The Playwright, the Starlight, and the Rabbi: A Love Triangle

Lila Corwin Berman

I met Arthur Miller when I was seventeen. He was a recipient of the Four Freedoms Award (for the freedom of speech), and I had been selected among local high school students to attend the ceremony, which was held near the Roosevelt mansion in Hyde Park, New York. I remember almost nothing about the ceremony, except for three things. First, while Arthur Miller was accepting his award, a friend or possibly a teacher leaned into me and said, “Do you know he used to be a communist?” Second, I shook Arthur Miller’s hand. He had a firm, pleasant handshake, and he struck me as being the perfect height. And third, perhaps noticing my starry-eyed look, that same friend or teacher told me that Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe had been married briefly.

A decade later, I opened a file stamped “Restricted Correspondence” and found a series of letters written by the man who had performed the marriage ceremony of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. New Haven rabbi, Robert Goldburg, had presided over Monroe’s conversion and officiated at a Jewish ceremony, in the wake of a civil one, for the couple. Two of the things I had learned about Miller the day I met him—the allegation that he was a communist, and the fact that he had once been married to the iconic American beauty—rushed into my mind.

I stared at a photograph of Miller, Goldburg, and Monroe taken at a benefit dinner in 1959. The men in tuxedos flanked Monroe, who wore a tank dress with a lace bodice. She leaned into Miller, and smiled at Goldburg. I could not trace Miller’s line of vision. Was he gazing lovingly at his wife, or were his eyes trained on the rabbi? Was Miller grimacing or smiling? I thought, then, about that firm handshake.

When writer’s block hit, I returned to the photograph. I was writing a book about about the Jewish perception of the lines that separated and connected Jews to non-Jews. Yet everything about that photograph seemed to obscure those lines. Most obvious, the photograph captured romance across ethno-religious-racial boundaries. Those boundaries certainly were not erased. Commentators and critics (such as sharp-tongued Norman Mailer) made much of the union between the “great American mind” and the “great American body”—the cerebral was the Jewish man; the corporal and sensual was the Protestant-raised woman. But the presence of the rabbi, one point in what surely appeared as a triangle, interrupted the dichotomies.

Rabbi Goldburg signed Marilyn Monroe’s conversion certificate hours before he performed her wedding. Though he had known Miller’s family for a number of years, his relationship to the new couple pivoted around the intimacy he felt with the convert, Monroe, and not the Jewish playwright. In fact, Miller had not encouraged Monroe’s conversion, and I imagine that he, ever the secularist, must have looked upon it with some bemusement. Still, he understood that Monroe craved what the rabbi offered: a sense of connection to a tradition and a community, something that lasted beyond the present, with long threads of meaning extending into the past and toward a future. In epistolary recollections after Monroe’s death, Goldburg described her joy while studying Jewish texts with him and participating in rituals. He believed he gave her something that neither fame nor her husband could give her.

Goldburg’s letters, which he wrote periodically to Jacob Rader Marcus at the American Jewish Archives, suggest the love he felt for Monroe. In his desire to defend his motives for the historical record and explain that the conversion he performed was proper and appropriate, Goldburg’s affection for Monroe lingers. His love for Monroe may have indeed been requited in the way that was acceptable to him—through her high regard for him as a rebbe, a teacher, a guide. Perhaps this accounts for Miller’s expression in the photograph of the benefit dinner, with the suggestion of a grimace cast in the direction of the rabbi, who ironically injected the intermarriage with a brand of Judaism that comforted Monroe more than it pleased Miller.

Miller would not have attended the dinner, a fundraising event for the American Friends of Hebrew University, but Goldburg urged him to do so. Two years earlier, Goldburg had prevailed upon the couple to make an appearance at a United Jewish Appeal gala at the Fountainebleu in Miami Beach. Exercising his influence over the couple, Goldburg even persuaded the reticent Monroe to talk for three minutes about why she converted to Judaism. (“I wrote the speech for her,” Goldburg recalled.) The day of the event arrived and with it a subpoena for Miller to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Goldburg received word from the United Jewish Appeal’s organizers that Miller’s invitation was rescinded. The rabbi must have been mortified when he had to call the couple and let them know what his people, their people, had decided. Proud of his own FBI “red file,” Goldburg seethed at the timidity of these establishment Jews. Later, he would protest the Vietnam War, invite Stokely Carmichael to speak at his synagogue, and dismiss the kind of Jews who allowed their anxiety about Jewish assimilation into the mainstream to overshadow their concern for societal inequality.

In 1991, near the end of Golburg’s life, Miller explained how he had come to admire this rabbi—despite the coolness that I perceived between the two in that triangulated photograph. Miller praised the rabbi for stepping outside of the “narrow, unilinear” Jewish life that frustrated the playwright and that, it seems, Monroe craved. According to Miller, ethnicity and religion left a “trail of blood, of injustices and hatred” in their wake, but not so the form of Judaism Goldburg endorsed. As Miller wrote, “For holding onto universal values, [Goldburg] has turned Judaism’s best face to the world. For this, which has taken courage, we owe him a great debt.” The two men, a playwright and a rabbi, were fellow travelers resisting a world that insisted on boundaries—religious, ethnic, sexual, racial.

In the United States, Jewish leaders had fixated on Jewish marriage as the means of eternal peoplehood. Time and again, they were confronted with the shortcomings of this formulation because marriage is not a conservative institution. Rather, marriage tends to be creative and revolutionary—melding two people together, creating a new unit different from what existed before, and existing in multiple layers of identity and community created by a new “we.” Even when Miller and Monroe divorced, Monroe remained close to Goldburg and to Miller’s family. (Miller’s father escorted Monroe to Madison Square Garden and watched from the wings when Monroe sang happy birthday to John F. Kennedy.)

Marriage may not transcend boundaries, but it always crosses them. Who among us has maintained a deep friendship or a marriage without experiencing moments of division, a gap, even a chasm? In individual relationships, whether or not formed across lines of ethnicity, religion, class, or race, we confront places where the cry of universalism cannot be heard: an argument over a childrearing decision, a difference of opinion about how to spend money, a conflict about responsibility. Whatever identity markers we share, we also find ones that separate us—this is what is so creative and revolutionary about marriage, an assertion that even in our differences we can function together. This is neither rigid universalism nor narrow particularism.

If we imagine in each marriage a creative revolution, then we may embrace the changes and transformations—not eternal sameness—that marriage in this country in the last half of a century have brought. The photograph, that still captivates me each time I look at it, captures a moment in that ongoing revolution, when a rabbi, a playwright, and a starlight stood unified by a Jewish tradition, at its best capacious enough to make room for all of them.