Oct 172017
 

Today is the birthday (1915) of Arthur Asher Miller, US playwright best known for Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953) which continue in revival to this day. Miller was often in the public eye, particularly during the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. During this time, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee; and was married to Marilyn Monroe. I’ll add Miller to my increasingly long list of legendary US authors that I really don’t resonate with: Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, etc. etc. Their world is not my world; I did not grow up in it, and I despised it when I lived in it. I do recognize the tragedy of Willy Loman’s failed dreams and aspirations, but they are not my aspirations, so my connexion to the character is academic, not emotional. That’s how it is between me and Miller (and the other parade of Am Lit legends). Maybe I should get a pat on the back for celebrating them anyway?

Miller was born in Harlem in New York City. His father was born in Radomyśl Wielki, Galicia (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Poland), and his mother was a native of New York whose parents had also emigrated from Radomyśl Wielki. Miller’s father ran a successful business and was well to do, but in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the family lost almost everything and moved to Gravesend, Brooklyn. As a teenager, Miller delivered bread every morning before school to help the family, and after graduating in 1932 from Abraham Lincoln High School, he worked at several unskilled jobs to pay for his college tuition.

At the University of Michigan, Miller first majored in journalism and worked for the student paper, the Michigan Daily. It was during this time that he wrote his first play, No Villain. Miller switched his major to English, and subsequently won the Avery Hopwood Award for No Villain. The award brought him his first recognition and led him to begin to consider that he could have a career as a playwright. Miller enrolled in a playwriting seminar taught by the influential professor Kenneth Rowe, who instructed him in his early efforts at playwriting. After his graduation in 1938, he joined the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal agency established to provide jobs in the theater. He chose the theater project despite the more lucrative offer to work as a scriptwriter for 20th Century Fox. However, Congress, worried about possible Communist infiltration, closed the project in 1939. Miller began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while continuing to write radio plays, some of which were broadcast on CBS.

In 1940, Miller married Mary Grace Slattery. They had two children, Jane and Robert. Miller was exempted from military service during World War II because of a high-school football injury to his left kneecap. 1940 was also the year his first play was produced, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It won the Theatre Guild’s National Award but closed after only four performances with disastrous reviews.

In 1947, Miller’s play All My Sons was a success on Broadway (earning him his first Tony Award, for Best Author) and his reputation as a playwright was established. In 1948, Miller built a small studio in Roxbury, Connecticut. There, in less than a day, he wrote Act I of Death of a Salesman. Within 6 weeks, he completed the rest of the play. Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway on February 10, 1949, at the Morosco Theatre, directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman (Miller’s favorite Willy), Mildred Dunnock as Linda, Arthur Kennedy as Biff, and Cameron Mitchell as Happy. The play was commercially successful and critically acclaimed, winning a Tony Award for Best Author, the New York Drama Circle Critics’ Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was the first play to win all three of these major awards.

In June 1956, Miller left his first wife, Mary Slattery, and married Marilyn Monroe. They had met in 1951, had a brief affair, and remained in contact afterwards. Monroe had just turned 30 when they married and Miller was 40. I get the definite sense that there was deep love between the two even though it could not last. Monroe had been raised an orphan and then thrust into the Hollywood spotlight without ever experiencing an intimate family life. She wrote to Miller: “I hate Hollywood. I don’t want it anymore. I want to live quietly in the country and just be there when you need me. I can’t fight for myself anymore.” Because Miller was Jewish she converted to Judaism and told her close friend, Susan Strasberg: “I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.” Soon after she converted, Egypt banned all of her movies.

For a time their life was somewhat normalized. Monroe enjoyed cooking and domesticity and was clearly devoted to Miller. His children adored her when they came for weekend visits, and she got on well with his parents.

In 1952, Miller’s friend, Elia Kazan, appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan named eight members of the Group Theatre, including Clifford Odets, Paula Strasberg, Lillian Hellman, J. Edward Bromberg, and John Garfield, who in recent years had been fellow members of the Communist Party. After speaking with Kazan about his testimony, Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research the witch trials of 1692. The Crucible, in which Miller likened the situation with the HUAC to the witch hunt in Salem in 1692, opened at the Beck Theatre on Broadway on January 22, 1953. Though widely considered only somewhat successful at the time of its release, today The Crucible is Miller’s most frequently produced work throughout the world.

