Centennial of playwright and former Brooklynite Arthur Miller
An inferior and uninterested student while attending high school in Brooklyn, Arthur Miller would become one of the 20th century’s most prominent playwrights. This Oct. 17 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Arthur Asher Miller was born in Harlem to parents who were of Jewish heritage. His father, Isadore, had sailed to America by himself at age six with a cardboard sign hung around his neck that said “Please put this boy on the SS Clearwater.”
From this hardscrabble predicament, Miller’s father had managed to become a successful businessman, owning the Miltex Coat and Suit Company, which had more than 800 employees, according to Martin Gottfried’s biography “Arthur Miller: His Life and Work.”
The Millers lived on the sixth floor of a tony building on 110th Street, at the north end of Central Park. During this time, their summers were spent at a house on Rockaway Beach. But Arthur Miller’s cushy upbringing, along with so many others, went crumbling to bits in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash.
All of the father’s savings and capital had been invested right back into the stock market. He was rendered bankrupt overnight. Forced to leave their opulent 110th Street residence, the family relocated to Brooklyn, settling in a much smaller home on a dead-end street in Gravesend.
It wasn’t all bad for young Miller, though. He enjoyed going fishing at Sheepshead Bay. Additionally, the streets in Gravesend were far less congested, providing much more space for a boy to play sports.
Miller was enrolled first at James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue, but he changed schools when the new Abraham Lincoln High School opened on Ocean Parkway, which was closer to home.
Despite weighing just 120 pounds, Miller, who had grown to six feet in height, played on the football team as well as the basketball team. Meanwhile, in the classroom, he did next to nothing, and failed algebra several times over.
He did have a fair enough work ethic, however. Each morning, shortly after 4 a.m., he delivered bags of bread for a bakery. His next job involved driving a delivery truck for an auto supplies store.
In his Abraham Lincoln High School senior yearbook, he listed “Stanford” as his elected college. The truth was, though, that Stanford hadn’t accepted him. In fact, he hadn’t even applied there, or to any other college for that matter.
After high school, he was working as a stock clerk, when a neighbor told him about a school called the University of Michigan and its rather student-friendly tuition of $65 per semester.
Miller — with his subpar high school transcript — was rejected twice before obtaining a conditional acceptance, after he sent the admissions board a letter promising them that he had matured considerably.
At U-Michigan, he majored in journalism before switching his major to English. He also wrote for the Michigan Daily, the well-regarded student newspaper. During his time in Michigan, he also launched his playwriting vocation.
He graduated in 1938 and married his college girlfriend, Mary Slattery, two years later. The couple, who would have two children together, was living in a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights.
She worked as a secretary for the Harper & Brothers publishing company, while he tried to make it as a playwright. At one point in the early 1940s, he also worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a shipfitter’s helper, according to Enoch Brater’s “Arthur Miller: A Playwright’s Life and Works.”
When Miller began to achieve success as a playwright, he would purchase a more upscale Brooklyn Heights residence at 31 Grace Court. According to bklynlibrary.org, he sold this home in 1951 to another published author, W.E.B. Du Bois.
Miller — the famed Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such plays as “Death of a Salesman,” who also made headlines for marrying Marilyn Monroe and clashing with officials at the House of Un-American Activities Committee — would spend much of his ensuing years in Roxbury, Connecticut.
He died of heart failure at age 89 on Feb. 10, 2005. His legacy, of course, lives on. A number of Miller commemorative events are in the works, and several of them will take place in the New York City area. For further information, visit www.arthurmiller.org/centennial.
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