Boy and Icon – Part II, By Michael Cooke

Jan 12, 2024 | 8 comments

It was approximately three years later that by mutual decision, my parents and I decided I should go to boarding school. I would only return on holiday breaks, as would my brother, who also attended boarding school. I was thirteen, growing close to fourteen, and had just returned from the end of my school year for summer break. One morning my mother made out a small grocery list and handed it to me to pick up at the Gristede‘s Market on First Avenue. It was a beautiful June sunny day. I went up the street to First and collected the groceries which amounted to just shy of a full bag’s worth. As I walked back home with my paper bag of groceries, I noticed a kid around the same age as me walking a dog low to the ground with floppy ears. The two of them had stopped by the curb for the dog to do some business. Being a dog lover, I didn’t think twice and just walked over to this kid with his dog and said hello. He politely did the same while the dog ambled over and gave me a sniff in greeting. The dog’s name was Hugo, a basset hound.

I introduced myself to the boy as he did the same. His name was Robert. We shook hands. Before you knew it, we found ourselves walking down the street, immersed in conversation. We were laughing at stuff and had a real rapport. We continued on our way with Hugo taking his occasional moment for this and that. How great it can be when two young guys, strangers, can strike up a conversation out of nowhere, though credit must be given to Hugo, who was a catalyst in his – at that moment – adorableness.

We reached the apartment building where I lived and simultaneously, both of us stopped just before the awning of the building. As we’d been hitting it off nicely and the time being a little before noon, he invited me to come visit him at his place. I immediately said sure. He nodded towards the apartment building before us. He said, “This is where I live.” I went, “You’re kidding? This is where I live”. Then I asked him, “I’m on five. What floor do you live on?” He said he was on thirteen. On that disclosure a bell went off. I knew Marilyn lived on thirteen. Was he connected to Marilyn in some way? But Marilyn had no children. No. He just lived on the thirteenth floor.

As we entered the elevator car, I asked our elevator man if he would drop off the bag of groceries for my mother at my place after he took us up to the thirteenth floor. I also asked him to please tell her I was visiting a new friend in the building and I’d be back home soon. We bypassed the fifth floor and went directly up to thirteen. Our elevator man slid the heavy metal door open. I handed over the grocery bag to him and Robert, Hugo, and I approached the apartment that had imprinted on its door “13E”. He didn’t have keys and so rang the doorbell. After a moment the door swung open and in part due to my nervous state, in combination with my not having grown much in recent years, I looked up to the tallest man in the entire world peering down at Robert and me. He was dressed in dark slacks and a white open collared shirt with sleeves rolled halfway up his arms. He wore black-rimmed eyeglasses. He was lean and handsome. His manner was doleful as he at first greeted Robert who, I later was to find out, was his son from a former marriage. Robert then introduced me to this man, his father, Arthur Miller. Arthur lackadaisically extended his hand to me, and I found myself shaking hands with the famous playwright. Robert removed Hugo’s leash as the dog sped off to the kitchen nearby to no doubt fill his tank. Then Arthur tepidly extended his arm towards the main part of the apartment. As I moved slowly toward the living room, I took in to my right, just off the foyer, a small office. In it was a large typewriter on a desk and wall shelves packed with books. There were other books and papers on the desk. This was obviously Mr. Miller’s study. I was led to the living room. It was small but so distinctive. A white plush carpet dominated the room. The back wall consisted of large windows that looked out upon an incredible New York City vista. The apartment had a white baby grand piano! I’d never seen such a thing and thought all pianos were black. The few tables and light fixtures were all of white or of glass, so that at this time of day, the place was virtually shimmering. There were decorative mirrors and paintings on the walls. A long, white sofa with plushy pillows faced into the room. I stood there open-mouthed. The brilliance generated by sunlight ricocheting off silver and white, bouncing about everywhere was overwhelming. Robert asked if I’d like a soda. I said yes. Just as he moved to go to the kitchen to get it, out of the bedroom casually walking into the living room, was a bare-footed woman with unruly, slightly curled platinum blonde hair, clean-faced, absolutely no makeup, dressed in “at home” un-ironed black slacks (although in this viewing not splotched) and a white cotton turtleneck that clung to her torso. “Marilyn, this is ….” I was introduced. With no smile, she offered me her hand to shake. She was detached, sullen. I said the usual inane, “Hello …” or “…nice to meet you…” (though in fact I’d more than met her, neither she nor I made mention of that fact. Perhaps she didn’t remember I was the same boy from a few years ago). Then all of a sudden for some reason her mood turned into a kind of amiable graciousness. Strange, she had had this melancholy aura, then suddenly did a full about-face, welcoming me graciously into their living room. Nothing was in evidence of the persona she presented onscreen as sex symbol and ditzy blonde that had made her famous. Standing before me was a woman anything but ditzy. There was not an absent-minded dumb blonde to be seen. She possessed a gracefulness and poise. With no makeup, her blonde locks unruly, attired in her at-home slacks and white turtleneck displaying her impossible to ignore gorgeous frontage, she was sensational. She appeared to me (whether I knew of these entities at that moment in my education or not) in league with either that famous Queen of Egypt, or the woman whose face could launch a thousand ships. Yet, it was precisely because she wore no makeup, that she was relaxed in her at-home attire that the impact of what appeared to me to be her true nature was what came across from her so compellingly. She directed me to the far end of the living room opposite the white couch, and indicated a chair next to the white baby grand piano. She and Arthur sat down on the white sofa with Marilyn more towards the middle and Arthur near the couch’s end-arm. She made herself comfortable and all the more alluring by bringing up her legs and bare feet curling them beneath her bottom. Robert then returned from the kitchen and crossed over to hand me my soda. Positioned where I was, I felt separate, distant from everyone. It was most uncomfortable. I felt in the distance of the seating arrangement that I was in some bizarre court of law. They were all of them over there. And I was over here sitting in a single chair as if I were on the stand in the dock. To add to this, Robert made no move to sit near or around me after he handed me my soda, but left me to stand behind the couch where Marilyn and Arthur were sitting. The friendly interchange Robert and I shared when we’d met outside was now nowhere to be found. For some reason, Robert changed, his personality altered as soon as we entered the apartment. It was very weird. He suddenly was no longer the new friend I had thought he might possibly be.

