Monday, 28 January 2013
A Portrait of Arthur Miller
In the 1970's I wrote two literary biographies, one on Katherine Mansfield, a short-story writer from New Zealand who died early at the peak of her career; the other on Wyndham Lewis, an original novelist, great painter and incurable outsider who died blind and neglected in 1957. As I began to consider a new subject, my biographer's antennae quivered at the thought of Arthur Miller. His opposition to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950's had earned him lasting political prestige. His plays were a staple of the American theater repertory, and he'd also written classic film-scripts of his own work. Though his normal, commonsensical, intellectual life rarely made headlines, in the late 1950's he had been married to Marilyn Monroe, a conjunction that made heads spin at the time and now seemed the stuff of myth. I was full of respect for him, and curiosity as well.
In September 1980 I wrote to sound him out. I couldn't help noting in my letter the similarities between his early life and mine. We both came from Jewish families, grew up in New York, had a father in the coat business, were adored by our mothers (who slept late while the maid served breakfast), were taught by Irish spinsters in public schools, rebelled against piano lessons and Hebrew school, and graduated from the University of Michigan.
Not surprisingly, Miller didn't want to be distracted from his current work by contemplating the shape and pattern of his entire life. He did not want a sleuth to comb through his private papers for unwelcome revelations. Nor did he want to give away material and ideas he still might use in his own writing. But he replied courteously and, as I learned to expect, modestly: "I would be loath to begin a project such as you suggest for several reasons. I am really writing more now than ever in my life and I don't want to interrupt. I've never kept anything like an orderly file of all my correspondence, most of which, in any case, is hardly worth reading. And finally, I guess, I don't think I'm all that fascinating"—though he was about to write his own autobiography.
This last remark might seem disingenuous. Miller's life, lived at the center of American cultural history, had been a starring role, not a walk-on part. But he was making a distinction between the complex external events and his straightforward inner character. As an enormously successful playwright he must have had extraordinary ambition and drive, been innovative, even rebellious. He must have made personal sacrifices and taken infinite pains. Did he, in fact, retain the human sympathy and self-respect that had sparked his imagination and informed his greatest work? Was there a modest man, an ego under control, inside his creative personality? If so, he must be quite different, I thought, from the selfish, driven, often tragic artist that lies at the heart of most literary biographies. This distinction made him all the more interesting to me. My letter began our relationship. He asked me to send him my book on Mansfield and read it attentively. "Though I usually distrust biographies," he wrote, "to the point of avoiding them whenever possible, yours I believe. . . . She is one of those tragic persons launched on a short trajectory, the self-consuming rocket." He invited me to visit him in Connecticut, and in June 1981 I made the first of nine visits, extending over the next 17 years.
Arthur had bought this rustic house in 1956, a retreat from Manhattan and the theater, but close enough to New York to keep an eye on the city. Down a country lane, surrounded by 40 acres of woods and meadows, it was set on a rise above a swimming pond. He came out to meet us, six feet tall, as straight-backed as a soldier, his white hair crowning his tanned bald head and his Jeffersonian face, familiar from many press photographs. He was as unpretentious as his house, a comfortable place with oriental rugs on the floor, colorful sofas, books overflowing the bookcases and scattered around the rooms. He had a carpentry workshop and separate studios for himself and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath. As we walked through the grounds he pointed out the plants and vegetables in their garden, and moths laying eggs in the grass.
Arthur was a powerful physical presence. I was aware of his large capable hands, his denim workshirt, his shorts and muscular legs, his bare feet in moccasins. He mowed the huge lawn himself, replaced the cement on the patio and made his own furniture. He was proud of his new custom-built Finnish woodstove, made of soapstone; and had been using the left-over material to carve building blocks and had assembled them to look like miniature stage sets and a modern city filled with skyscrapers. He cut a lot of wood and for him trees had distinctive characters: he showed me his "wolf-tree," which dominated and devoured all the other trees around it. It had seeds that flourished only if they drifted far away.
Though he tried to "hide out" in Connecticut, many people came to see him, and he had some illustrious neighbors: Alexander Calder, Richard Widmark, Dustin Hoffman, Philip Roth, and William Styron (on whose court Arthur played tennis). Norman Mailer had once lived nearby. In this quiet, seemingly remote place he seemed more a countryman than a sophisticated New Yorker.(In 1984, when Arthur was in China, a fire from a defective oil burner destroyed the main house, along with his books and personal possessions. Fortunately , his studio was unharmed and his papers were safe. His insurance was excellent and, though it took six months to restore everything, the new house was much better than the old one. He called it "one of the best fires I ever had.") He probably earns more money from books and plays than any other serious writer. His plays, produced all over the world, are staged more frequently than those of any other dramatist save Shakespeare.(Though his agents, he told me, were lucky to collect half of what was owed in Asia and Africa, in Europe and South America he did well. He sometimes has five plays on in England in one year.) He had a new Mercedes and a Rabbit convertible in the garage, and we talked about driving into Manhattan. He was pleased to have found a cheap place to park, but liked it even more when he was chauffeured into town for a premiere and could sleep on the way back. He had one of the new wireless phones, run off a battery, which he carried around while he did the chores, and was delighted by the convenience when it rang and actually worked.
Rich he must be, but he didn't act rich, didn't seem in the least acquisitive or flashy. Fame, too, had a price. Ruefully, he told me his nice-guy reputation inspired ten to 20 letters a week from strangers, asking for, even demanding, large sums of money for all lands of needs—school tuition and medical expenses. Though his face is not so famous that he stands out in the crowd, he had recently been stopped in the street in New York by a man who recognized him and insisted that Arthur help him publicize a new theory about light refraction. The light in the man's own pale gray eyes was disquieting, and Arthur had gotten rid of him with difficulty.
The table was set for lunch out in the sunshine, and as we sat down Inge appeared, in a hurry to drive across the countryside to New Haven. She was taking a course in Chinese at Yale in preparation for their long trip—she to take photographs, he to direct Death of a Salesman in Beijing. Thin, birdlike, and dynamic, Inge welcomed us warmly, said goodbye to "Arr-toor" and departed in a cloud of energy. We had smoked salmon, a rich salad and home-made rye bread. Arthur's Austrian mother-in-law, round, placid, and charming, had baked a superb strudel.
Sitting across the table, Arthur looked strong and handsome. He'd injured his knee in a youthful football game and been rejected by the Army in World War II. Recently, he'd fallen off a ladder and broken his ankle.(With it still in a cast he'd sailed up the Nile in Sadruddin Khan's yacht to see the Pharaonic monuments.) Just before a trip to South America a tear in his retina almost blinded him. During a seven-hour emergency operation, performed the next day, the surgeon took the eyeball out of the socket and fastened a "buckle" around it to keep the tear from spreading. Though Arthur continued to be bothered by mist in his distant vision and had to rest his eyes in the afternoon, the operation saved his sight and gave him 20/20 vision with glasses. Apart from his ankle and his eyes, he was in remarkably good shape for a man of 66.