Rewriting History: Marilyn, Arthur and #MeToo

In the wake of last year’s revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, Marilyn’s own experiences have often been cited as historical precedent. While she certainly did experience sexual harassment, it’s notable that she managed to succeed without recourse to the fabled ‘casting couch.’ She resisted Harry Cohn’s advances; was a friend but not a mistress to Joe Schenck; and her relationship with Johnny Hyde was based on real affection. As for Darryl F. Zanuck – perhaps the most significant Hollywood figure in her career – they were never close, and Zanuck himself admitted that Marilyn’s triumphs were of her own creation.

In a new article for the Daily Beast, Maria Dahvana Headley turns her attention to Arthur Miller, claiming that he ‘smeared’ Marilyn and ‘invented the myth of the male witch hunt.’ She begins with his 1952 play, The Crucible, based on the Salem witch trials of 1692, but widely perceived as an allegory for the contemporary ‘red-baiting’ crusade by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which Arthur would later be implicated – but ultimately exonerated.

Arthur and Marilyn first met in 1951, when he was still married. There was a strong attraction between them, and they corresponded intermittently thereafter. Headley is not the first to argue that the adulterous affair between the teenage Abigail Williams and John Proctor might have been inspired by his conflicted feelings for Marilyn – Barbara Leaming also suggested this in her 1999 biography, Marilyn Monroe. Many historians have pointed out that Miller’s depiction of these protagonists is not accurate – Abigail was still a child, and there was no affair with Proctor. This mooted association between Abigail and Marilyn is purely speculative, however, and Miller would hardly be the first playwright to fictionalise events. (For a factual account of the trials, I can recommend Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.)

But Headley goes further still, conflating the story of Arthur rubbing Marilyn’s feet at a Hollywood party (as later told by Marilyn to her acting coach, Natasha Lytess) with an incident noted in the Salem court reports that inspired The Crucible, of Abigail touching Proctor’s hood and then becoming hysterical, crying out that her hands were burning. ‘Women, unless they are very devout and very old, The Crucible tells us, are unreliable and changeable,’ Headley writes. ‘They’re jealous. They’re vengeful. They’re confused about sex and about love. They might, given very little provocation, ruin the life of a good man, and everything else in the world too.’

Headley is on firmer ground with her interpretation of After the Fall, Miller’s 1964 play which featured a self-destructive singer, Maggie, who marries lawyer Quentin – a relationship widely acknowledged to be based on Arthur’s marriage to Marilyn (though he seemingly remained in denial.) ‘Maggie uses sex to bewitch Quentin out of his marriage to the long-suffering Louise,’ Headley writes, ‘marries him herself, and then becomes a catastrophe. By the end of the play, Quentin is wrestling a bottle of pills out of her hand. She drains their bank accounts, uses all of his energy for her own career, and demands endless love.’

This is a harsh portrayal of Marilyn, and many felt that Miller went too far. However, it is not without compassion. By focusing on the real-life parallels, Headley sidelines the broader themes of both plays. The Crucible was about the persecution of innocents for imaginary crimes, and After the Fall was, at least partly, a reckoning with the Holocaust (as well as Arthur’s own guilt over Marilyn’s death.) While the victims of the Salem witch hunts were mostly women, it is not surprising that Miller would identify more closely with a male protagonist. And the horrors of his own time – the holocaust, and HUAC – claimed both men and women.

In his final work, Finishing the Picture, Arthur revisited the troubled production of The Misfits. ‘She’s ceased to be the sex goddess she’s supposed to be,’ Headley says of Kitty, the Marilyn-figure in the play. ‘Instead, she is once again a naked girl in the woods, glimpsed running from the rest of the story, and in her flight, she makes everyone around her miserable … In Miller’s final statement on the matter, she’s what the world might become if a woman wanted too much consideration.’

