ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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InterviewWriter's illiterate businessman father basis for Willy Loman

The rags-to-riches story of Arthur Miller, Pulitzer-winning son of Jewish immigrants

A new biography by John Lahr in Yale’s Jewish Lives Series tracks the successes (and many failures) of a beloved American writer whose tragic characters were inspired by his life

  • FILE - In this June 29, 1956 file photo, actress Marilyn Monroe, left, and playwright Arthur Miller embrace on the lawn of Miller's home in Roxbury, Conn., several hours before they were married in White Plains, New York. (AP Photo, File)
    FILE - In this June 29, 1956 file photo, actress Marilyn Monroe, left, and playwright Arthur Miller embrace on the lawn of Miller's home in Roxbury, Conn., several hours before they were married in White Plains, New York. (AP Photo, File)
  • Arthur Miller smokes his pipe at the witness table prior to testifying at a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, DC, June 21, 1956.  (AP Photo)
    Arthur Miller smokes his pipe at the witness table prior to testifying at a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, DC, June 21, 1956. (AP Photo)
  • Arthur Miller poses in front of his farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, August 7, 1958. (AP Photo)
    Arthur Miller poses in front of his farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, August 7, 1958. (AP Photo)
  • Newlyweds Marilyn Monroe, right, and Arthur Miller are shown after their civil wedding ceremony in White Plains, New York, June 29, 1956. (AP Photo)
    Newlyweds Marilyn Monroe, right, and Arthur Miller are shown after their civil wedding ceremony in White Plains, New York, June 29, 1956. (AP Photo)
  • Film director Elia Kazan, center, is flanked by playwrights Tennessee Williams, left, Arthur Miller at Brentano's bookstore in New York City, February 6, 1967.  (AP Photo/J.J. Lent)
    Film director Elia Kazan, center, is flanked by playwrights Tennessee Williams, left, Arthur Miller at Brentano's bookstore in New York City, February 6, 1967. (AP Photo/J.J. Lent)

John Lahr is recalling an afternoon he spent with American playwright Arthur Miller in December 1998.

“I remember Miller told me: The whole idea of people failing is that they can no longer be loved. People who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off death,” says Lahr, who was The New Yorker’s chief drama critic from 1992 to 2013.

Miller was then 83 years old and brought Lahr to his writing studio in Roxbury, Connecticut.

“When we first entered the small cabin, Miller pointed to his desk, where he had sat down 50 years earlier and wrote the first act of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in eight hours,” Lahr tells The Times of Israel from his home in London.

When it first opened on Broadway in 1949, “Death of a Salesman” ran for 742 performances straight and won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Tony for Best Play. Set in late 1940s Brooklyn, the two-act tragedy tells the story of Willy Loman, a nervous traveling salesman in despair with a mediocre life that has failed to match his ambitious expectations.

“Willy Loman’s great tragedy is that he lives in the past or in the expectation of a future that never arrives, so life passes him by,” says Lahr.

“Miller was not the first to dramatize the barbarity of American individualism, but he was the first to stage this spiritual attrition as a journey to the interior of the American psyche,” Lahr writes in the opening pages of his biography “Arthur Miller: American Witness,” which was published late last year as part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series.

Arthur Miller poses in front of his farmhouse in Woodbury, Connecticut, August 7, 1958. (AP Photo)

Lahr’s previous biographical works include “Sinatra: The Artist and the Man,” and “Notes on a Cowardly Lion.”

Lahr begins his narrative on Harlem’s West 110th Street on Arthur Miller’s birthday, October 17, 1915. New York was then home to 14 percent of all immigrant Jews in the United States, and Harlem housed a Jewish population of around 200,000.

Critic and author John Lahr. (Paul Kolnik)

Arthur was the second child of Augusta (Gussie) and Isidore Miller. Both of Miller’s parents’ families were first-generation émigrés from Poland who had been engaged in the manufacture of clothing since they had come ashore at Ellis Island in the 1880s.

“Miller was bar mitzvahed in 1925 and grew up [in a close-knit] Jewish community,” says Lahr.

In his autobiography “Timebends,” Miller confessed that as a child he hardly knew any gentiles. But the family was not particularly religious — though they regularly attended a synagogue on 114th Street in Manhattan and observed the High Holy days.

Miller would later downplay the ostentatious wealth he was born into.

“By the mid-1920s Isidore’s Miltex Coat and Suit Company had become one of the largest clothing companies in the United States,” says Lahr.

“Miller was born in a big apartment on the north side of Central Park. His family had maids, oriental rugs, mahogany furniture, a grand piano, and a chauffeur-driven limousine that would take them to Broadway shows on the weekend,” he says.