Miller and Kazan were close friends throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, but after Kazan’s testimony to the HUAC, the pair’s friendship ended, and they did not speak to each other for the next ten years. The HUAC took an interest in Miller himself not long after The Crucible opened, denying him a passport to attend the play’s London opening in 1954. Kazan defended his own actions through his film On the Waterfront, in which a dockworker heroically testifies against a corrupt union boss.

When Miller applied in 1956 for a routine renewal of his passport, the HUAC used this opportunity to subpoena him to appear before the committee. Before appearing, Miller asked the committee not to ask him to name names, to which the chairman, Francis E. Walter (D-PA) agreed. Monroe accompanied him, and testified on his behalf, jeopardizing her own career. In her personal notes, she wrote about her worries during this period:

I am so concerned about protecting Arthur. I love him—and he is the only person—human being I have ever known that I could love not only as a man to which I am attracted to practically out of my senses—but he is the only person—as another human being that I trust as much as myself…

When Miller attended the hearing he gave the committee a detailed account of his political activities. Reneging on the chairman’s promise, the committee demanded the names of friends and colleagues who had participated in similar activities. Miller refused to comply, saying “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” As a result, a judge found Miller guilty of contempt of Congress in May 1957. Miller was sentenced to a fine and a prison sentence, blacklisted, and disallowed a US passport. In 1958, his conviction was overturned by the court of appeals, which ruled that Miller had been misled by the chairman of the HUAC.

Miller began work on writing the screenplay for The Misfits in 1960, directed by John Huston and starring Monroe. But it was during the filming that Miller and Monroe’s relationship hit difficulties, and he later said that the filming was one of the lowest points in his life. Monroe was taking drugs to help her sleep and more drugs to help her wake up, which caused her to arrive on the set late and then have trouble remembering her lines. Huston was unaware that Miller and Monroe were having problems in their private life. He recalled later, “I was impertinent enough to say to Arthur that to allow her to take drugs of any kind was criminal and utterly irresponsible. Shortly after that I realized that she wouldn’t listen to Arthur at all; he had no say over her actions.” Shortly before the film’s premiere in 1961, Miller and Monroe divorced. 19 months later Monroe died of a drug overdose. Miller later married photographer Inge Morath in February 1962. She had worked as a photographer documenting the production of The Misfits.

In 1964 After the Fall was produced, and is said to be a deeply personal view of Miller’s experiences during his marriage to Monroe. The play reunited Miller with his former friend Kazan: they collaborated on both the script and the direction. After the Fall opened on January 23, 1964, at the ANTA Theatre in Washington Square Park amid a flurry of publicity and outrage at putting a Monroe-like character, called Maggie, on stage. Robert Brustein, in a review in the New Republic, called After the Fall “a three and one half hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness . . . there is a misogynistic strain in the play which the author does not seem to recognize. . . . He has created a shameless piece of tabloid gossip, an act of exhibitionism which makes us all voyeurs, . . . a wretched piece of dramatic writing.”

Miller died of bladder cancer and congestive heart failure in 2005, at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He had been in hospice care at his sister’s apartment in New York since his release from hospital the previous month. He died on the evening of February 10 (the 56th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Death of a Salesman), aged 89, surrounded by family and friends. He is interred at Roxbury Center Cemetery in Roxbury.

I’ll give you a bit of a strange choice in recipes today, one from Death of a Salesman and one from Miller’s third wife. In Death of a Salesman Linda has Willy make a sandwich out of “that new whipped American cheese that you like.” You might think that she meant Cheez Whiz, but Kraft did not start marketing it until 3 years after Death of a Salesman came out. Kraft was, however, marketing various flavored cheese spreads at the time that they heavily promoted via newspapers, radio, and television as economical ways to make “fancy meals” which would likely appeal to Willy’s warped sense of values. I’m not recommending it, but if you’d like a sandwich of flavored cheese spread to celebrate Miller, be my guest.

