The Empty Crib In The Nursery—Marilyn Monroe
I heard the familiar, soft, breathy voice on the phone: “Tomorrow afternoon will be fine, Radie. It’ll be nice to see you again.”
As I hung up, my thoughts went backward in time—when had I talked with Marilyn last? Oh yes. There was the day I called her, because I’d expected to see her at a Broadway opening night, and she hadn’t been there. “Arthur doesn’t like opening nights,” she had explained. “And since he’s my husband, I do as he does.” There was always a special note in her voice when she said “my husband,” I remembered—a possessive pride that seemed to caress the two words.
And when had I seen her last? Well, it was at an opening night, an off-Broadway production that featured Arthur Miller’s sister. I’d watched Marilyn hold hands with her husband all through the play and afterwards join the rest of the Miller family group. Before she went off with them, she told me that she and Arthur were planning to build a modern ranch house in Connecticut. She seemed bright and gay, and in those surroundings I said nothing about the baby she had lost just a few months before.
Time had gone by, and here we were both back in Hollywood, I thought, as I drove out in a cab to see her. Plans had changed; Marilyn and Arthur had forgotten the modern house and moved into a Connecticut farmhouse of Revolutionary vintage. She wanted to put down roots there. Yet she had returned to Hollywood, to face the cameras again. Was she trying to thrust miles as well as long months between herself and that shadowy moment in Doctors Hospital, in New York?—when she had waked from a haze of sedatives to feel pain stab through her, to call out “Arthur!” and grasp her husband’s hand for comfort, realizing that their baby could not be saved. Should I ask her about this? I wondered.
On the phone, her voice had sounded the same as when I heard it last. But how would she look when I arrived at the Bel Air Hotel? It had been hard to get through to her at all; there had been a ban on interviews, and the set of her picture had been closed to the press.
But I needn’t have worried, I soon found. Marilyn came to the door of her bungalow, and instantly I felt as if I’d seen her just yesterday. “Look at me,” she smiled. “Not a bit of makeup—I’m sorry.” I’ve seen many stars minus the artifices that help to glamorize them: mascara, lipstick, caps for their teeth, false chignons. And, accustomed to it as I am, it’s often a shock. But Marilyn looking natural still looked more sextacular than all the Bardots and Lorens put together. Her fair hair, cut a little shorter than the last time I’d seen her, was tousled; she was dressed informally in slacks and a silk sport shirt. Offscreen, it’s her little-girl quality rather than her physical allure that attracts and endears her to you.
She led the way to a big sofa and settled down, motioning me to sit beside her. Suddenly I felt reassured and at ease. This was going to be like two friends talking in a girls’ dormitory instead of a Hollywood star issuing statements to the press. “How come you decided to make this picture?” I asked. “After all the others you turned down.”
“Billy Wilder just sent me a brief outline,” Marilyn told me, curling up comfortably. “If I liked it, he said, he would finish it—because he was writing it with me in mind. So I read it—and loved it! I told Billy to go ahead—I’d do it without even reading the rest. Remember, he directed me in ‘Seven Year Itch’ four years ago, and I’ve always wanted to work with him again.
“But I really wasn’t taking any chances. You see, I knew that with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon ‘Some Like It Hot’ would be a real fun picture. Did I tell you, it’s about the roaring twenties, and I actually sing and dance a tango with George Raft.”
When she talked about the dance scene, her hands went through lively sweeping movements, suggesting the romantic glide of the tango. I thought of other actresses who come back after long absences. Many of them are so conditioned to acting that between pictures they grow restless and bored. I couldn’t believe this of Marilyn, for each time I had seen her in the East she had seemed utterly contented with her role as wife of playwright Arthur Miller. Still, she discussed her work with such pleasure that I couldn’t help wondering. She seemed so relaxed and at home. “Are you going back East after you finish the picture?” I asked.
Marilyn drew in her breath and smiled, and I knew what I had seen on her face the moment before had been merely pleasure, not the full happiness that I saw now. “Just as fast as the airlines can take me!” She glanced around her at the handsome furnishings in the bungalow. “This is nice, but it isn’t home. . . . Do you know, for the first time in my life, I not only have a home of my own—I have two! There’s the farmhouse in Connecticut. It was built in 1776, and it has two hundred and twenty-five acres around it, and—Well, I’ll tell you all about it later. First, I’ll probably be going back to our apartment in the city.”
