Unlikely encounters

Sometime in the last century, there was a TV program with actors playing people from different periods of history—people who would be unlikely to dine together but who might have interesting things to say to one another. Not a very enlightening show, as I recall, but not a bad concept.

Recently, looking for a reference to Isak Dinesen’s eating habits for a project,  I found an account of an extraordinary get-together (from Steve King at Today in Literature), and wondered how I’d never heard of it. It seems that in 1959 Carson McCullers (Reflections in a Golden Eye, Member of the Wedding, Ballad of the Sad Café)  hosted a luncheon date with the Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke (Isak Dinesen) and Marilyn Monroe. At the time Dinesen was 74 years old, sickly and emaciated at only 80 pounds on a diet of oysters, grapes, champagne and amphetamines. She’d come to the U.S. to give the keynote address at the annual dinner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a precious relic from the past to those who loved literature, and a great entertainment for her fans who were especially devoted to her most celebrated book, Out of Africa.

McCullers was 42, and almost as well-known for her depression and despair as Dinesen was for her love of great adventure. For over two decades she’d read Out of Africa every year and had come to think of Dinesen as an “imaginary friend,” one always “there in her stillness, her serenity, and her great wisdom to comfort me.” She’d arranged to sit beside Dinesen at the Academy dinner, and hearing her say that she would like to meet Marilyn Monroe,  consulted with her friend Arthur Miller (Monroe’s husband) about hosting a luncheon for herself and the two other women.

Monroe was 33, and knew nothing about either of the others. Fresh from the success of  Some Like It Hot, she was late to lunch and dressed in a black dress that showed off her “lovely bosoms,” (Dinesen’s words). McCullers said that the overall effect made Dinsesn’s face radiate “like a candle in an old church.” Dinesen herself wore a gray turbaned ensemble that she called “Sober Truth.”

Photo by Ralph Hogaboom. Poster design for the 7th St. Theatre. Creative Commons.


Carson McCullers. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. 1959. Collection of the Library of Congress.


Photo by Claire Schmitt (rockinfree) Flickr. Creative Commons.

Apparently, the three women had a wonderful time, and while the story of them “dancing together on McCuller’s marble-topped table” wasn’t true—that it was circulated at all says something about the meeting. Everyone enjoyed Monroe’s story of trying to finish cooking pasta with a hair dryer and thought it as good as anything Dinesen had to tell. Dinesen thought Monroe was “almost incredibly pretty, full of “unbounded vitality,” “and unbelievable innocence.”

Less than three years later, Dinesen died of malnutrition and Monroe, more famously, of a drug overdose. Four years later McCullers died of a final stroke.

What a delight that luncheon must have been. How wonderful it would be if there were more such meetings. Not meetings of people who dislike each other. I don’t think much good would come of a meeting of anyone with Sarah Palin: I’m not proposing something that would resolve our national affair with violence. Just something among people who may say unlikely things to each other. Just something that will delight, or perhaps stir things up. Kind of like Yo Yo Ma’s performances with a bandoneon player, an Appalachian fiddler, jazz singer Diana Krall, and a host of others. Like Louise Bourgeois’s spider on a New York city shopping plaza (Louise Bourgeois’s Spider 6/20). Like jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s addiction to the music of cowboy singer Gene Autry. Like flash mobs. (See my post Flashmobs and Surprise Parties 12/03)