Lunch with Carson
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.
Fox Studios and Monroe reached an ugly impasse in their contract negotiations. Life at home was painful as well. Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio had just ended in divorce. Despite their intense relationship, they weren’t well-suited as a couple. DiMaggio treasured his privacy, preferring the company of old neighborhood buddies to the glitz and glamour of show business. A traditional man in many ways, he would have preferred his wife to stay home with him in San Francisco. Marilyn’s raison d’être was her career. To be taken seriously as a performer, as an artist, was primary for her. In the end, Marilyn and Joe just couldn’t make the marriage work.
In the midst of her contract dispute with Fox and her crumbling marriage, Marilyn fled to New York. She immediately held a press conference. “I have formed my own corporation so I can play the kinds of roles I want,” she announced. Her first movie would be a biopic of Jean Harlow. The press, however, wasn’t buying. “Marilyn Monroe is a stupid girl and is being fed some stupid advice,” commented the Hollywood Reporter. When her attempt to be taken seriously was pilloried, Marilyn felt humiliated,
emotionally devastated. The ever-devoted DiMaggio, coming to her rescue for neither the first nor the last time, helped move Marilyn into a small room at the Gladstone. It was there that she first met the frail but gregarious Southern writer who waved around her walking stick when tipsy.
Like Marilyn, Carson McCullers was at a crossroads in her life when the two first met. Like Marilyn, she had tasted huge creative success at a young age. Her first novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, written when she was only twenty-two, created a literary sensation. Richard Wright noted the “astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.” The story of four lonely individuals in a small Southern town who gravitate toward an equally lonely deaf-mute, balanced tragedy and humor, passion and politics. Upon publishing her second novel, the dark and disturbing Reflections In A Golden Eye, McCullers was compared to William Faulkner. Her third book, Member Of The Wedding, became a Broadway hit starring Ethel Waters and Julie Harris and was named “Best of the Season” by the New York Drama Critics Circle. Carson had earned high praise as a writer, and with a hit play on Broadway she was now also earning some real money.
And like the characters in her novels, Carson McCullers had a tortured soul: “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid,” begins Member Of The Wedding. By the time she met Marilyn Monroe in 1955, Carson had attempted suicide, spent time in the Payne-Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, and her tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship with her husband, Reeves McCullers, had ended with his suicide the year before. Partially paralyzed from a stroke, addicted to alcohol and pills, she was an invalid at age 35. Her close friend, Tennessee Williams, said that Carson had known so much tragedy that it scared people. He contended that it was her “nobility of spirit, and profound understanding of the lonely, searching heart that make her, in my opinion, the greatest living writer in our country, if not the world.”
Although an invalid, Carson shuttled back and forth between the tranquility of her Nyack retreat to the stimulation and excitement of New York City. Tennessee Williams encouraged her to move into Manhattan’s Gladstone where there was domestic help and prepared food.
Unlikely friends on the surface, the stooped novelist and the curvaceous movie star actually had much in common. Both were perfectionists when it came to their art. Both were emotionally fragile. Both struggled with drug and alcohol dependency. Both were considered “difficult” by friends and professional associates. And both had been devastated in love. (Marilyn had attempted suicide following the death of her early boyfriend/mentor, Johnny Hyde, and was still reeling from the end of her marriage to DiMaggio. Carson had muddled through many years of her husband’s bisexuality, as well as her own intense, unrequited crushes on women.)
One evening, Marilyn was invited by Carson to a party at which she was seated across from Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford. Their conversation began tensely—Crawford accusing Marilyn of mistreating a mutual friend in a business transaction. Marilyn explained her side of the story. Won over by Marilyn’s intelligence and honesty, Crawford invited her to a session at the exalted Actors’ Studio. This was the world Marilyn wanted. It was the world of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Yearning to shed her image as a sex symbol and re-invent herself as a serious artist, Marilyn soon became a regular at the Studio.
