The Genius and the Goddess
By Jeffrey Meyers | University of Illinois Press | 384 pages | $29.95
It was a surprising marriage, summed up in one headline as “Egghead weds Hourglass.”
Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood superstar who elevated playing the dumb blonde into an art form, and Arthur Miller, probably the most respected American playwright of the 20th-century, wed in 1956. The ceremony was brought forward after a journalist was killed in a car crash while chasing the famous couple. The marriage was to last a mere five (mostly miserable) years.
Jeffrey Meyers traces the relationship between Monroe and Miller from their first meeting at a party in Los Angeles 1951 – when Miller was already established as an intellectual while Monroe was still “couch casting” in her attempt to break into the big-time movies – through their marriage, divorce and the way Monroe lived on as Miller’s tragic muse.
During their initial encounter, Miller won her over by squeezing her toe (not, indeed, the part of her body most men would have – or did – aim for). By the end, Miller, according to Meyers, bailed out of the relationship to save himself, claiming: “She was beyond help. There was simply nothing but destruction that could have come. My own destruction as well as hers.”
The book would have been better called “The Goddess and the Genius” for it is the sad, exploited life of the former Norma Jeane that is the focus of the early part and it is the “Goddess,” the most famous woman in the world as Miller would boast, who continues to dominate the book.
Meyers, a well-established biographer and writer, has clearly researched his subject, and has the added benefit of a 25-year friendship with Miller. But sometimes there is so much detail that it goes off at a tangent and detracts, for instance when he quotes Raymond Chandler to describe the type of childhood home she lived in.
Meyers himself has not fallen completely under her magic spell. He provides a great deal of sometimes sordid information about her life, loves and affairs, and her craving for attention (or security). Describing the few personal effects found after her death, Meyers notes: “Although Marilyn denied she wore bras, she had two sets. For Marilyn Movie Star she wore decollete special no-bra bras that looked like nothing. Her personal brassieres were the simplest and plainest and poorest.”
An appendix of “Illnesses and Hospitalizations” coldly lists harrowing information: Before she married Miller, she had 13 abortions (the last from a pregnancy with Miller’s close friend Elia Kazan) and attempted suicide three times, the last after the death of her lover, agent and protector Johnny Hyde. The years after that are marked by a desperate desire for children ending in an ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage after miscarriage, following two of which she again attempted suicide.
The description of her incarceration in an asylum provides a glimpse of American social history as much as an insight into Monroe’s unstable mind.
We see Monroe through her teenage marriage and divorce as well as her second and much more public marriage and life with Joe DiMaggio (the only one who seems to have been there for her by the end, and the person who ultimately arranged her funeral, unattended by Miller).
What you’ll find depends on what you’re looking for: There is the sexy, promiscuous dumb blonde, perennially late on the set, unable to learn her lines, who became increasingly dependent on drugs, alcohol and soul-destroying psychoanalysis that magnified her fears.
There is also another Marilyn Monroe: witty, seeking self-improvement, reading the classics, writing poetry and passionately protective of children, animals and old people.
Famous names wander in and out the dual biographies, including Billy Wilder, who directed The Seven Year Itch
and Some Like It Hot
, Norman Rosten, Yves Montand, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, John Huston and, of course, the Kennedys and Frank Sinatra.
Monroe’s observations of how boring the conversations between Pulitzer Prize winners Miller and Saul Bellow, both living in Nevada awaiting their divorces to marry younger women, are as eye-opening to readers as they were to her.
THE SECTIONS on Miller are, well, less sexy. But the chapters on Miller’s experience with the US House Un-American Activities Committee are illuminating. Miller’s refusal to name names, unlike Elia Kazan, was to freeze their friendship for a decade, while Monroe risked her own career by accompanying Miller when he was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC.
It was in 1958, after his conviction was overturned, that Miller began work on The Misfits
, written for Monroe. But instead of bringing them together, the prophetically named work tore them apart, as Meyers shows in detail.
Meyers also demonstrates how Monroe lived on in Miller’s later writing
(not as successful as The Crucible, All My Sons
or Death of a Salesman
, however). “In his
work Miller often returned to the most painful period of his life: his
failure to unite the genius and the goddess, intelligence and beauty,
fame and celebrity. His three major works on Marilyn amount to a
dramatic trilogy – The Misfits
, After the
and Finishing the Picture
The book contains around 30 black-and-white photos, some revealing in
the voyeuristic sense, some particularly telling, like the photo of an
estranged Monroe and Miller looking through the door of a hotel room in
1960. The photograph, shot two years before Monroe’s death, was taken
by Inge Morath, who was to become Miller’s third wife.
Of particular interest to Jerusalem Post
perhaps, is Meyers’s description of Monroe’s conversion: “Marilyn told
Susan Strasberg: ‘I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out
to get them, no matter what they do, like me.’ Acutely aware that she
did not have a family of her own and eager to join the families of her
husbands and friends, she converted to Judaism to express her loyalty
and get close to both Miller and his parents.”
Miller admitted: “I’m not religious, but she wanted to be one of us and
that was why she took some instruction. I don’t think you could say she
became a Jewess, but still she took it all very seriously.”
During their marriage, according to Meyers, she would occasionally
pepper her speech with Yiddish: “When describing her nude calendar, she
said, ‘There I am with my bare tuchas
Her kishkes rather than her tuchas are on display in this book, but
nonetheless it is worth considering that while Miller’s works remain
universally important, it is Monroe who is still an icon.