But when Miller turned 14 his father’s business was wiped out, almost overnight, by the Great Depression. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was both a fiscal and moral catastrophe for the Millers, who left Manhattan and downsized, moving to Midwood, Brooklyn.

‘Arthur Miller: American Witness,’ by John Lahr. (Courtesy of Yale University Press/ Jewish Lives Series)

The biographer recalls a moment from Miller’s adolescence, which in many ways shaped his future life as a writer. Miller was 16 and walking to high school with his father, who was so broke that he asked his son for a quarter to take the subway back into Manhattan.

“In that moment Miller felt the power shift from his father to him,” says Lahr. “That character’s dejected soul was the first sighting of what would become Willy Loman [whose] particular terror goes to the core of American individualism, in which the value of the self is hopelessly tangled with the question of wealth.”

Lahr spends considerable time and ink in his book exploring the rather odd relationship Miller’s parents shared. He notes that except for movies and theater, Isidore and Gussie had little common currency for intellectual exchange. Isidore’s lack of information and curiosity about a world beyond his business limited their social circle to relatives and philistine clients whom Gussie disdained. Isidore understood numbers but not letters: he could neither read nor write — a subject Miller explored in numerous plays, including “After the Fall.”

“Miller was not a happy kid,” Lahr says. “And this is really central to Miller’s biography.”

The family’s sudden fall in social status saw Isidore lose his confidence and withdraw from his own family and life more generally. Gussie, meanwhile, grew angrier and more resentful.

“Gussie was highly sophisticated, well-read and had cultural aspirations,” says Lahr. “And the shock of discovering that her husband was not educated — and could not read — became quite a big issue.”

The biographer believes Miller was profoundly affected by his father’s illiteracy.

This unspoken but palpable conflict in the family led Miller to “fictionalize his parents, who he was always splitting off and creating various characters out of,” says Lahr.

Miller attended the University of Michigan, where he studied journalism and graduated in 1938. By 1940 Miller had written six plays. All were rejected by producers except “The Man Who Had All the Luck” — Miller’s first play to open on Broadway. It won the Theatre Guild National Award but lasted only four performances. Feeling dejected and rejected, Miller decided he was going to quit writing plays for good.

Miller momentarily turned his attention to writing fiction, publishing “Focus” in 1945. The novel is set in New York in the early 1940s and was inspired by the antisemitic sentiments Miller witnessed sweeping across the United States at that time.

“Miller pushes his anti-hero, Mr. Newman, into the vortex of antisemitism,” says Lahr. “It was Miller’s only novel, but his first of many attempts to map the landscape of American denial.”

Film director Elia Kazan, center, is flanked by playwrights Tennessee Williams, left, Arthur Miller at Brentano’s bookstore in New York City, February 6, 1967. (AP Photo/J.J. Lent)

The novel sold 90,000 copies and was also optioned for film. Buoyed by the success of the book, Miller gave one last attempt at writing a commercial Broadway play. That play was “All My Sons,” which opened on Broadway on January 29, 1947, under the direction of Elia Kazan, who would also direct “Death of a Salesman” when it premiered in New York two years later.

The latter play would earn Miller $2 million. “I tell ya, kid, art pays,” Miller wrote to Kazan at the time.

It was Kazan who first introduced Miller to the young Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe in 1951. He took Miller to 20th Century-Fox, where “As Young as You Feel” was being shot.

“Miller could see that Monroe was weeping under her black-lace veil, which she lifted to dab her eyes,” says Lahr.

A few days later, though, Kazan and Monroe began a year-long affair. Miller, meanwhile, was still married to his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery, with whom he had two children, Jane and Robert. The biographer notes that Miller and Monroe’s relationship was still platonic at this stage.

His book then spends considerable time and ink exploring the explosive public rift that developed between Miller and his close friend and creative partner, Kazan. Their infamous falling out arose not over Monroe, but from the paranoid politics of the Red Scare: an anti-communist witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy that dominated American public life during the 1950s, in the early years of the Cold War.

Kazan and Miller had both briefly flirted with far-left politics. Miller had attended meetings with communist writers back in 1947, while Kazan had been a member of the Communist Party for 18 months back in the 1930s. In late 1951, when the film “Death of a Salesman” was about to be released, Columbia Pictures asked Miller to sign an anti-Communist statement, but he refused.

Arthur Miller smokes his pipe at the witness table prior to testifying at a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, DC, June 21, 1956. (AP Photo)

Kazan, however, decided he would ditch his former communist allies. He had already won an Academy Award and he felt his reputation on both Broadway and in Hollywood was on the line. Kazan was subsequently brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee and warned that he would have to give names of other actors who had been Communist Party members or he would never work in film or theater again.