Marilyn studied hard at the Actors Studio (and privately with Method acting guru, Lee Strasberg). She finally won her contract battle with Fox. And she starred in the movie version of William Inge’s Bus Stop in which she stretched as an actor and scored another hit. Just as importantly, she fell in love with Arthur Miller. Then, on the brink of what looked to be the most productive years of her career, Marilyn risked it all by publicly supporting Miller when he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of communist influence in the entertainment industry. “I will be perfectly frank with you in anything relating to my activities,” testified Miller. “I will take the responsibility for everything I have ever done, but…I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” Friends, business associates, and studio moguls pleaded with Marilyn to distance herself from Miller’s political trouble. But she refused. Acting out of loyalty to Miller and political disdain for HUAC, she stood by Miller’s side throughout the ordeal.
Shortly after the HUAC hearing, Monroe and Miller were married. With Miller, Marilyn felt she had finally found the safe haven which had eluded her for so long. But a dark cloud hovered over the newlyweds: Would Miller be cited for Contempt of Congress? (He was.) Would he be sent to prison? (He was not.)
And Marilyn’s own emotional difficulties put a big strain on the marriage. Her company’s first film, The Prince and the Showgirl, was fraught with tension. Most devastating to Marilyn, her working relationship with her co-star and director, Lawrence Olivier, was a disaster. They got off to a rocky start during rehearsals and the relationship when downhill from there. Marilyn came to believe that Olivier did not consider her to be a serious actress. Olivier thought that Marilyn was rude and unprofessional. To make matters worse, when the film opened it was a critical and box office flop. Shortly after, Marilyn suffered a miscarriage—another devastating blow. Added to her escalating addiction to pills and alcohol, the miscarriage created more tension in her marriage. Then, miraculously, Marilyn turned in the finest performance of her career as Sugar Kane in Billy Wilder’s 1959 sophisticated cross-dressing comedy, Some Like It Hot.
For Carson McCullers, the late 1950s were marked by nearly constant physical pain, increasing addiction to pills and alcohol, and a growing fear that she was losing her creative powers. Her play, The Square Root of Wonderful, landed with a thud on Broadway and closed after only 45 performances. At the urging of friends, she began psychotherapy. “I went professionally to Mary Mercer,” Carson writes in her autobiography, “because I was despondent. My mother had died…and I was ill, badly crippled.” Through therapy she eventually started to regain some confidence in her writing abilities.
Like McCullers and Monroe, by the 1950s Isak Dinesen had experienced tremendous creative success and world-wide fame; she was even mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. “I’m a storyteller, not a writer,” Dinesen often protested. In fact, she had been storytelling and writing since she was eight. Born Karen Dinesen in 1885, she was raised near Copenhagen in a strict, bourgeois Victorian household. Her father, an army officer and adventurer who lived for three years among the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, committed suicide when she was ten. After studying painting in college, Dinesen married a distant cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finiche, moving with him to Kenya and starting a coffee farm. “Here at long last,” she wrote of her new life, “one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams!” The marriage was a disaster. Her husband was unfaithful, giving her syphilis. The couple divorced, and the Baroness stayed on to run the plantation.
But eventually the Baroness lost the farm when world coffee prices plummeted. Vulnerable throughout her life to depression and mood swings, she became despondent. Following an argument with her longtime lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, she attempted suicide. Only months later, she lost Finch-Hatton for good when he died in a plane crash. Bereft, she left the African land, the place of her deepest emotional connection, and returned to Denmark where she re-invented herself as Isak Dinesen, writer.
Dinesen’s first major work, the short story collection Seven Gothic Tales (1934), received immediate world-wide acclaim. Three years later, she published Out Of Africa. In her next writing phase, inspired by Icelandic sagas, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and Homer, she beguiled readers with Winter Tales and Lost Tales. Truman Capote called Out Of Africa “one of the most beautiful books of the twentieth century.”
