Two years in, Mrs. Arthur Miller’s marriage was up and down.
Today, it was down, and so was she. She was staying alone at her own apartment on East 57th Street, while her author husband, Arthur Miller, was holed up in his Roxbury, Connecticut den, writing.Outwardly, the world was at her feet.
Filmmaker, Billy Wilder, said of Mrs. Miller’s doppelganger, Marilyn Monroe,
“God gave her everything. She does two things beautifully: she walks and she stands still.”
Photographer of the stars, Eve Arnold, observed,
“Her skin was translucent, white, luminous. Up close around the periphery of her face, there was a dusting of faint down. This light fuzz trapped light and caused an aureole to form, giving her a faint glow on film.”
Joining a chorus of admirers, Sammy Davis, Jr. added, “She hangs like a bat in men’s minds.”
Yet, on her desk, in a clutter of papers and books (Arthur was after her to read Sandburg’s book on Lincoln,) torn scraps of paper revealed the star’s present harried state of mind.
Away from the limelight, she was a moody and troubled actress who was a nervous scribbler, an armchair poet. Today’s effort was characteristically somber:
I am of both of your directions
Life (crossed out)
Somehow remaining hanging downward
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind – I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a painting – ah life they
have cheated you.
As with other narcissistic actors, Marilyn Monroe was well aware of the effect she had on others. Agreeing with her many fans, she too admired the creature staring back at her in the mirror. Throughout the years, her mythological star power had snowballed, carrying her to this day in New York.
But it all was growing too complicated.
Her own coming of age, a past insistent on catching up with her, and the stresses of trying to fit into her husband’s world of east coast intellectuals were combining to pull her off center.
In her sparsely decorated, messy apartment, a framed photograph caught her eye.
Cecil Beaton had photographed her for a feature in Harper’s Bazaar. She cherished this picture. It was slightly grainy, as though it were a color shot that had been transposed to black and white. She noted that in it she looked about sixteen years old. She was holding a rose in one hand.
How innocent I look, she thought with regret. In a hand-written note that accompanied the photograph, Cecil Beaton wrote,
“You call to mind the bouquet of fireworks display, eliciting from your awed spectators an open-mouthed chorus of wondrous ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ah’s.’ You are as spectacular as the silvery shower of a Vesuvius fountain; you have rocketed from obscurity to become our post war sex symbol—the pin-up girl of an age. And whatever press agentry or manufactured illusion may have lit the fuse, it is your own weird genius that has sustained your flight.”
Arthur read the note. For some reason, it upset him.
He made some comment about it being ‘from one queen to another.’ And that, she knew, was the problem growing in her marriage. Once again, the glare of her stardom was overshadowing people close to her. Even as she strove to fit into his world, to finish James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and read Sandburg’s book to please Miller, the outside world was driving a wedge between them.
With the world at her feet, all she really wanted was family, stability, and love, three things her younger self, Norma Jean Mortenson, never had. Now, she found herself wanting and needing more.
She wanted credit for the real person lurking behind the Hollywood image.
But as of 1958, she was still an outcast, especially in the elite village of Manhattan where her intellectual husband was scarcely tolerated for his choice to marry her. When she married Arthur Miller one wise guy even remarked that she’d married her college education.
The phone jarred her from her reverie. It was Arthur. His tone was cold and sarcastic. He’d opened the mail and found an invitation to a dinner party hosted by the ballet master, George Balanchine.
He read it to her.
George Balanchine cordially requests
the pleasure of your company
at dinner Friday evening, June 20.
Cocktails will commence at 8 p.m.
Guests are kindly asked to come alone.
A ‘Mystery Guest’ will be joining us for dinner.
79th and Broadway, No. 436
“Can you believe it?! He’s telling his guests to come alone! Can he really be excluding you? I wonder if the ballet master, in his ivory tower, has gotten the news yet that we’re married?!”
Marilyn listened to the man she loved, in his indignity, return to her. In a burst of domesticity, her mind wandered to the Spaghetti Carbonara she planned on making for their dinner later in Connecticut.
She made a mental note to grab candles, a loaf of French bread, and a special bottle of wine before she left the city. As so often happened in their marriage, what she was thinking was different from what she voiced to her husband. Another thought sprang to mind.
Wanting to be Norma Jean
So often in Hollywood and New York, she was aware people invited ‘Marilyn Monroe, the Star’ to their parties as cavalierly as they might engage the services of a performing monkey. Invite the beautiful film star as window dressing.
Wittingly or not, one host was saving her from such treatment.
Silently, she thanked George Balanchine, a man she’d never met.
She once said,
“While it’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies, you also like to be accepted for your own sake. . . . I’ll think I have a few wonderful friends and all of a sudden, oh, here it comes. They do a lot of things. They talk about you in the press, to their friends, tell stories and you know, it’s disappointing.”
“Of course it does depend on the people, but sometimes I’m invited places to kind of brighten up a dinner table like a musician who’ll play the piano after dinner, and I know they’re not really invited for your-self. (sic) You’re just an ornament.”
For now, Marilyn Monroe, nee Norma Jean Mortenson, simply answered her husband.
“But you must go. If that’s what the invitation requests.”
“No, my dear. I have a better idea: We’ll play our own little joke on George. What if you invited a novelist and Marilyn Monroe showed up instead? He says he has a Mystery Guest. Little does he know! Let’s do this. You play the role of his other Mystery Guest. Say yes, darling. It will be fun!”
How could she refuse him? He seemed so pleased with himself.
Once again, he seemed to take pride in her.
He was including her in the fun. It was enough for now. He wanted her to stop by the bookstore on her way to the country. Would she pick up several books for him? Of, course. That was what a wife should do.
She gathered her things and ran out onto Madison Avenue, noting with happiness the bustle of the city. Everyone seemed to have places to go and things to do. Like herself. She had somewhere to go, someone to go to, something to do. She hailed a taxicab.
Today, she enjoyed once again playing her own little star-game.
As so often happened in cabs, her driver swiveled around, looked momentarily puzzled, and commented,
“You know, ma’am, if you lost some weight, put on a little makeup, and combed your hair, you would look exactly like Marilyn Monroe.”
The cabbie’s words were as water to a parched man: affirmation.
Good, she thought with satisfaction, I can still be part of the crowd. I am an actress. When I choose, and only when I choose, I shall turn on ‘La Monroe,’ for your pleasure. But not today. Today, I am just a wife on her way to her husband, who’s busy at work.
Her little drama script showed a rampant imagination shared by the very few and the very privileged. Some practiced their craft from inside the ivied walls of sanitariums.
Others were still on the outside, walking free.
According to Harper’s Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland, a fellow fantasist,
“For years, I dreamed I was Bernhardt. Either I was Salome, or I was some Polish tart . . . I was terribly dramatic. I mean, I was never not Bernhardt.”
A dinner party like no other!
This is a serialization of a fictitious New York City dinner party taking place in the summer of 1958. The celebrity table conversations are solely the product of the author’s active imagination. That said, much of what they have to say has been attributed to them in biographies and other non-fiction materials.
Says one reader, “I felt I was part of New York society back in the good old day of larger than life, quirky, but always interesting characters. I would have loved being at this dinner and reading this book was a real treat.”
Book and Kindle versions available on Amazon.com.