Marilyn’s Misfits and the ‘Big Bang’

Marilyn and the making of The Misfits are among the many historical touchstones featured in Big Bang, David Bowman’s posthumously published novel of mid-century America, as John Williams reports for the New York Times. (According to Publisher’s Weekly, Bowman – who died in 2012 – also delved into the origins of The Misfits in 1956, when Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow were waiting out their divorces in Nevada. Events which followed the movie – such as Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy in 1962, and Miller’s depiction of her in the 1964 play, After the Fall – are also mentioned.)

“The novel’s central nervous system is formed around American politics — it ends as well as begins with Kennedy’s death, and spends considerable time on the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Watergate. But J.F.K., Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, Richard Nixon and Ngo Dinh Diem are joined in this story by — among others — Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Dr. Benjamin Spock and his wife, Jane, George Plimpton, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, J. D. Salinger, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elizabeth Taylor, Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Frank Sinatra and Maria Callas.

The events recounted in Big Bang include, but are far from limited to: Mailer stabbing his wife, Burroughs shooting his wife, Rosemary Kennedy’s lobotomy, Khrushchev at Disneyland, the director John Huston making The Misfits, Fidel Castro’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Nixon playing the piano on The Jack Paar Show, the release of the Ford Edsel, Montgomery Clift nearly dying in a car wreck after leaving a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and, for about the blink of an eye, a young George W. Bush in the car with his mother, Barbara, after she has suffered a miscarriage.”

Misfit Memories: Arthur Miller in Reno

American giants: Arthur Miller with Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck in New York, 1966. (Photo by Inge Morath)
American giants: Arthur Miller with Saul Bellow and John Steinbeck in New York, 1966. (Photo by Inge Morath)

Novelist Saul Bellow befriended Arthur Miller in 1956, when both were waiting out their first divorces in Reno, Nevada. During this period, Miller wrote a short story which he would later develop into The Misfits, a ‘valentine’ for Marilyn Monroe. Bellow’s next marriage would end in 1959, a year before Miller’s; and Bellow died in 2005, just a few months after Miller. Reviewing The Life of Saul Bellow, Zachary Leader’s recently-published, authorised biography, for the New Statesman, Leo Robson takes a closer look at this brief period which would come to define Miller’s future – and Marilyn’s.

“When he gets to the period in 1956 when Bellow and Arthur Miller were neighbours in Reno, Nevada, sitting out the six-week residency required to gain a divorce, Leader shuns the opportunity to define Bellow in relation to an exact contemporary, also at odds with his background (Bellow read Lenin in a coal delivery office; Miller read Tolstoy between fixing cars), also involved in Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, also rejected for military service, also reared on Marxist theory and concerned with the fragile status of the individual man in a city, a century, a mass, and so on. In a book bursting with allusions to forgotten book reviews, he doesn’t mention that Bellow had written about Miller’s novel Focus. (He complained that the heroism of Miller’s central character was ‘clipped to his lapel like a delegate’s badge at a liberal convention’.)

Life in Reno was quiet. The ‘biggest event’ of a typical day, Miller recalled, came when Bellow spent ‘half an hour up behind a hill a half-mile from the cottages empty­ing his lungs roaring at the stillness, an exercise in self-contact, I supposed’. Once a week, Bellow drove him to town in his Chevrolet to do shopping and laundry.

The writers, two decades after starting out, a decade after making their first mark, were at the pinnacle of their professions, Miller a Pulitzer winner, Bellow a National Book Award-winner. But Bellow’s second wife, Sondra, in a letter that Leader doesn’t quote, recalled that she ‘never heard a single literary exchange’ between the two writers, not least because Miller ‘talked non-stop’ about Marilyn Monroe – ‘her career, her beauty, her talent, even her perfect feet… all quite enlightening since neither Mr Bellow nor I had ever even heard of her before this’. Back in New York, the couples became friends. One night, at dinner in Little Italy, an area where Monroe, having recently left Joe DiMaggio, was unpopular, they had to make a quick escape to avoid potential mob violence. (Bellow and Monroe later dined alone: ‘I have yet to see anything in Marilyn that isn’t genuine,’ he wrote. ‘Surrounded by thousands she conducts herself like a philosopher.’)

Sondra Bellow said that if there was a ‘bond’ – her quotation marks – between Bellow and Miller, it had less to do ‘with their being writers, and more to do with their being in somewhat the same place’. She also recalled that Bellow didn’t consider Miller ‘a real intellectual (like the Partisan Review crowd)’. Miller would have agreed. In Timebends, he wrote that Bellow, who spent most of his life teaching in universities – Bard, Princeton and, for more than 30 years, Chicago – had brought with him a library of books ‘large enough for a small college’. (When Miller packed up his things, all his possessions – apart from his typewriter – could be carried in a single valise.) On the whole, Miller was more practical-minded. He saw no benefit in ideas as an end in themselves and thought hard about art’s importance in a changing society.”

Marilyn and Saul Bellow

The novelist Saul Bellow wrote after dinner with Marilyn Monroe:

“I have yet to see anything in Marilyn that isn’t genuine. Surrounded by thousands she conducts herself like a philosopher.”

Later, he reflected:

“She was connected with a very powerful current but she couldn’t disconnect herself from it. She had a kind of curious incandescence under the skin…”

From Saul Bellow: Letters, out now in hardback