Dinesen’s health, however, had degenerated dramatically from decades of the syphilis she had contracted from her husband. Her impaired physical condition was compounded by anorexia nervosa and addiction to amphetamines. She was in this weakened state when she made her first and only trip to America.
As the Nyack luncheon with Dinesen and Monroe approached, Carson McCullers was both energized and panicked. Learning at the last minute that Dinesen ate only white grapes and oysters, and drank only champagne, she sent her housekeeper off in a hurried search of the requisite items.
But the anxious hostess soon discovered that she was not the only one with the jitters. “Marilyn was very timid and called me three or four times about the dress she was gong to wear, and wanting to know if it should be low-cut or not,” Carson recollects in her autobiography. “I said that anything she wore would be beautiful on her.”
Finally the guests arrived. Marilyn, on the arm of her husband, Arthur Miller, looked radiant in a black dress with a plunging neckline and a fake fur collar. Dinesen was swathed in somber gray, a long fringed shawl wrapped around her head and neck. Also in attendance were Carson’s cousin, Jordan Masse, Dinesen’s secretary, Clara Svendsen, and Felicia Geffen, executive secretary of the National Academy of Arts and Letters.
Champagne, white grapes, oysters and soufflé were laid out on Carson’s black marble table top. Over lunch, Dinesen entertained the group with a story about the killing of her first lion in Africa and how she sent the skin to the king of Denmark. “[She] was a magnificent conversationalist and loved to talk,” recalled McCullers. “Marilyn, with her beautiful blue eyes, listened in a ‘once-upon-a-time-way,’ as did we all…. Arthur asked what doctor put her on that diet of nothing but oysters and champagne. She looked at him and said rather sharply, ‘Doctors? The doctors are horrified by my diet but I love champagne and I love oysters and they agree with me.’ Then she added, ‘It is sad, though, when oysters are not in season, for I have to turn back to asparagus in those dreary months.’ Then she went back to her reminiscences of friends in Africa.”
Marilyn regaled the group with a story about her culinary adventures. She was preparing home-made pasta for a party, but it was getting late, the guests were soon arriving, and the pasta wasn’t ready, so she attempted to finish it off with a hair dryer. Of Marilyn, Dinesen later told a friend, “It is not that she is pretty, although she is incredibly pretty—but that she radiates at the same time unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence. I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in African brought me. I would not keep her.”
Accounts diverge as to what occurred after the meal. Carson relates that she, Marilyn, and “Tanya” (the name Dinesen was called by her friends) danced together to music on the phonograph. One version of the afternoon has it that the women danced on top of Carson’s black marble table. Miller disputes that any dancing took place at all. “[Carson] seemed very ill, she was almost an invalid, paralyzed, her muscles shriveled. And contrary to the legend, she did not start dancing on the table. She simply would not have been capable of it.” But all parties did agree that the lunch was a huge success.
Carson McCullers, Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen were never to meet again. Three days after the Nyack luncheon, Isak Dinesen was rushed to the hospital. The doctors diagnosed her with acute malnutrition, noting that her medical condition was similar to that of a World War II concentration camp survivor. Dinesen continued to waste away until she became so emaciated that her skin bruised when touched. She died in her sleep—from malnutrition—at age 77. Marilyn Monroe completed only one more movie—The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller. After less than five years of marriage, she and Miller divorced. On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills in her West Los Angeles home. She was 36 years old. Carson McCullers endured eight more years of deteriorating health. Then in August, 1967, she suffered a massive stroke and died. After 47 days in a coma, Carson McCullers died at age 50. She was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery on the bank of the Hudson in Nyack, New York, just down the way from her white clapboard home where once three women—an invalid Southern writer with a lonely heart, an ancient, champagne-sipping Danish storyteller, and a blonde bombshell who yearned to be more—connected for a few brief hours on a singular winter afternoon.
“Lunch With Carson” was originally published in The Reading Room, 2009.