with his first wife, Mary Slattery—but eventually they began an affair while Miller was still married. In 1956, Miller established residence in Reno, Nevada, long enough to be granted a divorce—as you did in those days. Not long after, in a no-frills civil ceremony, he and Monroe married.
At a glance, it’s one of the oddest celebrity marriages in 20th-century American history. (Over drinks this week, some friends and I were trying to dream up its closest modern approximation; the best we could do was “if Kim Kardashian married Ta-Nehisi Coates.”) The press called them “the Hourglass and the Egghead,” and one magazine dubbed their union “the most unlikely marriage since the Owl and the Pussycat.” Even today, after their deaths, their five-year union continues to baffle. “She was a sex symbol and he was an aloof intellectual,” the Daily Mailwrote with characteristic tact in 2008. “Why did Marilyn Monroe marry a misfit?”
It’s easier to understand from Miller’s perspective: What hot-blooded heterosexual American man of the 1950s wouldn’t have married Marilyn Monroe? But the more you know about Monroe—her brooding, contemplative nature; her often-fetishized love of reading—the more her attraction to Miller starts to make a poignant kind of sense. He saw not only her artistic potential, but a kind of brokenness about her that most men found convenient to ignore. In the documentary, an elderly Miller recalls something he said to Marilyn many years before their marriage: “I said, ‘You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met.’ A smile touched her lips as she discovered the compliment I had intended. ‘You’re the only one who ever said that to me.’”
Arthur Miller: Writer (which premieres on HBO on March 19) was directed by Rebecca Miller, the playwright’s daughter from his third and final marriage to the Austrian photographer Inge Morath. (They married a year after Miller and Monroe split up, and they stayed together for 39 years, until she died in 2002.) Comprising home movies and interviews Rebecca shot of her father in his later years, Arthur Miller: Writer has a homey, scrapbook intimacy that makes it of a piece with Griffin Dunne’s recent Netflix documentary about his aunt, Joan Didion. In its exploration of the father-daughter dynamic, too, the film has a dash of Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s excellent meditation on the unknowable youths of our parents. Rebecca was born in 1962, just weeks after Monroe died. Imagine grilling your elderly father, on camera, on what it was like to have been with Marilyn Monroe.
“I felt sometimes almost that I shouldn’t be in the room, I shouldn’t know all this stuff,” Rebecca said in a recent New York Timesinterview about the film, admitting it was “very tricky” to create a portrait of her father that included intimate details of his first two marriages. The portrait of Monroe that emerges from Arthur Miller: Writer, then, is inherently lopsided and not nearly as intimate as the one we get of Miller himself. One of the hardest parts of putting together the film, Rebecca admits, was finding ways to diminish Monroe’s presence, to prevent her from completely overtaking her father’s story. “She would even take up huge amounts of space in the film,” she said. “I was constantly trying to cut it down again, because she has so much light coming out of her. So much charisma. I just said, ‘OK, how can we penetrate the mystery a little bit of this woman and this man and in the end find some clarity?’”
Monroe always seems to be doing that—inconveniencing narratives. It’s the most potent power she’s retained after death.
As she describes it, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the first movie Gloria Steinem ever walked out of. “I was embarrassed by her,” Steinem said many years later. “She was a joke, she was vulnerable, she was so eager for approval. She was all the things that I feared most being as a teenage girl. It … wasn’t until the women’s movement came along much later in my life that I realized that we had to look at the why of those feelings. It wasn’t that we made them up, it was because we lived in a society that made them feel vulnerable.”
In 1986, Steinem published a biography of Monroe, Marilyn: Norma Jean. It was, among other things, a corrective to the salacious and largely ridiculous 1973 Monroe biography by Norman Mailer, in which he posited that the star had been murdered by the U.S. government because of her alleged affair with Robert Kennedy. (Mailer admitted the same year, on 60 Minutes, that the book was a cash grab.) Since the publication of her feminist biography, Steinem has fashioned herself as an interpreter of at least one side of Marilyn’s legacy. “What makes her so riveting, for women especially, since the advent of the modern women’s movement,” Steinem later said, “is that we wondered if we could not have saved her by making a place where she could tell everything. Because that’s what we’ve done for each other.”
