In the summer of 1956, playwright Arthur Miller married screen idol Marilyn Monroe in a Jewish ceremony, an event of high-level gossip for much of the world and of high-level curiosity for the US government.
“An anonymous telephone call” has been placed to the New York Daily News, an FBI report notes at the time. The caller stated that the “religious” wedding - Miller was Jewish and Monroe had converted – was an obvious “cover up” for Miller, who “had been and still was a member of the CP (Communist Party) and was their cultural front man.” Monroe also “had drifted into the Communist Party orbit.”
The memo is one of many included in Miller’s FBI files, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act. Miller, who died last year at age 89, was a longtime liberal who opposed the Vietnam War, supported civil rights and, in one play, The Crucible, linked the Cold War pursuit of communists to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.
His files only became available after his death, but the government’s interest in Miller was well established in his lifetime. In 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee asked him to give names of alleged communist writers with whom he had attended some meetings in the 1940s. Miller refused and was convicted of contempt of Congress, a decision eventually overturned by the US Supreme Court.
For a decade before his congressional testimony, the FBI kept track of the playwright, but ended up making a more convincing case that Miller was a dissenter from the Communist Party rather than a sympathiser.
“Miller became disillusioned with the party because the party did not stimulate in him the ability and inspiration to do creative writing as he had expected when he joined the Party,” one informant told the FBI.
According to a 34-page FBI report, compiled in 1951, Miller was identified by an informant as being “under Communist Party discipline” in the 1930s and, as of the mid-1940s, a member.
According to Miller, he had never been “under Communist discipline,” although “there were two short periods – one in 1940 and one in 1947 – when I was sufficiently close to Communist Party activities so that someone might honestly have thought that I had become a member.”
In an essay published in 1999, Miller recalled that ”practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Communist party members ... and most had had a brush with Marxist ideas or organisations.
“I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be,” he wrote.
Miller’s first Broadway play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, came out in 1944, around the same time that the earliest FBI files are dated. His professional and personal life were closely watched, usually through newspaper clippings, but also from informants (whose names have been blacked out in the records) and public documents.
The FBI not only kept records of Miller’s political statements, from his opposition to nuclear weapons to his attacks against the anti-communist blacklist, but of his affiliation with such organisations as the American Labour Party (“a communist front”) and the “communist infiltrated” American Civil Liberties Union.
In vain, the FBI probed for communist influence in the content and in the productions of his plays. One memo cites an “informant” who reported that “several communists” have been turned down for roles in various “Arthur Miller playlets.”
Miller’s plays, the informant concludes, “although occasionally supported by the Communist Party, do not follow Marxist ideology.” A separate file states that ”Miller was not looked on with favour by the Communist Party,” which regarded him as “‘just a civil rights guy.”’
Miller’s fame made him a target of the government, but also protected him. For example, a memo from 1955 noted an admiring article by Holiday magazine and concluded that ”because of Miller’s “limited activity with the CP (Communist Party) and his position in the business world, it is felt that an interview would result in embarrassment for the Bureau.”
His files essentially end in 1956, except for a brief reprise in 1993, when a background check was submitted to Bernard Nussbaum, the White House counsel to President Bill Clinton. The occasion was not subversive activity, but the imminent presentation of a National Medal of the Arts.
Although his alleged communist ties were reviewed and he was identified as a “participant in activities calling for an end to the war in Vietnam,” no other “pertinent information” turned up and he received his medal.
At the ceremony, Clinton praised Miller as a major playwright of the 20th century, and cited The Crucible for its admirable focus on “issues of conscience.”