I leaned back and let her talk. She wasn’t really in Bel Air; she was in Manhattan, and her wide blue eyes were looking pridefully around her own home. “We’re living in the East Fifties now, and our apartment is done all in white, except for the bedroom. I know it’s considered chic and modern for husband and wife to have separate bedrooms,” Marilyn said, “but I’m an old-fashioned girl who believes that a husband and wife should share the same bedroom and bed. Ours is a king-sized bed, and we also have a love seat in the room. The color scheme is beige and dark brown. That’s a happy combination, I think—feminine for me and masculine for my husband.”
The well-remembered note was in her voice—“my husband.” With a twinge of sadness, I imagined how she might have said “our baby,” on a note special in its own way. Apparently, her thoughts weren’t tending in the same direction; I’d just have to wait for the subject to come up. The New York apartment she was describing has no nursery.
“Arthur has his own study where he does his writing,” Marilyn went on, “and I never intrude except to bring him a second cup of coffee. . . . Would you like some coffee now, Radie?” I said I would. After she’d ordered it, she came back to the sofa. “Where was I? . . . Oh, yes, that second cup of coffee for my husband. Somehow, I never have to look at a clock. I seem to sense intuitively when he’s ready for more coffee, and I tiptoe in and leave it on his desk.”
The picture she painted was very clear to me; I could see her tiptoeing out again, leaving Arthur Miller in his own private world, with the people he was creating. He was her whole world. “Have you tried to work out any organized schedule for yourself while Arthur is finishing his new play?”
“No,” she laughed. “As you may have suspected by now, I’m not a very organized person.” I smiled with her, because I’m one of the many who know—and forgive—the incorrigibly “late” Miss Monroe. “In New York,” she continued, “I never do the same thing two days in a row. Sometimes I go for a long ride along the East River with our dog, a basset hound. Or I’ll bicycle up Second Avenue. Or window-shop in the antique shops along Third Avenue.”
“Don’t fans follow you?”
“Rarely.” She almost whispered, confiding, “I usually wear a polo coat, put a scarf around my head and wear dark glasses. People don’t expect to find me in that neck of the woods, so if I seem to look familiar they think I’m someone trying to look like Marilyn Monroe! I also love to go to Bloomingdale’s and putter around in the household-equipment department. I have no sales resistance when it comes to anything for the house—especially when there’s a sale. Then I buy as if I were storing in for an atomic shelter! I’m working on the theory that I’m being very economical and saving money. But when I try to balance my budget, somehow I’m always overdrawn!”
She spread her hands out in appealing helplessness. The coffee was brought in, and Marilyn poured a cup for each of us, tasted hers and pursed up her mouth. “Be careful, Radie—it’s hot! I think I’ll let mine stand a moment.”
She set down the cup and saucer, stretched lazily and then smoothed the fine white fabric of her shirt more neatly inside the waistband of her slacks. “You know, it’s strange,” she mused. “When I was about four, I used to dream of the day when Id be rich enough to go up to a shop, look at the window display of clothes and then go inside and say, ‘I’ll take that and that and that and that and that—in all different colors!’ Now, when I could afford to do it, not just dream it, clothes are unimportant to me—except for evening clothes, which I love. But I’ll go absolutely berserk buying furniture, garden implements, seed for birds and clothes for Arthur.”
“That’s right. I buy all his shirts, socks and ties. If I left it up to my husband, he’d wear the same two years in a row and never think of getting new ones. I also take care of his laundry. I definitely don’t approve when a man has to go out and he has no clean shirts to wear because his wife has been out playing bridge.”
“But you have some help, haven’t you, Marilyn? I mean in New York, as well as at your country house.”
“Oh yes.” Marilyn sipped at her coffee, tilted her head critically and decided, “Almost as good as mine. . . . In New York, we have a maid, and then there’s Mary Reese, who’s more than a wonderful secretary for me—she’s my friend. In the country, we just have a maid over the weekends or when we have company. Arthur’s two children are with us every other weekend, but then they’re not ‘company. Jane’s fourteen now, and Robert Arthur is eleven.”
“I adore Jane and Robert, and it’s such fun for all of us to plan different things to do together. I really look forward to each visit. . .”
She was silent for a brief while, and I couldn’t see her eyes as she reflectively drank coffee. Was she thinking of Arthur’s third child—her child—the baby that would have passed its first birthday by now? Whether she felt a mother’s bereavement in those few seconds, I will never know, for when she looked up across the rim of the cup her eyes were sparkling, and she returned to the cheerful problems of housewifery as she set the cup down again.