In November 2017, Anna Graham Hunter accused actor Dustin Hoffman of sexually harassing her as a 17 year-old intern on the set of Death of a Salesman, the 1985 TV adaptation of Miller’s most famous play. According to the Hollywood Reporter, film director Volker Schlondorff responded with the glib remark that ‘I wish Arthur Miller was around, he would find the right words, but then he might get accused of sexually molesting Marilyn Monroe.’ Since then, other women have come forward with allegations against Hoffman. Whatever Schlondorff may believe, it’s impossible to know what Arthur would have made of the scandal, but it’s worth remembering that he reportedly disliked Hoffman’s performance in the prior stage production, although it had won a Tony award for Best Revival.

Anna Graham Hunter’s story needs to be heard, as do countless other victims of predatory men. In Marilyn’s case, however, there’s a danger of rewriting history. While Headley’s literary critique is valid and interesting, her attempt to recast Miller as an abuser of women is grossly unfair.

Marilyn and Arthur in Philadelphia

In an article for the Jewish Press, Saul Jay Singer explores the Judaism of Marilyn and Arthur Miller, including their 1959 appearance at an American Friends of the Hebrew University dinner at Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

“Invited along with her husband to address a United Jewish Appeal (UJA) conference in Miami, Monroe wrote a speech about why she believed that Jewish institutions, especially Israel, deserve broad public support, but she ultimately declined to deliver the address when the UJA rescinded its invitation to Miller after his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC ) indictment. She did, however, later attend a dinner held on September 27, 1959 in Philadelphia by a chapter of the American Friends of the Hebrew University where Miller was awarded an honorary degree to commemorate his ‘distinguished achievement in the Dramatic Arts.’

Shown here is a unique and rare item from my collection, a program from that historic event on which Monroe has signed and inscribed ‘To Stevie – Happy Bar Mitzvah! Marilyn Monroe.'”

Patricia Bosworth Remembers Marilyn

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Patricia Bosworth has written acclaimed biographies of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda. A lifelong member of the Actors Studio, she also wrote ‘The Mentor and the Movie Star‘, a 2003 article about Marilyn and the Strasbergs for Vanity Fair, and appeared in the 2006 PBS documentary, Marilyn Monroe: Still Life.

In her new memoir, The Men In My Life: Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan, Bosworth recalls her acting days. In an extract published by Lithub, she describes an encounter with Marilyn.

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“I slid into the backseat, where I found Marilyn Monroe huddled in a corner dreamily puffing on a cigarette. Her bleached blond hair was tousled; she seemed to be wearing no makeup. I noticed there was dirt under her fingernails, but I couldn’t stop looking at her. We were about to pull away from the curb when a voice cried out, ‘Hey Lee, goin’ my way?’ and Harry Belafonte hopped in beside me. We drove uptown in silence.

I knew Marilyn was aware I was looking at her. She was used to being looked at, and she wasn’t self-conscious. She had a mysterious indefinable quality that made her a star and separated her from everyone else. At the moment she appeared to be floating in another world as she puffed delicately on her cigarette and blew the smoke softly out of her mouth. The newspapers were full of stories about her—how she’d left Hollywood and come to New York to be a ‘serious actress,’ how Lee was coaching her at his apartment and letting her observe sessions at the Studio.”

Elsewhere, Bosworth confirms that Tennessee Williams had wanted Marilyn to star in Baby Doll (but Gore Vidal thought she was too old.) Bosworth knew many key figures in Marilyn’s life, including Elia Kazan, Lee and Susan Strasberg – who found her father’s ‘obsession’ with Marilyn disturbing.

As Bosworth admits, Marilyn was part of Lee’s inner circle from which she felt excluded. She was also intimidated by Marilyn’s fame, which nonetheless kept the Actors Studio in the headlines. Lee Strasberg often seemed cold and domineering, but Bosworth considered him ‘a great teacher.’

Bosworth, unlike Marilyn, was born into a life of privilege, and forged a stage career as well as starring alongside Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. However, her impeccable connections couldn’t save her from family tragedy (her brother and father both committed suicide), and an abusive marriage.

The 1950s, as Bosworth observes, was a staid, even repressive decade – but the creativity and rebellion of the 60s was already fermenting. She talks about the impact of the anti-communist witch-hunts, both on the artistic community and her own family, and the rampant sexism she constantly endured.

