Dinesen, McCullers & Monroe

February 5: On this day in 1959, Carson McCullers hosted a small luncheon party in order that Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) could meet Marilyn Monroe. Blixen was seventy-four and a grande dame of literature by this time, but still driven: though increasingly debilitated by the syphilis she had contracted in Africa, and reduced to about eighty pounds by her anorexic diet (oysters, grapes and champagne), she would still stay up chain-smoking, taking amphetamines and telling her famous stories until there were no listeners. She had come to the U.S. to give the keynote address at the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and, says one biographer, to be “exhibited, scrutinized, spotlit, and passed from hand to hand like some extraordinary and precious relic.” McCullers was forty-two, and almost as well-known for romantic despair, in both her fiction and her life, as Blixen was for romantic adventure. Her own physical and emotional problems had made her almost a shut-in, but she had read Out of Africa every year for over two decades and had come to regard Blixen as her “imaginary friend.” She had arranged to sit beside Blixen at the Academy dinner; hearing Blixen say that she would like to meet Marilyn Monroe, McCullers called Arthur Miller over from a nearby table and lunch was on. Monroe was thirty-three, unfamiliar (says Miller) to McCullers and Blixen as writers, and fresh from the success of Some Like it Hot. She arrived late to lunch wearing a black sheath dress with a large fur collar and deep décolletage. (Blixen wore a gray, turbaned ensemble which she liked to call, “Sober Truth”; McCullers thought the overall effect made Blixen’s face radiate “like a candle in an old church.”)

By all accounts, the three women hit it off wonderfully — though Arthur Miller says the legend of them dancing together on the marble-topped dinner table is an exaggeration. McCullers thought it the best party she ever gave; everyone thought Monroe’s story of trying to finish cooking pasta with a hair dryer the equal to anything Blixen had to tell; Blixen thought Monroe “almost incredibly pretty,” full of “unbounded vitality” and “unbelievable innocence” — “I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.