Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’
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Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’

“There was an unlikely quality to it, sure, from a cultural point of view, if you want to call it that,” says playwright Arthur Miller of his marriage to Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe. He is talking with BBC’s Alan Yentob in 1987 about the public perception that their union was an improbable match – him the acclaimed, cerebral playwright, her the sex-symbol movie star.

Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: 'Everything was coming together in an explosion'
Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’

But “the very inappropriateness of our being together was, to me, the sign that it was appropriate,” he says.

Miller felt that he saw the real Norma Jean behind the Marilyn Monroe she had created. The person who the press wouldn’t let her be, instead treating her as “some kind of a dancing bear, that she shouldn’t be able, for example, to have any interest in anything but sex, showing off or saying dopey things to the newspapers”.

The couple had first met in the early 1950s in LA, when Monroe was introduced to Miller by his friend, director Elia Kazan. Miller was already considered one of the country’s leading playwrights due to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman, while Monroe was garnering attention with small but scene-stealing roles in the films The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.

Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: 'Everything was coming together in an explosion'
Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’

At the time Arthur was married to his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, with whom he had two children. They had married soon after graduating from the University of Michigan, and she had supported him financially as he had tried to make a living from his plays. Monroe had also been married – in the early 1940s, just after her 16th birthday – to James Dougherty, but their marriage had only lasted four years. She later had a brief marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, which lasted only nine months.

Miller and Monroe’s connection was immediate and potent. Arthur saw the vulnerability behind the Marilyn Monroe persona. He felt she was a kindred spirit, that she “was sensuous and life-loving it seemed, while in the centre of it was a darkness and tragedy that I didn’t know the dimensions of at that time. And the same thing was true of me. So it wasn’t that crazy,” he tells Yentob.

He later wrote of that first encounter: “The sight of her was something like pain, and I knew that I must flee or walk into a doom beyond all knowing. With all her radiance she was surrounded by a darkness that perplexed me.”

Monroe too seemed spellbound by Miller, both by his intelligence and his ability to see the real her. She reportedly told a friend about the experience of meeting him. “It was like running into a tree. You know, like a cool drink when you’ve had a fever.”

Monroe had suffered a traumatic upbringing. Born to a single, mentally ill mother, who was incapable of looking after her, she had spent her childhood bouncing between orphanages and foster homes, which had left deep emotional scars. “Basically, her struggle was a psychological struggle against abandonment, against abuse; in our terms today, she would have been thought of as an abused child,” says Miller.

Hard-working and ambitious, she had to strive throughout her career to get her talent recognised, and not merely dismissed as sex appeal. It’s likely that Miller represented a stability that she’d always yearned for.

Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: 'Everything was coming together in an explosion'
Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’

“I took her at her own evaluation, which very few people did,” he says. “I thought she was a very serious girl, way back. And that she was struggling, I thought, because she was generally seen as a very light-headed, if not silly, human being. That’s because I loved her so I took that attitude towards her. And so, the best of her she thought was in my eye. Therefore, the hope she had was with me, at that time of her life.”

They wrote to each other over the next few years, throughout her brief tempestuous marriage to DiMaggio, and the disintegration of Arthur’s own relationship. By 1955, when she moved to New York City to study acting, they were in the midst of a full-blown affair.

‘Red scare’

At this time, Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists was in full swing in the US. Thousands of people were being accused of being potential communist sympathisers or “un-American”, resulting in them being blacklisted from their careers. A few years earlier, Miller had written his play The Crucible, an emotional response to the “Red Scare” that was sweeping the country, and he was now being investigated by the FBI due to allegations of communist sympathies.

He was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was found guilty of contempt for refusing to reveal the names of people suspected of being communists. His friend Elia Kazan was also called to testify but unlike Miller, Kazan “named names”, provoking lifelong scorn from some of his contemporaries. When Elia Kazan received his honorary Oscar in 1999, some of the attendees, such as Kirk Douglas, resolutely refused to applaud.

The film studio urged Monroe to end their relationship but she refused and she went with him to Washington to speak in his favour at the contempt hearings. Her intervention is thought to have contributed to the later overturning of his conviction in 1957.

After their respective divorces were finalised, they were married in a four-minute civil ceremony in New York in 1956. This was followed a few days later by a full Jewish wedding, for which she converted to her new husband’s faith. Monroe, who had never known her real father, was given away by her acting teacher, Lee Strasberg.

But despite their bond, the clash between their lifestyles and aspirations soon became evident. Monroe faced pressure to conform to his expectations of a “good” wife. Not long after they were married, Miller told journalists that she would only make one film every 18 months or so. When asked what she would do for the rest of the time, he replied: “She will be my wife. That’s a full-time job.”

Monroe disagreed, and the newlyweds soon left for England to film The Prince and the Showgirl. The production proved difficult, with Monroe repeatedly clashing with star and director Laurence Olivier. She felt Miller’s friends were critical of her, a feeling which was exacerbated when, during the filming, she came across his notebook, in which he had confessed to misgivings at having married her and that he sometimes found her embarrassing.

Despite their desire to start a family, they struggled to have children. The first pregnancy was ectopic, and Monroe went on to have a miscarriage while she was filming Some Like It Hot in 1959.

Monroe had allayed her anxiety with drugs before they married and the relentless press spotlight generated by their marriage, coupled with personal insecurities and her past traumas, served to increase her struggles with addiction. She was briefly hospitalised due to a barbiturate overdose while filming in 1957.

The fractures in their marriage would come to a head during the turbulent production of the film The Misfits in 1961.

Miller had penned the screenplay for the film, based on his own short story, to showcase her range in a dramatic role, but the production was fraught with challenges. Filmed in the physically demanding heat of the Nevada desert, the shoot was hard for everyone. The film’s other star Clark Gable died from a heart attack at the age of 59 in November 1960, before its release.

But for Monroe, faced with a deteriorating marriage, it was particularly difficult. Miller had grown close to German-born photographer Inge Morath, who he met on the set of the film, and he and Monroe were reportedly barely speaking. Her drug use had escalated to the point where the film’s director John Huston shut down production in August 1960 to send her to hospital in order to detox.

Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: 'Everything was coming together in an explosion'
Arthur Miller on his divorce from Marilyn Monroe: ‘Everything was coming together in an explosion’

“Marilyn was ill, physically, she was distraught psychologically. Everything was coming to a crisis, at the same time [she was] having to do the first dramatic role she had ever tried to do,” says Miller.

“Everything was coming together in an explosion, so that the picture was taking months longer than it should have taken and she was simply worn out. “As anybody would be, we were shooting in 110-degree heat some days. It was a Turkish bath up there on that dry lake, unbelievable. So, anyway, it was the end of our marriage. It was also a terrible physical time for her.”

In 1961, after less than five years of marriage, they were granted a divorce on grounds of “incompatibility”. The Misfits was to be Monroe’s last completed film. Her divorce accelerated a decline marked by erratic behaviour and alcohol and drug abuse. On 5 August 1962, at the age 36, she was found dead in her Los Angeles home, her death officially attributed to suicide by drug overdose. Miller married Morath a month later.

He later wrote in his autobiography Timebends that his marriage to her was “the best of times, the worst of times”.

“The great thing about her for me was that the struggle was valiant. She was a very courageous human being and she didn’t give up, really, I guess, until the end,” he says.

In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.

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