Monday, July 8, 2013

Arthur Miller On Marilyn Monroe's Sense Of Humor, Etc.

by Stephen J. Gertz

By Richard Avedon, 1958.
 "I am quite conceivably prejudiced, but I think this collection is a wonder of Marilyn’s wittiness. As Lillian Russell, Marilyn sits [on] the solid gold bicycle just inexpertly enough to indicate that she is, after all, a lady… Her hands lace around the bike handles so much more femininely than they grasp the fan as Clara Bow. And here again is the difference between imitation and interpretation, between making an affect and rendering a spirit."
The above quotation was partially cut from Arthur Miller's feature article, My Wife Marilyn, which appeared in Life magazine, December 22, 1958, in its Christmas issue to accompany photographer Richard Avedon's spread, Marilyn Monroe: Fabled Enchantresses. Within, Avedon shot Monroe  as Lillian Russell, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, and Jean Harlow. Miller’s essay describes Monroe’s “miraculous sense of sheer play” in channeling these celebrated sex symbols of the stage and screen and her role as their successor.

Miller's signed typescript draft of the article's final published version, with holograph corrections, revisions, and indicated cuts (almost a third of its final length), has come to market along with a signed typed letter by Miller to Life editor, Ralph Graves, dated October 31, 1958, that the playwright sent along with this final draft. They are being offered for $28,500.

 "Here is the article. The only stuff I have added is at the end, with the exception of one or two words in the body of the text. It reads like a precis of the original, I’m afraid, much of the feeling having been removed. But it will do, I guess. If you’ve got something better to use please do so. I’m sorry, again, that the wires got crossed and I conceived it for a much greater length. In any case, the photos are still miraculous."

The "feeling" remains within pages six through eleven of the eleven recto-only leaves of graph paper, which have been almost entirely struck through by Miller, who, once again, writes about Marilyn's sense of humor as evidenced in the photos. She possessed a keen sense of herself, completely self-aware and not only in on the joke but a collaborator in its creation. Though unschooled, this was a very smart woman; only the highly intelligent can play "dumb" with aplomb.

"As in life so in these pictures --- she salutes fantasy from the shore of the real until there comes a moment when she carries us, reality and all, into the dream with her, and we are grateful. Her wit here consists of her absolute commitment to two ordinarily irreconcilable opposites --- the real feminine and the man's fantasy of femininity. We know she knows the difference in these pictures, but is refusing to concede that there is any contradiction, and it is serious and funny at the same time."
The typescript, with its mounting revisions, examines in detail the nuances behind each pose and each portrait, exploring at length Monroe’s approach to portraying these prior stars and the cultural milieu from which they emerged.


Though a few lines and one longer passage from the original manuscript were salvaged for the published version, most were cut. These excisions, found here, include a comparison of Monroe’s face to “a lake under a changing sky” and Miller’s conviction that she is “the living proof that Boticelli was only painting the literal truth.” Where the published essay is a polished description of the electricity of Avedon’s set and Monroe’s ability to capture the “spirit of an age” and document “a kind of history of our mass fantasy, as far as seductresses are concerned,” this typescript reveals an unedited account of not only an inspired collaboration, but Miller’s beguilement over his wife’s many talents.


In Monroe's last interview before her death, appearing in Life on August 3, 1962, she discussed fame in general and hers in particular and pleaded to writer Richard Meryman, "Please don't make me a joke."

"The often bizarrely explained circumstances of her death and her image as a sex goddess/dumb blonde have at times prevented Monroe from being perceived as more than a caricature. She was, however, much more, and even in those 'dumb' roles she displayed an elegance worthy of respect. Her director in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder, recognized this quality and called her 'an absolute genius as a comic actress.' Monroe never lost her desire for life or her sense of humor despite her tribulations, and she treated with humor and insight the depersonalization that came with her status and that often tormented her life and career" (American National Biography).

Once, in a throwaway quip employing a homonym to lampoon that dumb blonde sex-goddess image she, perhaps unconsciously, suggested a subtext that seriously addressed the inner conflict between what she represented to others and her true self:

"I thought symbols were something you clash."
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Typescript and letter images courtesy of Royal Books, currently offering these items, with our thanks.

Marilyn Monroe photographs from Avedon's Fabled Enchantresses series can be viewed here.
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Of Related Interest:

Marilyn Monroe: Avid Reader, Writer & Book Collector.

Heartbreaking Marilyn Monroe Letter Estimated at $30,000 - $50,000. 

The Most Significant Marilyn Monroe Autograph Document Comes To Auction.
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