On a chilly February afternoon in 1959, Carson McCullers, Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen had lunch. The place was Carson’s rambling, white clapboard Victorian home overlooking the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. The menu was raw oysters, champagne, grapes, and soufflé. And the occasion was the fulfillment of Dinesen’s dream to meet her two American idols.
I first read a description of this unlikely get-together years ago in Virginia Spencer Carr’s biography of McCullers, The Lonely Hunter. What caught my eye was a photograph of the women. It was a study in contrasts. Isak Dinesen, wrapped in a shawl and headscarf, sipping champagne was looking downright mummified. Across the table from her, a giggling Monroe in black plunging neckline was being pecked on the cheek by a puffy McCullers. The image stuck in my mind, and I wanted to learn more about this improbable trio and their memorable winter encounter.
I had been a Carson McCullers fan since the age of twelve. After reading – indeed devouring – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter I imagined that the alienated tomboy, Mick Kelly, was a version of myself. It was one of the first adult books I read, and it connected me to a world in which I felt my true self was reflected and even understood. Later on I came to value the novel for its stunningly unsentimental window into loneliness, politics, race, death and yearning, and I joined the chorus of: “she was only twenty-two when she wrote that?!”
Now, decades later, I wondered about the aging Danish writer, the glamorous American movie star, and the eccentric Southern author – and what drew these three women together.
In 1959, Isak Dinesen had been invited by the Ford Foundation to travel to the United States to read and discuss her work as part of a film series on “the world’s greatest living writers.” Despite her failing health – the frail seventy-four-year old weighed just 80 pounds and suffered from advanced syphilis and anorexia nervosa – she accepted the invitation.
New York’s cultural elite feted this illustrious grand dame of literature. Socialite “Babe” Paley, Truman Capote and Cecil Beaton took her to lunch at the St. Regis. Sidney Lumet and Gloria Vanderbilt had her to dinner. She joined John Steinbeck for cocktails; and Leo Lerman took her to the Met to see Maria Callas in “Il Pirata.” Dinesen’s appearances at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center were, by all accounts, the place to be in January, 1959. A cartoon in the New York Times Book Review shows two beat poets at a Greenwich Village coffee house talking. “Did you catch Isak Dinesen at the Y?” one asks the other.
Dinesen had told her hosts that the four Americans she most wanted to meet were Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Carson McCullers and Marilyn Monroe. Hemingway was out of the country, but it was arranged that Cummings would escort her to the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters where, as the guest of honor, Dinesen was to deliver the keynote speech.
On a snowy Manhattan night, the consummate raconteur delivered her Academy talk. Entitled “On Mottoes of My Life,” she divided her life into five stages with their attendant mottos. “Like the eagle I shall grow up” told the story of Dinesen as a young girl, casting about for direction in life. “It is necessary to set sail, it is not necessary to survive” told the story of Dinesen as a young artist in rebellion against bourgeois life and values. In “I Respond,” Dinesen the colonist, wife, farmer and lover in Africa discovers that “my daily life out there was filled with answering voices.” In the fourth stage, “Why Not?,” a woman in despair returns to her native country and finds hope in her heart as she begins to write. And finally, “Be Bold” explicated her life as an aging woman with deteriorating health, and death clearly on the horizon.
After the speeches, Dinesen was seated next to Carson McCullers for dinner. The two women discovered immediately that they shared a decades long mutual admiration. Just as Dinesen admired The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and had read it many times, McCullers considered Out Of Africa to be her favorite book. “I was so dazed by the poetry and truth of this great book that when night came I continued reading Out Of Africa with a flashlight,” wrote McCullers. “The burning deserts, the jungles, the hills opened my heart to Africa. Open to my heart also, were the animals and the radiant being, Isak Dinesen.” McCullers would ritualistically re-read the book every year, finding comfort and support in its “luminous, sulphuric glow.”
When McCullers heard of her literary hero’s New York visit, she noted: “I hesitated to meet her because Isak Dinesen had been so fixed in my heart, I was afraid that the actual would disturb this image.” Image-busting fears aside, McCullers did go to considerable effort to attend the Academy event. Though only forty-two years old, she was every bit as frail as Dinesen. A series of strokes had left her paralyzed on one side. She walked with a cane, her left hand curled like a hook, and she required assistance to dress herself, to walk up and down stairs, even to eat. But the effort was worth it; the two writers hit it off, and when Dinesen spoke of her desire to meet Marilyn Monroe, Carson was happy to oblige. Marilyn’s husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was seated at the next table, “So, I had the great honor of inviting my imaginary friend, Isak Dinesen, to meet Marilyn Monroe, with Arthur Miller, for luncheon in my home.”
Carson McCullers and Marilyn Monroe had met before, back in 1955, when both were residents at the Gladstone Hotel on East 52nd Street, off Park Avenue. For Marilyn it had been a time of personal crisis and transition. Norma Jeane Baker – the lonely little girl who had been abused in one foster home after another; the despairing nine-year-old who stared out from her orphanage window at the magical water tower on the RKO lot; the 16-year-old bride working in a defense factory during World War II; the voluptuous pin-up girl – had become Marilyn Monroe. At age 29, she was not only Hollywood’s hottest blonde, but one of the most popular movie stars in the world. Her screen image of little girl sexuality had mesmerized viewers across the globe, and with starring roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire, and The Seven Year Itch under her belt, Marilyn was being offered an unprecedented $100,000 per picture deal by 20th Century Fox. The fame and big money might have satisfied some, but for this actress – sensitive, ambitious, emotionally fragile and narcissistic – the bottom line was not the money, it was dignity and respect. Marilyn wanted a say about which movies she made; she wanted script approval, and final approval over which directors and cinematographers she worked with – commonplace privileges now for a superstar , but exotic demands in 1955.