In the summer of 1952, Sylvia Plath went to see a production of The Glass Menagerie, starring Dana Andrews as Tom, Mary Todd (Dana's wife) as Laura, June Walker as Amanda, and Walter Matthau as the gentleman caller. And that’s all I know! This is just one of those missed connections that bedevil a biographer. Did Plath like the play, the performances? Did she single out Dana? These gnawing questions will never be answered unless a letter or journal fragment turns up to tell us more. Two of my biographical subjects—who would not ordinarily share the same sentence—were in such proximity to one another with no discernible consequences, an event that almost drives me to writing fiction, since I want them to meet and perform for me. I want to know what Plath made of the play, which concerns, among other things, the irrefutable nature of family ties, a subject that both Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath brooded over.
In the autumn of 1923, during her first visit to the United States, Rebecca West attended an event sponsored by the Lucy Stone League. There she got a dressing down from Ruth Hale, the wife of Heywood Broun. Hale was a vehement feminist outraged that West should have formed an attachment to the philandering H. G. Wells. But what interests me more is that West also met Amy Lowell, who was no feminist, but a diva poet with a sensibility not so different from West's. The two evidently had a conversation about a well known book collector (West mentions as much in a letter to a third party), but otherwise I have no idea what West thought of Lowell or vice versa. In this case, I’m hoping that somewhere in Lowell’s correspondence (which I am still reading in the Houghton Library at Harvard) I will discover a reference (let’s hope a report) concerning that encounter. In the meantime, I’m stuck with two more of my biographical subjects circling in the same orbit, but I cannot gauge the degree of consanguinity—or, perhaps, collision. What especially galls me is that just as Lowell was inspired by Eleonora Duse, West was enamored of Sarah Bernhardt. Duse, famed for her understated performances, appealed to an imagist poet like Lowell, who wanted to strip poetry of excessive ornamentation, just as the more flamboyant Bernhardt attracted a critic and novelist like West, who created some of the most brilliantly discursive prose of the twentieth century.
Sometime in 1950, Johnny Hyde, a powerful William Morris agent, brought a struggling actress with him to the home of Dana Andrews. This actress had been signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946 and then dropped after six months. She had worked another six months at Columbia and was again dropped. Her few other small parts seemed to sum up a desultory career. But Hyde had fallen in love with her and with the idea of making her a star. He was able to put her in small, but strategically important parts in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. I’m referring, of course, to Marilyn Monroe. Dana greeted his visitor, he later told an interviewer in an oral history now in the archives at Columbia University, but she made no impression on him. This was not unusual. Although a few people in Hollywood did perceive Monroe’s potential, most did not, simply believing Hyde had become infatuated with a talentless, if beautiful woman. What grieves me here is that it took Marilyn Monroe nearly nine years to become a star—virtually the same amount of time it took Dana to progress from roles in the Van Nuys community theater and at the Pasadena Playhouse, to second leads in B pictures, to small parts in A list productions, to stardom in Laura. Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck initially deemed Monroe unphotogenic! And after Dana's first screen test, the cameraman told him he photographed "heavy." At best, Dana could expect to have a middling career as a character actor. In short, Dana Andrews and Marilyn Monroe had quite a bit in common. In all likelihood, the shy Monroe would not have opened up to Dana. And Dana was famously reserved among most of his Hollywood confraternity. As mad as he was about becoming a star, he disliked publicity and pageantry and probably dismissed Marilyn as just one of Johnny’s showgirls.
What all this tells me is that biographers long to make connections that their own subjects fail to forge and that only novelists—God bless them!—can create. What biographer isn’t envious of E. L. Doctorow, for example? During an interview about his brilliant novel, Ragtime, he was asked whether Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit ever met as they do in his book. Doctorow replied, “They have now.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.