Arthur Miller’s Timebends: A Life, his time-hopping autobiography, was first published in 1987, when the renowned playwright was 72. In it he chronicles his youth in Brooklyn, his life in the New York theater, and his trials and tribulations and his ability to not “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy red-baiting scare of the 1950s. All fascinating stuff. The book, not unexpectedly, is well written, even poetic at times. But the bulk of (this) and many other readers interest in Timebends is that it is also the first occasion of Miller speaking publicly about his second wife, Marilyn Monroe.
|Happy times — Miller and Marilyn dancing at the April in Paris Ball, Waldorf Astoria Hotel ballroom, c. 1957. From Vintage Everyday
As long and as interesting as Miller’s life had been up to the point of his writingTimebends, he spends the majority of the book discussing the period of his life that included Marilyn. He first met her in 1950, when he was touting a screenplay in Hollywood with director Elia Kazan. She made an indelible impression, one that apparently never left him. Miller also made an impression on Marilyn, and she kept in touch with him, exchanging letters over the years.
He based one of his characters, Lorraine, in a(n unfinished) play he was working on in 1951 on Marilyn, although he had only met her the year before, briefly “By now, even after only those few hours with Marilyn, she had taken on an immanence in my imagination, the vitality of a force one does not understand but that seems on the verge of lighting up a vast surrounding plain of darkness. I was struggling to keep my marriage and family together and at the same time to understand why I felt as though I had lost a sort of sanction that I had seemed to possess since earliest childhood. Whom or what was I writing for?” Sounds like a combination of the seven-year-itch and Miller being in search of a muse. There is little to no mention of his life with his first wife, Mary and his family in Timebends.
Miller may not have realized how his private life was seeping into his work, but his colleagues and contemporaries did. He even ruefully quotes playwright Clifford Odets’ slam of his 1953 play The Crucible to Elia Kazan: “Just a story about a bad marriage.” It may be an overstatement, but Miller admits that before even embarking on the project, the central conflict of his guilt-ridden protagonist John Proctor, who has had a sexual relationship with his servant girl Abigail Williams, might be more related to his own life than he would like. His attraction to Marilyn was already influencing him, and providing a subtext in his work.
As much as Miller was obviously attracted to Marilyn as a woman, he also might have felt that she offered a new chance for him, a new medium for his writing — film. “I could not help thinking in 1953-54 that time was running out, not only on me but on the traditional American culture. I was growing more and more frighteningly isolated, in life as in the theater.” As much as Miller admits to being pulled towards her, he never comes out and simply says that he loves Marilyn. But he spends a lot of pages analyzing her and theorizing about her. His descriptions of her don’t always sound like a real woman, but rather a character he is fashioning. More than once he says that she is cursed, presumably by her rough childhood. It’s unclear whether he believed this on his own, or because he thought she believed it.
Once Marilyn left Hollywood (and Joe DiMaggio) for New York in 1955, she and Miller quickly made their friendship something much more. Miller got a quickie Reno divorce while Marilyn was filming Bus Stop and they married in 1956.
“I was forever saving her from crowds, crowds she could handle as easily and joyfully as a minister moving among his congregation. Sometimes it was as though the crowd had given her birth; I never saw her unhappy in a crowd, even some that ripped pieces of her clothes off as souvenirs.”
Miller may have loved her, but Timebends and its author maintain a superior tone when he talks about her insecurities and what he deems as her unfounded suspicions of others’ motives. They had departed for London for their honeymoon and for Marilyn to film The Prince and Showgirl with Laurence Olivier co-starring and directing. When their two very different acting styles clashed, Miller, unfortunately for his marriage, chose the wrong side, unable to believe an actor of Olivier’s calibre could ever be in the wrong, “It was simply impossible to agree that he could be the cheap scene-stealer she was talking about. … Marilyn verged on the belief that he [Olivier] had cast her only because he needed the money her presence would bring. I wanted to believe that this was only half the truth; I was sure he saw the legitimate dramatic contrast between their social and cultural types, and if his motives were indeed partly cynical, they did not cancel his valid artistic judgment in casting. … inevitably, the time soon came when in order to keep reality from slipping away I occasionally had to defend Olivier or else reinforce the naïveté of her illusions; the result was that she began to question the absoluteness of my partisanship on her side of the deepening struggle.”
By the time they were filming The Misfts the marriage, and their faith in each other, was shattered. “… With The Misfits I was preparing to dedicate a year or more of my life to her enhancement as a performer — I would never have dreamed of writing a movie otherwise …”Not entirely true, as he had been shopping a screenplay back in 1950, when he first met her. He writes that he hopes The Misfits will save their marriage. Yet he doesn’t detail any concrete problems between them, except what he views as her innate despair. He writes about their life from a distance, rarely mentioning her intake of sleeping pills, or the second baby they lost.
