August 1, 2012

Monroe and Melville: Blending Two American Legends in the Best of All Possible Worlds

How significant was the first week of August for Herman Melville? He was born August 1, 1819, married August 4, 1847, first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most momentous meeting of his life, on August 5, l850. For Marilyn Monroe, the first week of August was the last week of her life, 50 years ago this Sunday, August 5, 1962.

Lost in Melville’s Gaze

“A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect — with life to his finger-tips.” Sophia Hawthorne is describing her husband Nathaniel’s newfound friend Herman Melville. While observing the 31-year-old writer’s “very keen perceptive power,” and his “air free, brave and manly,” Sophia encounters his gaze and, in effect, gets lost in it. At first she sees his eyes as a defect (what “astonishes” her is that they are “not large and deep,” “not keen,” and “quite undistinguished in any way”), yet she can’t help wondering over what happens as he’s “conversing … full of gesture and force” and “his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected — an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.”

Sophia communicated this revealing first impression of Melville in a September 4, 1850, letter to her mother, who may have found the last sentence mildly alarming. And what would Hawthorne have thought had he been permitted to read the letter? It’s a seductive formula, eyes that put her off only to take her in with their “lazy power” — the way she’s expressed it, the person he was taking deepest note of seems to have been Sophia, who thus feels compelled to add that the subject of the taking “into himself” was not her but the Hawthorne’s six-year-old daughter, Una.

Moved by Marilyn

Fast forward a hundred years to another first meeting, on a Hollywood film set in 1950. “When we shook hands,” Arthur Miller writes, describing his first moment with Marilyn Monroe in his 1987 memoir, Timebends, “the shock of her body’s motion sped through me, a sensation at odds with her sadness amid all this glamour and technology and the busy confusion of a new shot being set up.”

For a single time-and-space-defying moment, imagine that the contact is between two equally inspired beings, that the person taking Marilyn Monroe’s hand is not Arthur Miller but Herman Melville at 31, ablaze with the writing of Moby Dick as he was when he swept Sophia Hawthorne off her feet. Then imagine Marilyn at her zenith, having gone from bit player to living legend, as she was in 1961 when she stunned Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen with an “almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness” as if “all the wild nature of Africa” were “amicably gazing” at her “with a mighty playfulness.”

And of course both leading players in the great American reality show were doomed to fall, Melville, his masterpiece all but ignored by the press when it wasn’t being scorned, telling Hawthorne in 1856 that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated” (only to die in obscurity almost four decades later); Marilyn in her own freefall of failed marriages, miscarriages, professional humiliation, dying world famous and alone at 36.

Writing in Timebends, Arthur Miller remarks on how “the press that gathered to chorus its lamentations” when Marilyn died was “the same press that had sneered at her for so long …. To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. She was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

A defining moment in Timebends comes when Miller and Monroe are living together in New York before their marriage, a “bond of shared silences, as mysterious as sexuality” having begun to form between them. It was after “one of those silences” that he told her she was “the saddest girl” he’d ever met, which she “first thought a defeat” and then took as the “compliment” he’d intended, telling him, “You’re the only one who ever said that to me.”

Imagining Marilyn

Though there may be no prototypical Marilyns in Melville’s work, there are definite intimations, beginning with Fayaway in his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846): “This gentle being had early attracted my regard, not only from her extraordinary beauty, but from the attractive cast of her
countenance, singularly expressive of intelligence and humanity,”
with “a tenderness in her manner which it was impossible to misunderstand or resist.” Strange but true, that the author now best known for Moby Dick and Billy Budd, with their all-male casts, created the literary equivalent of a Hollywood diva he delights in personally costuming: “Out of the calico brought from the ship I made a dress for this lovely girl” that “began at the waist, and terminated sufficiently far above the ground to reveal the most bewitching ankle in the universe.”

