THE GENIUS AND THE GODDESS: ARTHUR MILLER & MARILYN MONROE
By Jeffrey Meyers
University of Illinois Press, $29.95
REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA
How did Arthur Miller get so lucky, asked tens of millions of American men and boys back in 1956. Joe DiMaggio, the great baseball player, that we could understand, but a playwright? Sigh and double sigh.
Now comes the answer to that question, for those who didn’t bother to research it at the time, which was everybody. It’s all here in the pages of a book that costs less than a ticket to a Broadway show or a couple of major-league baseballs. And, you know what? Like most Miller plays and some Monroe movies, it’s good.
Jeffrey Meyers is one of those authors who must not sleep. Counting this one, he’s written or edited, I kid you not, 47 books: 22 biographies, nine books of criticism, three bibliographies, eight collections of original essays and five other collections. His subjects are either writers or actors (with Amedeo Modigliani and four impressionist painters thrown in for color), and he knows their worlds.
Mr. Meyers and Arthur Miller were friends for a quarter-century, and while he (apparently) did not sleep with Marilyn Monroe, he mentions, and frequently quotes, almost everybody who did or said they did, which, while low on the Warren-Beatty-to-Wilt-Chamberlain axis, was nonetheless a large number.
The resultant tale is an intriguing mix of rather high-level, heavily footnoted literary and entertainment gossip. You may find the book a tad smarmy here and there, but you wouldn’t put it down if the house were on fire.
After a miserable childhood that included cruel treatment in both foster homes and orphanages, through her early marriage to nice guy James Dougherty, who never knew what hit him, and her many affairs as she casually and pointedly slept her way up the Hollywood ladder, MM finally became an actress, of sorts.
Next came her small but notable successes in her brief roles in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve,” and then the author accelerates into the films that made her famous (and eventually rich), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “How to Marry a Millionaire” and the very funny “The Seven Year Itch.” At that point in the narrative, DiMaggio comes on stage or, if you prefer, up to bat.
When the couple met and then married in 1954, Joe’s famous career was over but Marilyn’s was just taking off. Indeed, on their honeymoon, she accepted a general’s invitation to entertain the troops who were still in Korea following the end of the war the previous year. Joe was playing an exhibition baseball game in Japan, so Marilyn went alone, and for several days wowed the soldiers (big surprise). On her return, she mindlessly told her new husband, “You’ve never seen anything like [the cheering and clapping of the troops],” to which he replied, “Yes, I have.”
That takes the reader up to Chapter 6 and Page 86, or a shade under a third of the book’s total. The rest of the volume is given over to the rise and fall of the Miller-Monroe romance, marriage and divorce. It’s a sad, yet compelling, story.
When they met, both were at or near the top of their respective games. Miller had the great plays just behind him: “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” but more would come. Marilyn had the aforementioned comedies but was, with his encouragement, entering the “serious acting” phase of her career. During this time, she attended the famous Actors Studio in New York and received critical praise for her acting in “Bus Stop.” The influence of the Strasbergs, Lee and Paula and their daughter Susan, plus that of her drama coach, Natasha Lytess, would continue, not always to her benefit, for the rest of her short life.
The marriage of the two luminaries, she from the world he secretly coveted and he from the one to which she aspired, was doomed from the start. As a person, he was what is now called centered; she was the opposite.
Their marriage (and the best part of the book) came to a crashing end with the making of “The Misfits,” which Miller wrote for her. Tellingly, while he had written some of his most successful plays in a matter of weeks, it took him three years to write - and rewrite and rewrite - this, her last film.
Most of what Mr. Meyers writes about what transpired in and around the making of this movie is fascinating, but he’s overly fond of explicating and interpreting, especially from a psychological standpoint, the meanings and motivations of the various characters.
For example, he writes, of one of the cowboys in the picture, “Some of the details in Gay’s life are based on Miller’s experience. When Saul Bellow lived next door to Miller at Pyramid Lake [where both men were waiting out divorces in Reno], he’d relieve his tension by roaring into the wilderness. Gay and Roslyn echo this strange habit by yelling across the prehistoric lake and calling into the emptiness.” Come on, Jeffrey. Sometimes a roar is just a roar.
Shallow person that I am, I found this item far more interesting: “[‘The Misfits’ was] the most expensive black and white film ever made. Miller was paid $225,000; Marilyn and [director John] Huston got $300,000 each. Clark Gable … got a great deal: top billing and a spectacular $750,000, plus $48,000 a week overtime.”
Miller comes across as a very decent and hugely talented man who tried to catch a ride on a comet’s tail. Marilyn, despite the plethora of anecdotes about her bad work habits, her insecurities that rose to the level of madness, and her horrible habit of killing what she loved, nonetheless emerges as a likable mess. Although her marriage to Miller lasted five times as long - five years to one - as her union with DiMaggio, it too was doomed.
As Mr. Meyers writes of Miller and of Monroe, “He wanted privacy and silence; she needed attention and adulation. Since she was more dominant and inflexible, he had to adjust to her mode of life. But he was not well-suited to be the domestic handler of a turbulent star and felt vulnerable when subjected to her increasingly irrational demands.”
All sorts of myths and legends and proverbs can be applied to the situation of these two most unusual people. One is the old warning that you had better be careful what you wish for because you just might get it, and the other is the sad tale of Icarus, who perished because he flew too close to the sun.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.