Marilyn and the Literati

Article excerpt

Talking about poetry readings, Robert Frost was fond of saying, "I only go if I'm the show." Unwilling to share the limelight with any other poet, Frost cultivated his own public image. Celebrities love to be seen with other celebrities-it generates more publicity and enhances their own celebrity status-but a movie star's fame always trumps a writer's. When Marilyn Monroe moved from Hollywood to New York to take lessons at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, the local literati, eager to bask in her reflected glory, all wanted to meet and mix with her. Writers soon learned the art of using and being used, the celebrity dance of being famous together. Marilyn made dramatic appearances at El Morocco, the Colony, and the Plaza Oak Room with Truman Capote and kicked off her shoes while dancing with him so that (at 5'5'') she wouldn't be a head taller than her dwarfish consort. She also accompanied Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams's mother to a party at the Saint Regis hotel to celebrate the opening of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Everyone wanted to know what Marilyn was really like. Was she beautiful or vulgar? Genuine or artificial? Sexy or sluttish? Witty or just dim-witted? She had grown up poor and uneducated, unloved and preyed upon, and was now a deeply wounded and emotionally vulnerable young woman. In the fall of 1954 she was twenty-eight years old, in the first phase of the extraordinary fame that became legendary after her death in 1962. Dissatisfied with her dumb-blonde roles at Twentieth Century-Fox, off salary and short of money, she had escaped to New York. She was also fleeing an unhappy marriage to another celebrity, Joe DiMaggio, which lasted only nine months. Baffling and infuriating the studio heads, she said she wanted to learn her craft and educate herself. The intellectuals were happy to oblige.

Keen publicists and magazine editors looking for sure-fire copy encouraged incongruous, absurd, and potentially contentious encounters between Marilyn and highbrow authors she'd never read-nor even heard of. Yet she established a natural affinity with many writers who were, like herself, eccentrics and outsiders, heavy drinkers and drug-takers. Weary of being a sex object, she desperately longed for "someone to take me out who doesn't expect anything from me." She felt more at ease with homosexuals-like Capote and Williams. Later on she found Montgomery Clift, her costar in The Misfits, a perfect companion. He had no sexual designs on her, no perilous pounce. Filled with self-doubt and neurotic fears, dependent on painkillers and alcohol, he was, Marilyn observed, "the only person I know who's in worse shape than me."

Marilyn met Carson McCullers (who was nine years older) in 1954 when they were both staying at the Gladstone, a small, stuffy apartment-hotel on East Fifty-second Street, off Park Avenue. McCullers had had a stroke and lurched around with a cane. Like Marilyn, she drank heavily and gulped down barbiturates, tried to kill herself, and did time in the Payne-Whitney mental clinic. Her biographer Virginia Carr wrote that "according to Carson, Miss Monroe had wonderfully admirable attributes." Though Carr did not define these qualities, they included human warmth and the capacity for friendship.

In February 1959, when the seventy-four-year-old Danish author Isak Dinesen-wasted, skeletal, and ravaged by syphilis-expressed a desire to meet Marilyn and her husband, Arthur Miller, McCullers invited the actress and playwright to lunch at her house in Nyack, New York. She served oysters, white grapes, souffles, and champagne on a black marble table. Carr noted that "Monroe, who had a marvelous sense of humor and whom the guests found charming, entertained the group with an anecdote from her own kitchen. She told with much cleverness a tale on herself involving some homemade noodles she had tried to create one night for her husband like his mother [who was born in America] used to make in the 'old country. …