“I don’t believe I need full-time help at the farmhouse. I’m an expert dishwasher and floor-scrubber!—a throwback to my early days, I guess. And I’m learning to be a pretty good cook by following the recipes in ‘The Joy of Cooking.’ My specialties are home-made noodles and bread. Then there’s chicken with a special seasoning that my husband likes, so I’ve learned to fix that for him.”
“Aren’t there any particular dishes that you like to make for yourself?”
Marilyn shrugged. “I”m what you might call an erratic eater. There are times when I just can’t eat meat—and then I suddenly get a craving for steak. I hate olives—but I love olive oil. I used to have a terribly sweet tooth for chocolates—but once I had a bad dream that I couldn’t eat anything with a chocolate taste, and ever since I’ve completely lost my taste for it. But I do enjoy eating,” she admitted.
“Don’t you have to watch your figure?”
“Not with any special diet. And certainly not now. I always lose weight while I’m working, because I’m so intense about it.”
For some actresses, I thought, an attitude like that has been a real threat to married happiness; they devote too much of themselves to their work. But I didn’t think this actress was in any such danger. “Marilyn, it seems to me you’re just as intense about your marriage.”
“Oh, but you have to be!” forward, clasping her hands earnestly in her lap. “I’ll tell you my definition of a good wife: somebody who feels needed as a wife. You have to contribute to feel needed! Too many women underrate the responsibilities of marriage. They think once they have a wedding ring they can just settle back and relax. . . . I think I’m much better equipped for marriage now than I was with my previous two marriages. I’ve learned by experience all the things not to do, and I’ve learned so much from my husband, who’s twelve years older than I am. Because he’s so famous in his own right, he understands the demands of my career, too, and there’s never any friction between us.
“I’d say there’s only one . . . one cloud on our happiness. We do long so much for a child.”
Marilyn had come out with the statement at last; I hadn’t had to ask her. The suddenness caught at my heart—but I hadn’t time to feel sorry for her. With buoyancy in her voice, she was talking right on. “That will come, I’m sure. We’ve built a new wing on our country house, and we’ve christened it, out loud, ‘the nursery.’ When we decided to buy the property, all our friends agreed the land was beautiful, but they said the house was just uninhabitable. I looked at it and thought how it had been standing there, weathering everything, for more than 180 years. And I just hated the idea of its being torn down or even left unoccupied.
“So my husband and I ignored everybody’s advice and got to work. We modernized the back part, put in sliding glass doors, built a garage and a separate one-room studio for Arthur. But in the house itself we left all the old beams and ceilings intact.” Her eyes showed she was far away again—not here in California, but in the Connecticut hills. She had slid her hands forward to clasp them around her knees, and she said quietly, “I look at our house, and I know that it has been home for other families, back through all those years. And it’s as if some of their happiness has stayed there even after they went away, and I can feel it around me. Does that sound sort of crazy?”
“No, Marilyn. It doesn’t. wonderfully good sense.”
I wasn’t just being polite; I did understand. For Marilyn, this indestructible old house is a symbol not merely of other people’s pasts but of her own present and future. She sees herself and Arthur setting their own mark of happiness on the rooms under the beamed ceilings. Everything that happened to her before Arthur came into her life has receded into a dim and fading background.
Now is all that matters to her. Now, the time when the loneliness, unhappiness, frustrations and pressures are no more. Now, when they have been supplanted by the family ties she has never known before and by the Jewish religion she has adopted as her own faith (but will not discuss, considering it too sacred a subject). I was not wrong in believing that she wanted roots—she has put them down deep.
As we walked across the living room of the bungalow, saying our goodbyes, she paused by a table to rearrange some red roses in a vase and looked up at me, a little surprised, when I suddenly asked, on a whim, “Suppose a fairy godmother waved a wand your way and gave you three wishes. What would you ask?”
She laughed and answered quickly, like someone who has learned that miracles do happen. “First, I’d wish for a continuation of everything wonderful in my life now. My second wish would be for Arthur—for the success of his new play. And the third . . .” Standing in the doorway, she shook her head slowly. “No. I won’t say it . . . Goodbye, Radie.”
We both knew what the third wish would have been. I was willing to let her keep it. Marilyn no longer sees tragedy in the emptiness of the crib that stands in the new “nursery” wing. With Arthur she can see hope in the emptiness. She now believes, one day, it will be joyously filled.
SEE MARILYN NEXT IN “SOME LIKE IT HOT” FOR U.A. AND “CAN-CAN” FOR 20TH.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1958