Literary daybook, Feb. 5

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published February 5, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Feb. 5, Will Scott secretly meets his father and is nearly captured by the forces of Richard Crawford, Baron Culter.
-- "The Game of Kings" (1961)
By Dorothy Dunnett

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1959, Carson McCullers hosted a small luncheon party in order that Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) could meet Marilyn Monroe. Blixen was 74 and a grande dame of literature by this time, but still driven: Though increasingly debilitated by the syphilis she had contracted in her "Out of Africa" years, and reduced to about 80 pounds by her anorexic diet (oysters, grapes and champagne), she would still stay up chain-smoking, taking amphetamines and telling her famous stories until there were no listeners, or she had talked herself into a trance. She had come to the U.S. to give the keynote address at the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and, says one biographer, to be "exhibited, scrutinized, spotlit, and passed from hand to hand like some extraordinary and precious relic recovered from a tomb and on loan to America for the first and last time." Her talk at the Academy dinner was along such hallowed lines, being the view that her life had five stages, each lived according to its respective motto: Sicut aquila juvenescam ("I shall grow up as the eagle"); Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse ("Sailing is necessary, living is not"); Je responderay ("I will respond"); Pourquoi pas? ("Why not?"); and the last, taken from Edmund Spenser, Be bold, be bold, be not too bold.

McCullers was 42, and almost as well-known for romantic despair, in both her fiction and her life, as Blixen was for romantic adventure. Her own physical and emotional problems had made her almost a shut-in, but she had read "Out of Africa" every year for over two decades and had come to regard Blixen as her "imaginary friend," one always "there in her stillness, her serenity, and her great wisdom to comfort me." She had arranged to sit beside Blixen at the Academy dinner; hearing Blixen say that she would like to meet Marilyn Monroe, McCullers called Arthur Miller over from a nearby table and lunch was on.

Monroe was 33, a stranger (says Miller) to McCullers and Blixen as writers as well as people, fresh from the success of "Some Like It Hot," and late to lunch. She arrived bold, but not too bold: in a black sheath dress, with large fur collar and deep décolletage showing, said Blixen, most of her "lovely bosoms." (Blixen wore a gray, turbaned ensemble that she liked to call "Sober Truth"; McCullers thought the overall effect made Blixen's face radiate "like a candle in an old church.") By all accounts, the three women hit it off wonderfully -- though Arthur Miller says the legend of them dancing together on McCullers' marble-topped dinner table is an exaggeration. McCullers thought it the best party she ever gave; everyone thought Monroe's story of trying to finish cooking pasta with a hair dryer the equal to anything Blixen had to tell; Blixen thought Monroe "almost incredibly pretty," full of "unbounded vitality" and "unbelievable innocence" -- "I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her."

Karen Blixen and Marilyn Monroe would die not long afterward -- about a month apart, in 1962 -- the official causes of death emaciation and drug overdose; Carson McCullers died in 1967, after more difficult years and a final stroke.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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