Kazan was called before the Committee twice: first in January 1952, then again in April of that year. In the first appearance, Kazan answered all questions but refused to give names. Then in April, under mounting pressure from the studios, Kazan decided to inform.

“Miller felt Kazan’s real sin was naming names for practical rather than moral reasons,” says Lahr. “They had been best friends. But after Kazan’s testimony, Miller and others treated Kazan as a pariah.”

Miller would be called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. Unlike, Kazan, however, he refused to name names.

Lahr’s biography then turns its attention to Miller’s fixation with Marilyn Monroe.

Newlyweds Marilyn Monroe, right, and Arthur Miller are shown after their civil wedding ceremony in White Plains, New York, June 29, 1956. (AP Photo)

Her life had changed a great deal since Miller was first introduced to her in 1951. In 1952, Monroe appeared on the cover of Life, and in 1953 she was Playboy’s first-ever Playmate of the Month. In 1954, Monroe also married baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio, who had become involved with her the year he retired from the New York Yankees — though the couple divorced after a mere eight months.

When Miller turned 40, his marriage to Mary Grace Slattery was also collapsing. She kicked him out of their home in October 1955 and Miller moved into the bohemian Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan.

Marilyn Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller attend the ‘April in Paris’ ball in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, April 12, 1957. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

Miller and Monroe had already begun their affair that April. At first, the couple would meet at safe houses: the Milton Greenes’ in Westport, Connecticut, the Strasbergs’ Fire Island retreat, the Rostens’ summer place on Long Island’s North Fork, and Monroe’s apartment in the Waldorf Towers in Manhattan. Miller wrote to his parents in April 1956: “While I want to marry her [Monroe] someday, I can’t say when it will be.” Fifty-four days later, on June 29, they were married.

Lahr says Monroe’s adoration was oxygen to Miller’s ego. “She gave him an appetite for life, while he became her anchor,” he says.

Miller was also transformed and exhilarated by the international attention and celebrity worship their relationship attracted. But the whirlwind romance soon turned bitter and resentful, and Monroe’s cheerfulness and optimism vanished pretty quickly.

“Miller was faced with someone who was [mentally] disturbed. In this romantic story, Miller has come out as quite a negative force, but I don’t think he was at all,” says Lahr. “Marilyn was very fragile, incredibly fierce, but also extremely cruel.”

In November 1960, Monroe sued for divorce. During their marriage, Monroe had three mental breakdowns and three suicide attempts.

In August 1962, Monroe was found dead at 36 at her home in Los Angeles after a barbiturate overdose.

“I would say there were two traumas in Miller’s life,” says Lahr. “The Great Depression and Marilyn’s death. Miller’s failure to save her was something that he couldn’t let go of and give up on. And so he kept writing about her in different forms and different characters.”

The year of Monroe’s suicide, Miller married Inge Morath, an Austrian-born photographer. The couple had a daughter, Rebecca (a film director who is currently married to British actor Daniel Day-Lewis), and remained married for 40 years, until Morath’s death in 2002.

Ingeborg ‘Inge’ Morath, wife of Arthur Miller, photographed in Paris, on February 6, 1964. (AP Photo/Lefevre)

“Inge Morath was everything that Marilyn wasn’t — educated, knowledgeable, artistic, well-traveled and easy in company,” says Lahr.

Lahr notes that from the late 1960s onward, Miller’s stature in American public life began to decline considerably. As he aged, Miller was philosophically and emotionally unable to adapt his later plays to sit with the zeitgeist, as cultural tastes evolved and changed. A liberal humanist, Miller’s plays tended to have a strong moral component, which didn’t suit the abstract cultural agenda of European postmodernism and the theater of the absurd.

Lahr claims that of Miller’s late plays, “Broken Glass” stands out as his most provocative and prescient. The play’s title is a reference to the antisemitic mayhem of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938. The focus of the drama is a Jewish housewife’s mysterious hysterical paralysis, late in her long and stifling marriage to a prickly self-hating banker.

Arthur Miller, right, poses for photographers as he arrives for the premiere of the ‘The Crucible’ in Beverly Hills, California on November 20, 1996. (AP Photo/Frank Wiese)

“Miller kept working until late in life and produced a lot of essays and plays,” says Lahr. “He also won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for ‘The Crucible.’ But apart from that, I think many had grown tired of his pontifications as a public intellectual. He didn’t speak with the authority to a younger generation that he once had.”

On February 10, 2005, at the age of 89, Arthur Miller died — 56 years to the day after “Death of a Salesman” opened on Broadway.

“Miller’s work still speaks to us in our present age,” Lahr says. “The surface of Miller’s plays may seem old fashioned, but the themes that they explore are still extremely relevant.”

Arthur Miller: American Witness by John Lahr

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