Did Carson McCullers Dance With Marilyn Monroe at her Nyack Home?
by Mike Hays
Many younger residents may not know about the best-selling novelist and playwright who lived in Nyack for 23 years. Mostly a recluse in Nyack but with friends among the New York literati, Carson McCullers invited Marilyn Monroe and others to a memorable lunch in her Nyack home.
Carson McCullers’ (nee Lula Carson Smith) life
Fifty year old Carson McCullers died of a stroke 50 years ago on September 29, 1967. Born in the South, she was a best selling author at age 23 with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter quickly followed by Reflections in a Golden Eye.
She suffered from intense physical pain throughout her life. McCullers had rheumatic fever at an early age and suffered a stroke in Paris at age 30 that left her partially paralyzed for the rest of her life. She had multiple surgeries for her paralyzed hand, breast cancer, and broken hip along with many other hospitalizations. She was a heavy drinker and smoker. Married once and divorced and then remarried to the same man, her bisexual husband committed suicide. She had infatuations with numerous women including Gypsy Rose Lee. She once told a friend, “by the time I was six, I was sure that I was born a man.”
How the Nyack Lunch was arranged
As a transplanted New Yorker and a famous author, McCullers had close friendships with the famous, including Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. She had always wanted to meet Isak Dinesen, the author of one of her favorite books, Out of Africa. McCullers met Dinesen at a dinner party following an arts awards in New York City.
Learning that Isak wanted to meet Marilyn Monroe, she asked Marilyn’s husband at the time, Arthur Miller, who was seated at a table nearby if the “Millers” would come to lunch on February 5, 1959. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe picked up the 74-year old Dinesen and drove to Nyack. Monroe, 33, had just finished Some Like It Hot. She arrived dressed in a black sheath and fur stole. Isak wore a scarf wrapped around her head as a turban. The guests were fashionably late.
They dined on oysters, white grapes, champagne and a soufflé. They were all smokers including Monroe, although no ashtrays can be seen in the luncheon photos.
Marilyn told a story about once trying to make pasta. She was late, as usual, and the pasta was undercooked, so she tried to complete her attempt at cooking by heating the pasta with a hair dryer. Frail Dinesen told many stories and enjoyed talking to Ida Reeder, Carson’s housekeeper.
Dancing with Marilyn?
Towards the end of the afternoon, as the story goes, Carson put a record on the phonograph and invited Marilyn and Isak to dance with her on a marble table. They took a few steps in each other’s arms. Carson remembers that this was the “best” and ‘most ‘frivolous” party she had ever given, and she expressed “pleasure and wonderment at the love, which her guests seemed to express for each other.”
It is improbable that the frail and ill Carson McCullers, her muscles shriveled, did much dancing and certainly not on a table. But she retold the story again and again over the rest of her life, perhaps telling the story the way she would have wanted it if she were not ill.
Others don’t remember the dancing although they do remember the lunch. Some time later, Miller said that Marilyn had never read anything by Carson, although she may have seen her play, A Member of the Wedding. He did sense a spontaneous sympathy between the women. Miller doesn’t remember the dancing, a story that seemed to have a life of its own in the media.
However, no one can deny the affectionate kiss Carson gave Marilyn as seen in one of the famous photos of the lunch. But the idea that a frail lonely southern novelist, a blonde bombshell movie star, and an aging Danish storyteller could dance together in affection and shared pain is a touching and beautiful portrait.
Carson’s final days
Carson was to never meet her luncheon guests again. Monroe and Dinesen died within a month of each other in 1962. Just before the opening of the movie of Reflections in a Golden Eye directed by John Huston starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, the frail 100-pound Carson succumbed to a massive stroke in the home she loved on South Broadway. She went into a 45-day coma and died at Nyack Hospital. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery four days later.
- Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University
- Nyack Sketch Log: Celebrate Carson McCullers, 3/21/2017
- Carson McCullers, a Southerner in South Nyack, 7/19/2010
- As Others See Us: Carson McCullers’ Home in Nyack, 8/27/2015
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.