“During the shooting of Let’s Make Love and Some Like It Hot I had all but given up any hope of writing; I had decided to devote myself to giving her the kind of emotional support that would convince her she was no longer alone in the world — the heart of the problem, I assumed. I went so far as to do some rewriting on Let’s Make Love to try to save her from a complete catastrophe, work I despised on a script not worth the paper it was typed on. It was a bad miscalculation, bringing us no closer to each other.” He neglects to mention, of course, well-documented in other sources, his agreeing, for a lucrative sum, to work on Let’s Make Love during a Writer’s Guild strike in Hollywood, which caused Marilyn to lose faith in him and his integrity.
He calls her role as Roslyn in The Misfits, more than once, her first serious part, but that is far from true. What of Bus Stop, Niagara, and The Asphalt Jungle, just to name a few? He spends a lot of pages explaining his ideas behind The Misfits, but skirts how his “Valentine” to his wife created such a negative story. “One afternoon Marilyn, with no evident emotion, almost as though it were just another script, said, ‘What they really should do is break up at the end.’ I instantly disagreed, so quickly, in fact, that I knew I was afraid she was right. But the irony was too sharp: the work I had created to reassure her that a woman like herself could find a home in the world had apparently proved the opposite.”
Even after so many years, he really fudges what was going on behind-the-scenes on the shoot. He points out Marilyn’s escalating lateness caused by pills, tension, and personal problems, but waves away director John Huston’s staying up all night shooting craps as something that may have adversely affected the shooting of the movie. Instead, he views Huston’s casino time as a byproduct of Marilyn’s behavior and not the fact that Huston was more than happy to be shooting a movie set in Reno for his own reasons. Miller claims that Marilyn moved out of their shared hotel suite to Paula Strasberg’s because “Her control over Marilyn was now so complete… Paula had finally won our long undeclared war. Still, this might clear the air, I thought, and free Marilyn to concentrate solely on the work she now said she wanted to do.” Marilyn moving out of a room shared with her husband had nothing to do with the fact that his rewrites showed her in an increasingly unflattering light, or that he had met photographer Inge Morath (who he would marry a year later) on the set?
|Awkward — Marilyn and Miller dancing on the set of The Misfits
As he is watching Marilyn film a scene with costar and Hollywood legend Clark Gable near a lake, “I was almost completely out of her life by now, but from my distant view the film seemed purely a torture for her. … To be fair, her work in the film looked far more authentic to me in later years than it did during that bad time. I now marvel at how she managed, under the circumstances, to do as well as she did.” Once he is through with The Misfits, through with Marilyn (for the most part), he finally writes about Inge Morath, but not until page 493. But Marilyn soon re-enters his life, andTimebends, through her death.
“Coming out of the ’40s and ’50s, she was proof that sexuality and seriousness could not coexist in America’s psyche, were hostile, mutually rejecting opposites, in fact. At the end she had had to give way and go back to swimming naked in a pool [in Something’s Got To Give] in order to make a picture.”
Miller’s take on the people who surrounded Marilyn differ from other accounts. He demonizes her business partner Milton Greene, but lionizes her doctors, describing psychiatrists Dr. Marianne Kris (in New York) and Ralph Greenson (in Los Angeles) as both “physicians of integrity and unquestionably devoted to her.” It is understandable, as he views them as trying to help her, and failing, as he once did. But more recent takes on Kris and Greenson show that they may have done Marilyn more harm than good, and not just by the endless supply of barbiturates that they sent her way. Miller had no contact with Marilyn, or real knowledge of her life in California after they divorced, so his assumptions are just that.
“… She had always been one of those people for whom time is a sticky entanglement that they don’t want to touch, perhaps in denial that a past exists.”
In Timebends Miller writes about her poetically enough, but Marilyn, his conception of Marilyn, rarely comes across as a real person. She is still a muse to his words, almost thirty years after their break-up and her death. Perhaps that is all she really ever was to him. The exception is one story that he tells about her during the filming of The Misfits, where she is being shot up with Amytal by a local, reluctant doctor, while he and acting coach Paula Strasberg look on. An irritated Marilyn sees him and mutters “Get out” repeatedly until he slinks out of the room. Not a pretty scene, but one that has the ring of truth.
He wraps up the book with details of his controversial play After the Fall — controversial because of its main female character’s uncanny resemblance to Marilyn, as well as his being able to bring productions of his other plays to places as remote as Russia and China. Miller, who died in 2005, had a successful and productive career, producing some of the most lauded and memorable plays in American theater,The Crucible, All My Sons, and Death of A Salesman, for which he will always be remembered. But he will also clearly also always be remembered as Marilyn Monroe’s second husband, or as they were dubbed by the press at the time, “The Egghead and the Hourglass.” He seems to be at peace with that fact in Timebends, if not completely convinced that it all really happened.
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