August 26, 2013
At When Words Count, all of the guest rooms are named for American authors. When I was here for the first time in April, I stayed in the Emily Dickinson Room. I don’t think I requested it, I think it was just a happy accident. Like all of the rooms, it was spacious, had a comfortable bed with an immaculate white comforter, a desk with a chair, an upholstered wing chair, and a bureau. Above the desk was a large framed picture of the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, a place I have visited frequently.
This is an old structure, originally built in the 19th century and added on to. It has settled and sagged, and the renovation and restoration work has had to accommodate uneven floors and sloping ceilings. The desk in the Dickinson Room was situated so that it, too, sloped down from the wall toward the center of the room. I found it difficult to work at, since I had the sensation of reaching up to the writing surface while working against gravity to keep myself upright in the chair. No one was staying in the Arthur Miller Room across the hall. The desk there made for a much more comfortable workstation, and so that’s where I set myself up each day. When I booked my return visit, it’s the room that I requested.
It’s the Arthur Miller Room, but when you are in it, you can easily think it is the Marilyn Monroe Room. Of the four pictures of Miller, three of them include Marilyn. The one seen at left is above the desk. It was taken on October 29, 1956, at the Empire Theater in London, four months after they were married. They are attending the premiere of a British film, The Battle of the River Plate. That’s Milton Greene just behind Marilyn’s right shoulder. He photographed her frequently. Other snapshots showing the three of them with Marilyn in that dress appear to have been taken at the same event, at which they were presented to Queen Elizabeth II. Marilyn is holding her new husband’s hand. She is 30 years old. (I have no idea whose hand is covering the newlyweds’. Probably a security guard of some sort.)
It was her hands that fascinated me in April, possibly because that’s what I saw if I lifted my head to rest my eyes. On the day I first set myself up in this room, I was two months away from my daughter’s wedding. Even though I had had more than a year to get ready, I had not lost any weight, learned to fix my hair well, nor even found something to wear that did not look like a construction tarpaulin. My nails, though, I thought. I can have pretty nails for Lynn’s wedding, even if I have to glue them on.
And pretty nails I had. I was careful, used Sally Hansen Nailgrowth Miracle Serum (“infused with biotin and vitamins A, C and E”) even though it treats the part of the nail that is already dead, rubbed in cuticle oil and wore cotton gloves over a rich hand cream while I slept. A few days before the wedding (after I had procured an outfit that was somewhat tent-like but whose colors pleased me) I had a plain French manicure (the gel process, indestructible — I did not have to resort to glue-on fakes), seen at right.
Marilyn Monroe favored either the plain French manicure or bright red on both her fingers and her toes. I kept a French manicure after the wedding, having the gel process redone every two weeks. When I got back from Sewanee, I decided to have the gel treatment removed and go bare the rest of the summer.
It’s been nearly a month. The surfaces at Bread Loaf must be especially unforgiving. My nails are broken and ragged. They need attention, at the very least from lotions and potions and implements of grooming that I neglected to pack. I’ll take care of that when I get home.
I’ve been doing revision work this week on the piece I took to Bread Loaf. It involves a woman who is keeping vigil at her husband’s deathbed, assisted by the priest of the parish she never actually joined, but feels a need for at this time. She is reluctant to let her husband go, even though he expressed clear wishes about end-of-life decisions. At one point, the priest takes her hand, suddenly aware of how lovely it is, how his must seem like a sweaty, pudgy paw to her.
I’ve been looking at the picture a lot as I work my revisions, and at the one below, which hangs on the opposite wall. Marilyn is using those beautiful, carefully manicured hands to toss a flower, while her husband gazes at her adoringly. Marilyn Monroe was 11 years younger than Arthur Miller. My character is 30 years younger than her husband. But that’s how I see them now. And I’ve changed the woman’s name to Marilyn.