The Playwright Who Planted Trees

By Davis, Nora Deakin | American Forests, March-April 1991 | Go to article overview

The Playwright Who Planted Trees


Davis, Nora Deakin, American Forests


Arthur Miller is best known for Death of a Salesman and his much-publicized marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Few know that he is perhaps the only writer to be blacklisted by McCarthy and the Soviet Union. Fewer still know that the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright has yet another claim to fame. He is a closet Johnny Appleseed.

Twenty-eight years ago, he planted 6,000 pines and firs on his property in Connecticut where he has lived for four decades. Today, he writes in his memoirs, those once-ankle-high seedlings are a dense forest of 60-foot trees with stems thicker than telephone poles."

Born in 1915, Miller grew up in Harlem and recalls that the Big Apple had "a lot more big trees" back then. As an urbanite, he had a thing or two to learn about trees.

What he describes as his first confrontation with nature" occurred when he bought a piece of land about three hours outside the city. One giant tree on his property was engulfed by a hairy vine. "One does not truly own a thing until one has changed it," he points out, -and so I proceeded to own the tree by tearing the vine off with my bare hands. Later that afternoon, as I ate a sandwich in the sun, the first itching began on my belly. "

Poison ivy was not the only lesson he learned the hard way. In front of his country home was a row of seven huge maples. "I built a stone wall and killed off those maples," he admits in the unmistakable inflections of a born-and-bred New Yorker. "But then the house kept heating up from the lack of shade. " So he hired a nursery to move in some sizable replacements.

After that, the nurseryman provided advice when the playwright decided to venture into the nursery business himself. Miller grew seven or eight varieties of trees-locusts, katsura-trees, lindens, and amur cork trees-and sold a few. It was never a big operation, but at least it paid for itself.

At one time, he also thought about growing fruit trees. He recalls the day Marilyn Monroe asked what that thing was sticking out of the chassis of his new Land Rover. "I told her it was a power-takeoff shaft to drive spraying equipment for fruit trees I intended to plant. "

From the beginning, tragedy-and a tree-haunted the Miller-Monroe marriage. Married in a quiet ceremony to avoid the press, they returned home only to find a Chevrolet mangled around a maple tree near their house.

"We stopped, and I got out and looked and saw a woman stretched out on the front seat, her neck obviously broken. At the house, which we reached in a moment, an ambulance was already pulling up, and a mob of some 50 newspeople, cameramen, and onlookers was directing the driver to the accident.

Miller explains that the dead woman was a reporter who had hitched a ride with a photographer. "He had mistaken a passing car for mine, roared off in pursuit, failed to make this turn, and collided with the tree. The struck tree slowly rotted and after half a dozen years finally toppled over, leaving a stump that my eye could not avoid looking for in the weeds whenever I drove past. "

One day, the famed poet Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, dropped by for a visit. After complimenting Miller on a speech he'd given at a PEN meeting -Miller was president of the international writers organization-Lowell asked about the varieties of trees the playwright was raising.

"I got on the tractor to show him how I pruned the roots with a device I had fashioned and attached to the cultivator bar." This was in the days before special tools were developed for pruning roots.

Miller's third wife is internationally known photographer Inge Morath, whose images have appeared in Life and Holiday and are housed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says that when Miller isn't writing, his outlet is to work outdoors. …

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