FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT designs a house for MARILYN MONROE
The Plaza Hotel, Fifth Avenue, New York
One afternoon in the autumn of 1957, the most venerated architect in America, Frank Lloyd Wright, now aged ninety, is working in his suite in the Plaza Hotel, New York, when the doorbell rings. It is Marilyn Monroe, come to ask him to design a house.
Since their marriage in June 1956, Arthur Miller and his bride Marilyn Monroe have been based at Miller's modest two-storey country house near Roxbury, Connecticut. Dating from 1783, it has 325 acres of land planted with fruit trees. A verandah at the back looks out across endless hills. A short walk from the house is a swimming pond, with clear spring water.
It is just right for Miller, who likes to live in the countryside, away from the flash world of celebrity, and is known to be careful with money. But Marilyn has other plans. She loves to spend, and has firm ideas about what is glamorous and what is not. Her self-esteem is bound up with her ability to splash out; she craves nothing but the best.
Like so many men, Frank Lloyd Wright is immediately taken with Marilyn. He ushers her into a separate room, away from his wife and his staff, and listens intently as she describes the sort of home she has in mind. It is spectacularly lavish. Once she has left, Wright dips into his archives and digs out an abandoned plan for a building he drew up eight years earlier: a luxury manor house for a wealthy Texan couple.
The parsimonious Miller is taken aback when he hears of Marilyn's grandiose vision for their new home. "That we could not really afford all of her ideas I did my best not to dramatize, but it was inevitable that some of my concern showed." When she tells him the name of the architect, Miller's heart sinks. But he bites his lip, hoping good sense will prevail. "It had to seem like ingratitude to question whether we could ever begin to finance any Wright design, since much like her, he had little interest in costs. I could only give him his day and let her judge whether it was beyond our means or not."
One grey autumn morning, the Millers drive Frank Lloyd Wright to Roxbury. Wright is wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He curls up in the back seat and sleeps throughout the two-hour journey.
The three of them enter the old house together. Wright looks around the living room, and, in what Miller describes as "a tone reminiscent of W.C. Fields's nasal drawl," says disparagingly, "Ah, yes, the old house. Don't put a nickel in it." They sit down to a lunch of smoked salmon. Wright refuses any pepper. "Never eat pepper," he says. "The stuff will kill you before your time. Avoid it."
After lunch, Marilyn remains in the house while the two men trudge half a mile up the steep hill to the crest on which the new house is to be built. Wright never stops to catch his breath: Miller is impressed. At the crest, Wright turns towards the magnificent view, unbuttons his fly and urinates, sighing, "Yes. Yes indeed." He glances about for a few seconds, then leads the way back down the hill. Before they go back into the house, Miller steals a quick private word with Wright. "I thought the time had come to tell him something he had never bothered to ask, that we expected to live fairly simply and were not looking for some elaborate house with which to impress the world."
The message is plural, but it should have been singular. An elaborate house with which to impress the world is, in a nutshell, just what Marilyn is after, which is why she hired Frank Lloyd Wright in the first place. But Wright affects not to hear. "I saw that this news had not the slightest interest for him," says Miller.
A few days later, Miller visits the Plaza Hotel alone. Wright shows him a watercolour of his extravagant plan: a circular living room with a dropped centre surrounded by five-foot-thick ovoid columns made of sandstone with a domed ceiling sixty feet in diameter, rounded off with a seventy-foot-long swimming pool with fieldstone sides jutting out from the incline of the hill. Miller looks at it in horror, mentally totting up the cost. He notes with indignation that Wright has added a final flourish to his painting — a huge limousine in the curved driveway, complete with a uniformed chauffeur.
Miller asks the cost. Wright mentions $250,000, but Miller doesn't believe him: it might cover the cost of the swimming pool, "if that." He also notes that Wright's "pleasure dream of Marilyn allowed him to include in this monster of a structure only a single bedroom and a small guestroom, but he did provide a large 'conference room' complete with a long board-room-type table flanked by a dozen high-backed chairs, the highest at the head, where he imagined she would sit like the reigning queen of a small country, Denmark, say."
The marriage goes from bad to worse. Miller and Monroe have nothing to say to each other. "He makes me think I'm stupid. I'm afraid to bring things up, because maybe I am stupid." Marilyn adds that "I'm in a fucking prison and my jailer is named Arthur Miller ... Every morning he goes into that goddamn study of his, and I don't see him for hours and hours. I mean, what the fuck is he doing in there? And there I am, just sitting around; I haven't a goddamn thing to do."
Miller fails to give the go-ahead to Wright, who dies in April 1959. Miller and Monroe divorce in 1961; Monroe dies in August 1962.
Thirty years later, the plans are dusted off and enlarged. Marilyn's dream home finally emerges as a $35-million golf clubhouse in Hawaii, complete with banqueting rooms, a men's locker room and a Japanese furo bath with a soaking pool, not to mention seated showers.
From Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown. Copyright 2012 by Craig Brown. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.