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On This Day in History, February 10: Death of a Playwright

The great American playwright Arthur Miller died at his home in Roxbury, CT on Feb. 10, 2005, at the age of 89. Best known for his landmark dramatic play “Death of a Salesman” and his unlikely marriage to Marilyn Monroe, Miller was raised in Brooklyn and spent many of his adult years in the borough as well.

Born in Manhattan on Oct. 17, 1915, Miller was the son of a coat manufacturer. His parents were forced to move to Brooklyn in 1928 as the result of Depression-era business losses. During those lean years, the Miller family lived in the Midwood section of the borough.

Miller’s residence in Brooklyn was a small house at 1350 East 3rd, a dead-end street.

He attended the James Madison and Abraham Lincoln high schools and was rated as an average student. For a short time after graduation, Miller worked as a “crooner” for a small Brooklyn radio station. It was said that Bing Crosby had nothing to fear from America’s future “intellectual” playwright.

While a student at the University of Michigan, he won two awards for his comedy “The Grass Still Grows” (’38). In New York, his play “The Man Who Had All the Luck” won the Theater Guild Award (’44). His novel Focus (’45) was an attack on anti-Semitism. The Drama Critic’s Circle chose Miller’s “All My Sons” as the best new play of 1947.

In the 1940s, Miller came to live in Brooklyn Heights. His first home was an ornate apartment house crazily adorned with round rooms, towers and cupolas at 62 Montague St. It was 1940 and Miller had just returned from the University of Michigan and gotten married to Mary Grace Slattery. He and his wife shared their seven-room apartment with her roommates. “We lived there because it was the cheapest place in New York,” he recalled. “It was about $80 a month for the whole apartment.”

The Millers moved from Montague to 18 Schermerhorn St., one of the first Heights houses to be remodeled and converted into apartments. There the rent was $30 a month, and Norman Rosten, a friend of Miller’s from the University of Michigan, also lived in the building.

In 1944 Miller moved to a duplex at 102 Pierrepont St. that harbored another then unknown author. As Miller remembered it, “The rooms were very dark — wood-paneled. It had been a very elaborate home. We never could see anything. Norman Mailer lived upstairs, but much of the time he was away at war.”

In a 1963 interview with The Brooklyn Heights Press, Mailer was asked about the period he and Miller lived in the same building. “We didn’t know each other then,” said Mailer, with a broad smile. “We used to pass each other on the stairs and each would think ‘That guy doesn’t have much!’…”

In 1947 Miller bought 31 Grace Court. In 1951 he bought one of the Heights’ architectural prizes, a charming Federal brick row house at 155 Willow St., and sold his Grace Court house to W.E.B. Du Bois.

During his time in Brooklyn Heights, Miller “never gravitated toward a society of writers.” He was far more likely to explore the livelier neighborhoods just beyond the Heights.

“I loved walking along the waterfront,” he recalled. “When I got interested in the longshoremen, I spent a lot of time in Red Hook around Columbia Street. There was a movement at the time to rid the union of racketeers … I knew a newly graduated lawyer involved in that struggle. There were lots of murders, bodies dropping into the river in concrete slabs. He called me. He thought I could get some publicity in the papers. Then I became a supernumerary of that movement.” Miller’s experience in Red Hook gave him the background for “A View From the Bridge” and the young lawyer furnished part of the characterization of Alfieri.

Miller’s major achievement was “Death of a Salesman” (’49). In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Critics’ Award for best play of the year, it brought him millions in royalties. Miller received a second prize for “A View From The Bridge” (’55).

“The Crucible” (’53), concerned with the Salem witchcraft trials, was actually aimed at the investigation of American Communism by Senator Joseph McCarthy. The drama won a Tony Award in 1953. Miller himself appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. He was convicted of contempt, but the conviction was later reversed.
It was around this same time that Miller married Hollywood screen goddess Marilyn Monroe, who he had met several years earlier at Fox studios when he was on a trip to Los Angeles. Their unlikely union lasted five years, when they divorced in 1961. She died of an overdose in 1962. That same year, Miller remarried, to photographer Inge Morath and they stayed together until her death in 2002.  

Some of his other great works include “After the Fall” (’63), “Incident at Vichy” (’64) and “The Price” (’68).

His plays are intensely concerned with the responsibility of every man to his fellow men. Simply and colloquially written, they provided influential commentary on the moral and political problems of the 20th century.

February 10, 2012 - 10:52am


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