Monroe has, throughout the years, been a sticking point for feminists; the many contradictions of her story do not fit cleanly into the doctrines of any of its waves. Perhaps for the best, she maps particularly awkwardly onto this moment of pop-cultural “empowerment feminism.” Take, for example, the way she’s described in this Women’s History Month–pegged list of “UCLA’s kick-ass female alumni,” from the collegiate blog The Tab (Monroe took some adult education classes at UCLA in English literature): “Actress, model, singer, international sex icon. When she refused to continue being typecast as a ‘dumb blonde,’ she literally started her own production company to study method acting. Talk about slaying gender stereotypes.”
And yet gender stereotypes are exactly what imprisoned Monroe, and what her star persona was crafted to reinforce. Norma Jean Baker was discovered, of all places, in a factory where she worked during wartime, briefly doing her Rosie the Riveter thing before an enterprising photographer told her she should be a model. Her lavish, conspicuously consuming persona was perfectly aligned to a time when American society wanted women to retreat from the jobs and outside-the-home responsibilities that had redefined their role in society during wartime. “Where Jean Harlow had been the bombshell-as-feminine symbol of wealth and military might,” Karina Longworth notes on her classic-Hollywood podcast You Must Remember This, “in post–World War II America, Marilyn became the feminine icon of plenty and of the victory of pleasure divorced from worry or responsibility.”
Over the past few months, there have been attempts to make sense of Monroe and her relationship with Arthur Miller in the context of the #MeToo movement. Earlier this year, the novelist Maria Dahvana Headley published a lengthy essay on The Daily Beast arguing that Miller, in writing The Crucible, had “invented the myth of the male witch hunt.” (The accompanying artwork fashioned the “T” in #METOO as a stake on which an evening-gowned Monroe was burning.) Though much of Headley’s argument is compelling, it involves reducing the message of The Crucible down to “terrible things happen when you believe women,” and squinting until Monroe and Miller’s relationship resembles the doomed (and actual, historical) dalliance between John Proctor and young Abigail Williams. As ever, Monroe doesn’t quite fit.
I find the most complex modern reading of Marilyn—one that honors both her power and her powerlessness—to come from Longworth. Across a three-episode Monroe series, she reanimates Monroe’s blazing talent while unflinchingly delving into some of the most tragic parts of her biography—and the ways in which so much of that tragedy was inherently linked to her femininity. Longworth points out that Monroe had endometriosis and that she was first prescribed the pills that would eventually kill her to manage severe menstrual pain. She acknowledges the history of molestation that many of Monroe’s early biographers cruelly doubted and makes a stunning observation about the dark side of Monroe’s charismatic sexuality: “At that point, nobody was able to see that so many of the things that made Marilyn ‘Marilyn’—the actual or implied easiness, the childlike voice and perspective, the lifelong search for male protectors—all of these things were, in fact, textbook long-term symptoms of child abuse.”
“What makes you so sad?” Clark Gable asks from beneath the brim of a cowboy hat. “I think you’re the saddest girl I ever met.”
“You’re the first man that’s ever said that,” a morose Monroe says in this scene from The Misfits, the final film both she and Gable would ever make. Like so many things in the movies, it’s a comforting lie. The actual first man that ever said that to her, Arthur Miller, wrote the script.
“I just thought it would be a terrific gift for her,” he says in Arthur Miller: Writer, “because she’d never had a part in which she was supposed to be taken seriously. And she really wanted to do that.” For reasons beyond just its melancholy script, The Misfits has got to be one of the saddest Hollywood movies ever made: Its three leads, Monroe, Gable, and Montgomery Clift, would all be dead within years of its release, each from their respective physical failures to live up to the impossibilities of their screen personas. Clift committed what has famously been called “the longest suicide in Hollywood history” by drinking insatiably, partially because of the pressure of hiding his romantic relationships with men; his face in The Misfits isn’t quite as expressive as it had been earlier in his career, since it had been disfigured in a 1956 car accident. Fifty-nine-year-old Gable had a fatal heart attack just days after The Misfits wrapped, and some blame his macho insistence on doing his own stunts in the film, especially during a harrowing sequence that involved roping wild mustangs.
