I just returned from seeing the movie My Week With Marilyn, a film set in the summer of 1956 in England when an aspiring filmmaker Colin Clark worked on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film that brought the famous Sir Laurence Olivier together with Marilyn Monroe. Such a lovely film, and I had forgotten all about the interview I had done with Arthur Miller in 1987 when he was promoting his memoir Timebends. I interviewed him in Toronto, and was told not to mention Marilyn’s name in the interview. Of course, I couldn’t see how he could avoid talking about her, and he did speak about his relationship, and his marriage to Marilyn. You could tell that while he had been tortured by her, he had a great love for this woman. He respected her. And defended her. At one point, he said she may never have read any more than a handful of books in her lifetime, but she had this uncanny ability to size up a book in just a couple of pages, and could tell you how it was going to end, how it was going to spin out to its conclusion. She also distrusted anything fictional, preferring only the truth. Miller once told her she was the “saddest girl” he had ever met. At first, Marilyn was hurt by this remark, but suddenly realized it was loaded with tenderness and affection. She responded by saying no one had ever said that about her. She told Miller that she believed men only ever wanted “happy girls.” That wasn’t her. She was real.
One night, Marilyn told Miller a story that silenced him in the most tender way. The story emerged when Miller and Marilyn were casually standing together looking out over the city of New York, and apropos of nothing, she started speaking about her elderly Aunt Ana, a Christian Scientist who had been her guardian. She told Miller about how one day, her aunt suddenly took ill and died. Marilyn was in terrible shock over her aunt’s death. So much so that the next night, Marilyn made her way upstairs to her aunt’s bedroom, and climbed into her bed, and slept there. The next day, she went to the cemetery, and when she spotted some men digging Aunt Ana’s grave, and saw ladder running into it, she asked the gravediggers if she could climb down. They graciously moved aside, and Marilyn slowly made her way down to the bottom, and stretched out on the loamy earth and gazed up at the sky, with the men standing at the rim of the gravesite. She could see them leaning on their shovels and smoking, and she lay there a few moments, and felt the cold against her back. It was when the men started joking that she roused herself, and got up and climbed back out of the hole. That story has stayed with me. It was a young Marilyn, not yet the actress, not yet the sex symbol. Just a young girl saddened by her aunt’s death.
Arthur Miller wrote: “To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”