She Was Dancing On The Edge—My Last Memory Of Marilyn

Written By: Joel/Joan Vig/Copeland

There are times when a ringing phone cries out that bad news is coming. I reach for the receiver in the middle of the third ring at 6:45 AM on August 6th, 1962, somehow knowing that I do not want to hear the news that I will be told. “Miss Copeland, please.” I stare at my husband, lying beside me, trying to pretend that the ringing phone hasn’t wakened him. “This is Joan Copeland.” “Miss Copeland, I need to reach your brother, Arthur Miller.” “I’m sure that he is still sleeping. Can’t it wait until a decent hour?” “I have to reach him now. Do you have a number where I can call?” “What is so important it can’t wait a few hours,” I ask, clearly annoyed. “It’s Marilyn, Miss Copeland. She’s dead.” I feel as though time has stopped. Words fail me. Somehow I stammer, “What happened?” “They think it was a suicide. She took pills. Do you have a number where I can reach your brother? I wouldn’t want him to hear it on the morning news.” “I’m sorry, I’m not sure where he is.” I am lying. “Let me take your number and I will see if I can find out where to reach him.” I scribble down a California number on the back of an envelope and hang up. I sit on the edge of my bed, staring out the window at a dawn grey sky punctuated by Upper West Side rooftops. I suddenly realize I do not even know who called me or how they got my number.

I get up, pull on a robe, and wander down the long picture lined hallway of my apartment. So many memories come flooding back. I see Marilyn sitting by herself on a bentwood chair in a dark corner of the Actors Studio, a halo of light around her, looking like it came from within. A picture of Marilyn and Arthur , hand in hand, strolling along a serene beach in East Hampton at sunset. Marilyn on her wedding day in the most delicate shade of beige with a spray of pale beige orchids. My favorite photo of Marilyn, backstage hugging me so hard on an opening night, so happy for me, her ‘older sister’, her Joanie. “Oh Joanie, you were so good ! You’re a real actress, not the phony Hollywood kind.” I see a framed shot of Marilyn in a pair of jeans and a checkered shirt, signed to my son, Eric, when she visited him in the hospital after one of his many surgeries. “To Eric, my favorite nephew, Love, Auntie Marilyn.” And the picture of Marilyn and my father. God, she loved him. Even after Arthur and Marilyn divorced she stayed a part of the Miller family. When Marilyn sang “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, it was a Miller family reunion. My oldest brother, Kermit, and his wife and my husband, George, and I were all Marilyn’s guests for the show at the Garden and the banquet that followed. And Marilyn’s escort that night was my father, Isidore Miller. Marilyn clung to his arm and proudly introduced him to everyone that night, “This is my Dad.”

I sit down beside the phone, slowly pick up the receiver, and dial Arthur’s number out in Amagansett. A sleepy voice answers. “Arthur, it’s Joanie.” The tone of his voice tells me that he knows that something is wrong. “What is it, Joanie?” “It’s Marilyn, Arthur. She’s dead.” There is a long pause, a terrible hollow pause, a painful pause. Then finally Arthur speaks. “She finally did it.”

There are tears running down my face. I want to say to my older brother words I have never said to him in my entire life. To tell him how much I love him, how much I love Marilyn, and that I knew how deeply the two of them had loved each other. Instead, there is only silence. Arthur thanks me for calling him and hangs up the phone.

I start to sing softly to myself one of the songs that Arthur always loved to hear me sing. “He loves…and she loves…and they love…so why can’t you love and I love, too?” My brother loved Marilyn but he could not save her. I remember the most haunting words he ever wrote about Marilyn Monroe. “She was dancing on the edge. And the drop down was forever.”