Then there’s this from “A Bird of a Different Feather” by Moira Hodgson (New York Times, November 14, 1982)

Some people consider it absolute heresy to observe Thanksgiving without turkey. But not the photographer Inge Morath, wife of the playwright Arthur Miller. She says that she became so bored with the endless round of turkeys one year that she decided to amuse herself and her friends by making a pièce montée bird out of fruits and vegetables. ‘It’s very easy’ she says in the airy kitchen of the couple’s Connecticut house as she assembles a turkey that could have earned her a job as the prop designer for a Steven Spielberg film. ‘You just go along with what you can find,’ she adds, carrying a basketful of vegetables in from the garden. ‘The trick is to get the head and tail established. Once that’s done, you just have fun.’ Using a couple of loaves of bread as the base, she puts goose feathers in the end of one of the loaves to form a tail. She slices off the end of a corn cob, sticks a toothpick in it and spears it in the other end of the loaf to make the neck. The head is made from a small eggplant nailed by toothpick to the corn (sometimes she uses a pear); the wattles are large, dried red chili peppers. The bird’s chest puffs up as red cabbage and radicchio leaves and are neatly pinned to the bread and hung with red grapes. ‘I’m very surreal,’ Miss Morath notes as she fashions the eyes from two slices of radish, then places raisins in the center. ‘I invent things on the spur of the moment.–such as using quails’ eggs to make a spine or shrimps to fan out the tail. You can make endless variations, and that’s the fun.’ Miss Morath first got the idea from looking at composite paintings of animals and birds. She was living in France at the time and decied to surprise American friends who were celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris. Miss Morath…often spent weekends in chateaus in France. ‘They would serve us exptraordinary Baroque pieces montees, and I’d send my maid down to the kitchen to spy on the cook. She wold return with all the secrets, telling me how they put them together and how they used loaves of bread underneath. To male the piece montee turkey shown here, she used apples, pears, stuffed vine leaves, little tomatoes kumquats, dates, figs, prunes, broccoli, pieces of cheese, black and green grapes, nicoise olives, and all manner of vegetables and fruit threaded on skewers or toothpicks like little shish kebabs so that guests can nibble on them. With the turkey, Miss Morath…serves chilled Montrachet or red Bordeaux. It was not until she married Arthur Miller in 1962 that she learned to cook…’he’s wonderful at grilling meat, and I’m a vegetarian.’…’You don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to serve the bird…I often serve it at cocktail parites. It is rather like a fondue–everyone dips in, pulling off the skewers.’

May 032015
 

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Today is the birthday (1919) of Peter “Pete” Seeger. I’ll be quite up front about it: I dislike his music; I greatly admire his activism. He was also a really decent and friendly guy, despite all the fame. I’m going to focus here on his activism rather than his music even though they are entwined. In my mid-teens (1960’s) I was a genuine fan of the “folk scene;” all part of my nascent hippiedom. But it did not last long. My musical tastes drifted a good bit sideways to Tuvan throat singing and whatnot (still planning my first trip to Tuva when I can drum up the wherewithall to trek across Mongolia by yak). For now I content myself with old Chinese musicians playing ethereal melodies on one-string fiddles in the park on Sundays. My activist sentiments have not changed.

In 1936, at the age of 17, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League (YCL), then at the height of its popularity and influence. In 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) itself, but left in 1949.

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In the spring of 1941, the twenty-one-year-old Seeger performed as a member of the Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Butch and Bess Lomax Hawes, and Lee Hays. Seeger and the Almanacs cut several albums of 78s on Keynote and other labels, Songs for John Doe (recorded in late February or March and released in May 1941), the Talking Union, and an album each of sea shanties and pioneer songs. Written by Millard Lampell, Songs for John Doe was performed by Lampell, Seeger, and Hays, joined by Josh White and Sam Gary. It contained lines such as, “It wouldn’t be much thrill to die for Du Pont in Brazil,” that were sharply critical of Roosevelt’s unprecedented peacetime draft (enacted in September 1940). This anti-war/anti-draft tone reflected the Communist Party line after the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which maintained the war was “phony” and a mere pretext for big American corporations to get Hitler to attack Soviet Russia. Seeger has said he believed this line of argument at the time—as did many fellow members of the Young Communist League. Though nominally members of the Popular Front, which was allied with Roosevelt and more moderate liberals, the YCL’s members still smarted from Roosevelt and Churchill’s arms embargo to Loyalist Spain (which Roosevelt later called a mistake), and the alliance frayed in the confusing welter of events.