Fayaway’s “free pliant figure is the very perfection of female grace and beauty,” her face “a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire,” her “full lips, when parted with a smile, disclosed teeth of dazzling whiteness,” her hair “flowed in natural ringlets over her shoulders, and whenever she chanced to stoop, fell over and hid from view her lovely bosom.” Gazing into “the depths of her strange blue eyes, when she was in a contemplative mood, they seemed most placid yet unfathomable; but when illuminated by some lively emotion, they beamed upon the beholder like stars.” Her hands “were as soft and delicate as those of any countess,” her feet, “though wholly exposed, were as diminutive and fairly shaped as those which peep from beneath the skirts of a Lima lady’s dress. The skin of this young creature, from continual ablutions and the use of mollifying ointments, was inconceivably smooth and soft.”

If nothing else, the reference to Fayaway’s skin evokes the star of whom director Billy Wilder said, “The first day a photographer took a picture of her she was a genius.” One such photographer, Eve Arnold (1912-2012), observes in Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation (1987), that “her flesh … was almost touchable on screen; she had what cinematographer’s call ‘flesh impact.’ Her skin was translucent, white, luminous.”

The wonder of Marilyn Monroe is that she seems in some ways more hauntingly alive and aglow and charming in Arnold’s pictures than she does on film.

Isabel and Marianna

There are also intimations in Melville’s work of the troubled, vulnerable, lonely being Miller perceived in “the saddest girl” he ever knew. In Pierre: or The Ambiguities, the prodigiously immoderate, mannered and tormented, at once dated and uncannily “modern” novel written in the aftermath of Moby Dick, the bipolar title character finds himself obsessed by a “mystical face,” a “shadow” that has “come forth to him” and that appears to take the form of his mysterious, illegitimate half-sister, Isabel. “The face haunted him as some imploring, and beauteous, impassioned, ideal Madonna’s haunts the morbidly longing and enthusiastic, but ever-baffled artist.” Evoking the beguiling ambiguity at the heart of Marilyn’s appeal, on the screen and in her imperishable afterlife, Melville’s Isabel “lifts her whole marvelous countenance into the radiant candlelight,” and when “for one swift instant, that face of supernaturalness unreservedly meets Pierre’s,” it’s with a “wonderful loveliness, and a still more wonderful loneliness.”

Written in 1856 after the double debacle of Moby Dick and Pierre, Melville’s short piece, “The Piazza,” is presented as “an inland voyage to fairy-land” taken on “a mad poet’s afternoon,” wherein the narrator sets out to discover the “one spot of radiance” in the distant range he sees from the piazza he had expressly constructed so that he could cast his imagination into the view. As he’s been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he presumes the radiance must be emanating from a cottage in “fairy-land” where he will find “a fairy princess,” his own Titania. When he arrives after an epic, madly allusive, Melvillian voyage, what he finds is “a lonely girl, sewing at a lonely window.” Shyly startled by his appearance (“like some Tahiti girl …” surprised “by Captain Cook”) the “desolate maiden” whose name is Marianna invites him in, and as he sits with her thinking, “This, then, is the fairy-mountain house, and here, the fairy queen sitting at her fairy window,” he realizes that the “one spot of radiance” in the view sad Marianna sees every day is his piazza and his own house, which from her window once appeared to be “King Charming’s palace.” The tale ends with the narrator back on his piazza, “where every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountain. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna’s face, and many as real a story.”

On Film

Enchanted Island, an unlikely film version of Typee, was directed by the veteran Allan Dwan in 1952 with 50-year-old Dana Andrews in the Melville role and petite blonde Jane Powell, age 30, as Fayaway. The last picture made at RKO, it was released by Warners with the Four Lads singing the title song. (Feel free to roll your eyes.) More interesting and perhaps even more unlikely is Pola X, a sexually explicit French adapatation of Pierre directed by Leos Carax that turned up in 1999 with the late Guillaume Depardieu in the title role and Yekaterina Golubeva as Isabel. The film title is an acronym of the French title of the novel, Pierre ou les ambiguïtés, plus the Roman numeral “X” indicating the tenth draft version of the script that was used to make the film.

In the best, strangest, and most unlikely of all possible worlds, Marilyn Monroe would have been a heartbreaking Fayaway and a devastating Isabel. For now, we have to make do with the films being shown by the Princeton Public Library this week to mark the the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), The Misfits, (1961), and Some Like It Hot (1959), along with My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn. For details, visit