Feb. 11, 2005 — -- Arthur Miller, the playwright who explored the underbelly of the American Dream through the pie-in-the-sky eyes of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," has died. He was 89.
Miller died Thursday night of heart failure surrounded by family members and his girlfriend at his home in Roxbury, Conn., his assistant, Julia Bolus, said today. The Pulitzer Prize winner reportedly had been struggling with ill health in recent months. A friend told Newsday on Jan. 11 that Miller had been suffering from "a touch of pneumonia and chemo treatments for some form of cancer."
Miller's cannon of theatrical masterpieces includes "The Crucible" and "A View From the Bridge," but he'll also be remembered for standing up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the McCarthy era, and for lighting up gossip pages with his five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe.
No less controversial as an octogenarian, Miller acknowledged last year that he was dating 34-year-old painter Agnes Barley, who was 55 years his junior. The couple had been living together on the same 340-acre farm in Connecticut that he bought in 1956, after marrying Monroe.
"A bit of his legacy gets amplified by the pizzazz with which he lived his life," said entertainment critic Dean Richards. "But it's his warts-and-all study of who we are that will be remembered best years from now.
"Miller is, without a doubt, one of the top five most important playwrights of the 20th century."
The man who created Willy Loman had barely read a play until he attended the University of Michigan. He had been to the theater only twice as a child. Still, he went on to become one of the most influential dramatists in modern history.
Born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood on Oct. 17, 1915, Arthur Asher Miller had more interest in sports than school, once claiming he "never read a book weightier than Tom Swift" until he picked up "The Brothers Karamazov" just after graduating high school.
Miller was soon bent on studying drama in Michigan, where he had found a professor he admired, but his high school grades were awful, and his family had no money to spare. Instead, the young man ended up working in New York's garment industry for his father.
"He particularly loathed the vulgarity and aggressiveness of buyers who treated his father and salesmen with arrogant contempt," wrote author Benjamin Nelson in "Arthur Miller: Portrait of a Playwright." "And he became acutely aware of the meaning of self-respect."
With encouragement from his mother, a public school teacher, he saved for college and in 1934, he was admitted to school in Michigan on a probationary basis, working for the university as a dishwasher in his spare time and later as a night editor of the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper.
At Michigan, he met Mary Slattery, whom he would marry in 1940. The couple had two children, Jane and Robert. A football injury kept him from serving in World War II, and in the early 1940s, he wrote radio dramas while working as a truck driver and steamfitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
In 1944, his first play, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," opened to horrible reviews, and a year later, his novel "Focus," about anti-Semitism, failed to garner much attention. But two years later, he had a Broadway hit with "All My Sons," a tragedy about a desperate manufacturer who saves his business by selling faulty machine parts to the military.
Miller was soon hailed for finding Shakespearean tragedy in the lives of everyday Americans. His follow-up, "Death of a Salesman," brought worldwide acclaim and a Pulitzer. The tragic Willy Loman instantly became one of modern theater's best-known characters, the epitome of disillusionment with the American Dream.
Cast off by the company he once so animatedly revered, Loman is crushed by middle age and the fear of being a failure in his son's eyes, finally killing himself so that his family can collect the insurance money.
"Willy," his wife says, speaking over his grave, "I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home."Translated into a dozen languages and performed all over the world, "Death of a Salesman" was the birth of Miller as an international celebrity. But success didn't cool his criticism of contemporary society. His next play, "The Crucible," set in Salem during the 17th-century witch hunts, was immediately seen as foreboding commentary on McCarthyism. Soon the playwright was targeted in the anti-communist hysteria that swept through America.
Miller was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the mid-1950s, and indicted on the charge of contempt of Congress for not revealing the names of his left-wing friends. He was later cleared of the charges, but his personal life was in turmoil and his creative output diminished.
In June 1956, he divorced Slattery after 16 years of marriage. Two weeks later, he began his five-year turbulent marriage to Monroe. About the only work of note he finished in this period was the screenplay for "The Misfits," which was based on a short story he had written in Reno while awaiting his divorce.
In 1961, a month before the film's release, the celebrity romance was over. In 1962, Monroe died of a drug overdose.
Miller's career was back on track in 1964, when he returned to Broadway with "Incident at Vichy," a tale of Nazi-occupied France. A year later, he became politically active again, when he was elected president of P.E.N., the international writers association. Once more, he was thrown into the center of controversy when, as a protest of U.S. foreign policy, he refused to attend a White House event. "The occasion is so darkened for me by the Vietnam tragedy that I could not join it with a clear conscience," he wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who asked him to attend the signing of the Arts and Humanities Act.
A year after his split with Monroe, Miller was married for a third time, this time to Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath. The couple had met while she was documenting the filming of "The Misfits." They had two children together, and remained married for 40 years, until her death in 2002.
Miller's output was sporadic through the 1970s and 1980s, yet his work received constant attention. A TV version of "Death of a Salesman" with Dustin Hoffman earned 10 Emmy nominations. In 1996, Hollywood remade "The Crucible" with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, which earned him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting. While preparing for the film, Day-Lewis met Miller's daughter Rebecca. They married in 1996.
Though Miller's later plays hardly received the acclaim he enjoyed early in his career, in 1991, critics warmly received "The Ride Down Mount Morgan" and "The Last Yankee" and with this success, he became more active in reviving some of his earlier works to the stage.
Even in recent years, Miller remained committed to writing, and his work grew increasingly personal. His 2004 play, "Finish the Picture," tells the story of a difficult drug-addled Hollywood actress named Kitty who is set on manic self-destruction.
Critics immediately interpreted Kitty to be a Monroe stand-in, and the play to be a chronicle of the filming of "The Misfits," a work that began as an act of love, but spiraled into a legendary disaster.