At that point, the U.S. had not yet entered the war but was energetically re-arming. African Americans were barred from working in defense plants, a situation that greatly angered both African Americans and white progressives. Civil rights leader A. J. Muste and black union leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning a huge march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in war industries and to urge desegregation of the armed forces. The march, which many regard as the first manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement, was canceled after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 (The Fair Employment Act) of June 25, 1941, barring discrimination in hiring by companies holding federal contracts for defense work. This Presidential act defused black anger considerably, although the United States Army still refused to desegregate, declining to participate in what it considered social experimentation.

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Seeger served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He was trained as an airplane mechanic, but was reassigned to entertain the American troops with music. Later, when people asked him what he did in the war, he always answered “I strummed my banjo.” After returning from service, Seeger and others established People’s Songs, conceived as a nationwide organization with branches on both coasts and designed to “Create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American People.” With Pete Seeger as its director, People’s Songs worked for the 1948 presidential campaign of Roosevelt’s former Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President, Henry A. Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. Despite having attracted enormous crowds nationwide, however, Wallace won only in New York City, and, in the red-baiting frenzy that followed, he was excoriated (as Roosevelt had not been) for accepting the help in his campaign of Communists and fellow travelers such as Seeger and singer Paul Robeson.

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As a self-described “split tenor” (between an alto and a tenor), Pete Seeger was a founding member of two highly influential folk groups: The Almanac Singers and the Weavers. The Almanac Singers, which Seeger co-founded in 1941 with Millard Lampell and Arkansas singer and activist Lee Hays, was a topical group, designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. Its personnel included, at various times: Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Josh White, and Sam Gary. As a controversial Almanac singer, the 21-year-old Seeger performed under the stage name “Pete Bowers” to avoid compromising his father’s government career.

In the 1950s and, indeed, consistently throughout his life, Seeger continued his support of civil and labor rights, racial equality, international understanding, and anti-militarism (all of which had characterized the Wallace campaign) and he continued to believe that songs could help people achieve these goals. With the ever-growing revelations of Joseph Stalin’s atrocities and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, however, he became increasingly disillusioned with Soviet Communism. He left the CPUSA in 1949 but remained friends with some who did not leave it, though he argued with them about it.

Pete Seeger at the House Un-American Activites committee

On August 18, 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alone among the many witnesses after the 1950 conviction and imprisonment of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress, Seeger refused to plead the Fifth Amendment (which would have asserted that his testimony might be self incriminating) and instead, as the Hollywood Ten had done, refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” Seeger’s refusal to answer questions that violated his fundamental Constitutional rights led to a March 26, 1957, indictment for contempt of Congress; for some years, he had to keep the federal government apprised of where he was going any time he left the Southern District of New York. He was convicted in a jury trial of contempt of Congress in March 1961, and sentenced to ten 1-year terms in jail (to be served simultaneously), but in May 1962 an appeals court ruled the indictment to be flawed and overturned his conviction.

A longstanding opponent of the arms race and of the Vietnam War, Seeger satirically attacked then-President Lyndon Johnson with his 1966 recording, on the album Dangerous Songs!?, of Len Chandler’s children’s song, “Beans in My Ears”. Beyond Chandler’s lyrics, Seeger said that “Mrs. Jay’s little son Alby” had “beans in his ears,” which, as the lyrics imply, ensures that a person does not hear what is said to them. To those opposed to continuing the Vietnam War, the phrase implied that “Alby Jay”, a loose pronunciation of Johnson’s nickname “LBJ,” did not listen to anti-war protests as he too had “beans in his ears”.