But there’s something particularly poignant about Monroe’s performance in The Misfits: Here is (at least in Miller’s estimation) the kind of dramatic role she always wanted, and yet she was too dependent on pills and booze at this point to pull it off with confidence. She was chronically late to set, delayed shooting by endlessly running lines with her acting coach Paula Strasberg, and forced the production into a two-week hiatus when she had to go to rehab (although some contest that the cause of this delay was director John Huston’s out-of-control gambling debts; Marilyn was always an easy scapegoat). Miller’s only film script that was actually produced, The Misfits is a fascinating pop-culture time capsule. It’s an elegy not just to Miller and Monroe’s marriage (they split up during production), but to Monroe herself. She died the year after it was released and never completed another film.
Though it’s not mentioned in Arthur Miller: Writer, Monroe was devastated when she came across some notes Miller was taking about their own relationship while writing The Misfits, as well as a journal entry of Miller’s in which he confessed to being “disappointed” with his wife and “embarrassed” by her in front of his intellectual friends. “I guess I have always been deeply terrified to really be someone’s wife,” she wrote in her own diary around that time, “since I know from life one cannot love another, ever, really … starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that’s all I really have and as I see it now have ever had.”
One of my favorite photographs of Monroe was taken in 1955, the year before she married Miller. Shot by Eve Arnold, the star sits barefoot on a Long Island playground in a modest one-piece bathing suit, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. The shot is clearly stylized and yet something about it seems unposed; Monroe squints a little quizzically at the page, her mouth slack and a few of her toes hovering off the ground, lost in the bodily hypnosis of reading. For years, most people have taken the picture as some kind of joke—“dumb blonde pretending to read a notoriously difficult novel”—but Arnold recalled many years later that, in fact, Monroe really had been making her way through the tome. “She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time,” Arnold recalled. “She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try and make sense of it—but she found it hard going.” You get all of this from Arnold’s photograph: high-school-dropout Monroe’s furrowed-brow determination to educate herself, but also the loneliness with which she performed this task, because so few people around her believed that female beauty and brains could be anything but mutually exclusive.
Arthur Miller: Writer is, among other things, a fresh reason to mourn the fact that Marilyn Monroe never got to be old and wise like her last husband. Although maybe that was always asking for too much: An old Marilyn Monroe would have been entirely beside the point. Maybe a wise one, too. There’s something endearing, revealing, and ultimately tragic about the fact that, at the height of her powers, Marilyn Monroe married a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and the world still refused to take her seriously.
But maybe, at least for a fleeting moment, Miller took her seriously. In Rebecca Miller’s interviews, filmed at his kitchen table in Connecticut near the end of his life, the playwright seemed to retain a real compassion for his second wife. The strange benevolence of this one-sided portrait of Monroe and Miller is that you walk away from it thinking, perhaps simplistically, that he really understood her. That under slightly different circumstances, they could have been happy.
“She was witty,” Miller says, gazing wistfully from his kitchen table in Connecticut. “She was making fun of the situation as she was playing it. That was the difference. People thought they could imitate her by being cute. But she was being cute and making fun of being cute at the same time. There was another dimension, which is very difficult to do.”
In 2014, one of Miller’s love letters to Monroe sold for $43,750 at auction. “It was a really over-the-top Tom Cruise, jump-on-the-couch kind of letter,” Miller’s biographer Charles Bigsby toldTheNew York Times; “Read Marilyn Monroe’s Very Racy Love Letter From Arthur Miller,” a People magazine headline urged once its contents were made public. It has been rumored that, somewhere among Miller’s archive, there remains a box of about 100 letters that Monroe wrote to him. Bigsby has said he is “skeptical” that such a collection exists. I hope it does. And I hope it’s never found.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.