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Elizabeth Winder will focus on Marilyn’s New York period directly in her forthcoming book, Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy, but Patricia Bosworth’s account comes from her own experience. For anyone interested in learning more about the bohemian world that women like Bosworth – and Marilyn – helped to define, The Men In My Life is essential reading.

Collaborators: Marilyn, Miller and Kazan

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Richard A. Schwartz, a Professor Emeritus at Florida International University and author of several books about the Cold War era, has published a new play, Collaborators: Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Beginning with the accidental death of a journalist on the eve of Marilyn’s 1956 wedding to Arthur, the action then looks back to their first meeting five years earlier, when he unsuccessfully pitched a movie to studio head Harry Cohn. Marilyn was casually dating Arthur’s friend and creative partner, Elia Kazan, at the time.

However, it was Arthur she fell for – it has often been rumoured that he continued corresponding with her after returning to his wife and children in New York. Using a split stage, Schwartz imagines what Arthur might have written to her, comparing his inner turmoil with her heady rise to fame (and ongoing association with Kazan.)

The other main strand of the drama is the very different responses of Miller and Kazan to the red-baiting era. Although it’s clear that both had long since left their youthful dabblings with communism far behind and posed no threat to national security, Kazan chose to inform on fellow travellers in the theatre, thereby saving his Hollywood career, while Miller – supported by Marilyn – refused to ‘name names’, and was ultimately vindicated as a liberal hero. Unsurprisingly, their alliance came under strain, and they didn’t work together again until after Marilyn’s death, on the controversial After the Fall.

The Millers’ marriage is portrayed in two scenes: the beginning is represented by Marilyn’s alleged discovery of unflattering comments in Arthur’s journal, during filming of The Prince and the Showgirl; while the end is marked by another heated argument during production of The Misfits. But that omits a long period of relative stability in Marilyn’s otherwise turbulent life. Perhaps Schwartz could have added a further scene to reveal Marilyn’s vulnerability, and show how painful experiences, like her multiple miscarriages, may have caused her depression.

As it is, Schwartz’s portrayal of a self-destructive Marilyn seems to echo Maggie, the suicidal star in Miller’s After the Fall. He is on safer ground with his male protagonists, and the trial scenes are compelling – perhaps because those events are a matter of public record, rather than private conjecture – and with careful revisions to his characterisation of Marilyn, Collaborators could be a genuinely provocative play.

For those interested in learning more about this topic, Barbara Leaming covered it in detail in her 2000 biography of Marilyn, and Ron Briley’s The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan will be published next month.

 

Marilyn: A Political Animal

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Marilyn had a lifelong affinity with the underdog and a passion for justice. Her hero was Abraham Lincoln. She was proud of her working-class origins, and defended husband Arthur Miller in his stand against red-baiting. She also supported the Civil Rights movement. In an article for Time, Lily Rothman interviews Marilyn’s biographer, Dr Lois Banner, on the subject of her ‘forgotten radical politics.’

“Those beliefs were a product of her time, Banner says: being born in 1926 meant that she was a child during the Great Depression … As a result of her own poverty and her close contact with people of other races, Monroe grew up with progressive views on race and what Banner calls a ‘populist vision of equality for all classes.’

Her background peeked through in her film roles, as she was often cast as a working girl … Even as Monroe stepped out in public in glamorous evening gowns, she favored blue jeans and flat shoes at home.

In 1956, when she married the playwright Arthur Miller, her working-class roots blossomed into full-on political fervor. In 1960, she became a founding member of the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy; that same year, as she kept a home in Roxbury, Conn., she was elected as an alternate delegate to the state’s Democratic caucus. She did not hide her pro-Castro views on Cuba or her support for the then-burgeoning civil rights movement.

Broadway was not affected by McCarthyism and anti-Communist investigations to the same extent as the movie business, but Miller was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee shortly before their marriage. Monroe was never called on, which Banner believes was because the anti-Communist Congressmen ‘thought she was just a dumb blonde.’ (In fact, some historians have theorized that Miller saw Monroe as a political shield.)

‘When you put it all together, [her political side] is pretty substantial. But in most of the biographies, including mine, it comes out as salt scattered on the biography, because one gets so fascinated by her psychological makeup,’ [Banner] says. ‘But the political involvements are no less real.'”