During 1966 Seeger and Malvina Reynolds took part in environmental activism. The album God Bless the Grass was released on January of that year and became the first album in history wholly dedicated to songs about environmental issues. Their politics were informed by the same ideologies of nationalism, populism, and criticism of big business.

Seeger attracted wider attention starting in 1967 with his song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, about a captain—referred to in the lyrics as “the big fool”—who drowned while leading a platoon on maneuvers in Louisiana during World War II. With its lyrics about a platoon being led into danger by an ignorant captain, the song’s anti-war message was obvious- the line “the big fool said to push on” is repeated several times. In the face of arguments with the management of CBS about whether the song’s political weight was in keeping with the usually light-hearted entertainment of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the final lines were “Every time I read the paper/those old feelings come on/We are waist deep in the Big Muddy and the big fool says to push on.”

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In 1982, Seeger performed at a benefit concert for Poland’s Solidarity resistance movement. His biographer David Dunaway considers this the first public manifestation of Seeger’s decades-long personal dislike of communism in its Soviet form. In the late 1980s Seeger also expressed disapproval of violent revolutions, remarking to an interviewer that he was really in favor of incremental change and that “the most lasting revolutions are those that take place over a period of time.” In a 1995 interview he insisted, “I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.”

Over the years he lent his fame to support numerous environmental organizations, including South Jersey’s Bayshore Center, the home of New Jersey’s tall ship, the oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald. Seeger’s benefit concerts helped raise funds for groups so they could continue to educate and spread environmental awareness.

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On May 3, 2009, at the Clearwater Concert, dozens of musicians gathered in New York at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday (which was later televised on PBS during the summer), ranging from Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Eric Weissberg, Ani DiFranco and Roger McGuinn to Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, Bill Miller, Joseph Fire Crow, Margo Thunderbird, Tom Paxton, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Arlo Guthrie. Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez was also invited to appear but his visa was not approved in time by the United States government. Consistent with Seeger’s long-time advocacy for environmental concerns, the proceeds from the event benefited the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a non-profit organization founded by Seeger in 1966, to defend and restore the Hudson River.

Seeger died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital,on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94. Response and reaction to Seeger’s death quickly poured in. President Barack Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in “the power of song” to bring social change, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.” Folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: “Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he’d only be making music – but he believed that while music didn’t have agency, it did have the power to make a difference.” Bruce Springsteen said of Seeger’s death, “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night, Pete Seeger”, before performing “We Shall Overcome” while on tour in South Africa.

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Seeger lived on the Hudson River in Beacon, NY for many years, and, of course the Hudson River valley was one of his favorite spots. I lived a little south of him and would stop by once in a while (courtesy of an odd family connexion between him and my late wife). One of my fondest memories of the region is the pick-your-own apple orchards. Yearly outings with my son were a special treat for him (“Dad, when can we go pick apples?”). So, I’d say do something with apples in honor of Pete even though it is the wrong season. My local orchard sold unpasteurized cider which fermented into a fizzy drink within days. Delicious. I can’t tell you how many ways I cooked those apples, my favorite being apple crumble (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/samuel-johnson/).

When I used to roast a Christmas goose I always stuffed it with sliced apples tossed in powdered cinnamon, allspice and cloves (sage and onion “stuffing” I roasted on the side to avoid the excessive fat inside the goose). As a side dish I made red cabbage and apples. We were a small family for Christmas dinner; Boxing Day was the big blowout. In consequence I made only a little (plenty of other side dishes).

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© Red Cabbage and Apples.

Thinly slice ½ a red cabbage and toss it with thick slices of peeled apples. Let sit in a bowl covered in water acidulated with lemon juice. This stops the apples from browning and keeps the cabbage bright when cooking. After an hour or so, drain the apple-cabbage mixture and place in a stainless steel pan over medium heat. Add a knob of butter and a dusting of powdered cloves. Let cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes. You want the cabbage to retain some crunchiness. Serve in a heated bowl as a side dish for any fatty meat such as goose or pork.