Marilyn’s Lament

To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.
–Arthur Miller about Marilyn Monroe

On this day in 1959, Carson McCullers hosted a small luncheon party so that Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) could meet Marilyn Monroe. 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. Blixen was seventy-four and a grande dame of literature by this time, though reduced to about eighty pounds by her anorexic diet (oysters, grapes, and champagne). McCullers was forty-two, and her own physical and emotional problems had made her almost a shut-in, but she had read Out of Africa so often that she regarded Dinesen as her “imaginary friend.” Monroe was thirty-three, fresh from the success of Some Like it Hot, and wearing a black sheath dress with a large fur collar and deep décolletage.

Blixen later described Monroe as “almost incredibly pretty,” full of “unbounded vitality,” “unbelievable innocence,” and trouble: “I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her.”

Miller says that Monroe had read neither Blixen nor McCullers, but in Fragments, a recent collection of Monroe’s “Poems, Intimate Notes, and Letters,” editors Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment say that “Only lovers of clichés will be surprised that the Hollywood actress was passionately fond of literature.” Her 400-book library reflects a preference for classics, and some of her notes seem to reflect a preference for reading over people: “I can’t really stand Human Beings sometimes — I know they all have their problems as I have mine — but I’m really too tired for it. Trying to understand, making allowances, seeing certain things that just weary me.”


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.