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.’