This unsettling spatial remoteness didn’t help. I became shy to the point of extreme embarrassment. This feeling was not bolstered by Hugo either. When Hugo came out of the kitchen, he too for some reason, changed in character. He’d been so friendly outside. Here, he behaved towards me like I was someone not to be trusted. He began to make a nuisance of himself by nipping at my trouser cuff. The damned dog wouldn’t let go. Robert came over and tried to shoo Hugo away. At that point Hugo did walk off, but only for a second before he shot back to me, continuing to nip at my trouser cuff as Robert went back to the other side of the room. Yet despite this dog’s annoyance to me and my consequent embarrassment throughout this first part of my visit, both Marilyn and Arthur were polite to me. They treated me as an adult. Not only that, their manner was well disposed towards me as if I was a guest to be welcomed, valued. I suspected that perhaps Robert hadn’t too many friends, and maybe my presence was an unexpected good thing for Robert and thus Arthur and Marilyn.
They asked me the usual to a young boy, what school I attended, what I enjoyed studying, my father, my mother, my brother, my family. I didn’t broadcast my father’s position at the Tribune. Neither did I remind Marilyn of her previously knowing me and asking my mother about me. I just answered in short sentences. Hugo’s conspicuous attentions to my trousers didn’t help in my attempt to make a good impression on Marilyn and Arthur. They asked me what I was interested in, what I looked forward in doing in life. And then I told them. I told them the God’s honest truth: I said to them I wanted to be an actor. Good God – get me the down car of the elevator now! – Their initial expression shocked me. In an instant they both locked up tight, became closed and remote. It was like a shroud descending. An odd pall took over. They looked at me with condescension. They did not accept the legitimacy of my honest reply.
Someplace within me I struggled to believe that whatever was going on with them had nothing to do with me. They certainly did not censor what was distinctly written all over their faces. They leveled me with both barrels, leaving nothing in their cartridges. I may as well have had the audacity to say to them both that I wanted to be an actor – The fact and truth was that I really did want to be an actor, even at that young age. I have lived a lifetime of commitment to show for it. And have them quick-judge me from their great height not only crushed me, I was also very hurt, confused, greatly upset. The shock that even they, famous as they were, could from on high, be so dismissive and disregard me and my sincerity was devastating to me. This was now becoming a mortifying visit. They seemed to look at me as a pompous, foolish kid, who had no idea what he was talking about. Subliminally it was possible to arrive at the quick explanation that the reality and personal pain they’d both incurred in their careers flooded over them when I gave my answer to their question. Here they were on their plush living room sofa in their indescribably beautiful apartment, fending off the presumed pretensions of a wimpy kid sitting fifteen feet opposite. I sat crestfallen with toes crunched in embarrassment. The worst of it all was that there was no glimmer of any manner from Marilyn, either by gesture, word or eye, that she recalled the time when she used to ask my mother about me, a mere three years before. There was no recollection from her of those brief journeys on the elevator, no acknowledgement of that small boy she may have felt an affinity for.
Marilyn and Arthur had gone indifferent on me. I had to get out of there fast. I quickly came up with the excuse to them that my mother was waiting for me. For in this living room there was nothing left for anyone to say. The only interested party remaining in the room was a boy’s worst friend – that bastard Hugo’s obsession with the cuffs of my pants. As I got up from where I was sitting, Marilyn rose from the couch to say a cursory goodbye to me before quickly sitting back down. Arthur and Robert walked me to the front door. I said thank you to them and left 13E forever.

When I returned home I provided the barest overview of my visit with Marilyn and Arthur. I shoved it deep down into my gut, thinking by suppressing it, it just might go away. It didn’t. It actually has never gone away. Since then, when a “war story” (as actors describe their awful or worst “in the biz” incidences) or bad accounts of suffering to do with the actor’s life would come up, that horrific visit would flash before me. Whether due to my ineffectual enfeebled visit or not, as it happened, I never remained in touch with Robert, nor he with me. And after that encounter I never personally saw Marilyn ever again.

A good many years later, one summer afternoon, I was walking uptown on Third Ave to go to a movie at the 68th Street Playhouse. Marilyn, at this point had been gone twenty-eight years. I was then forty-three years old. As I was running up to the marquee of the theatre, I spotted Mr. Miller walking by. I jumped at the opportunity to speak to him. It was a quick interchange as he was clearly in a rush. I reminded him of the years before when my family and I also lived in the same apartment building as he and Marilyn. And I mentioned my one and only encounter with him when I visited them after having just met his son. He didn’t recall the occasion. Nevertheless, I told him of the striking impression he had upon me when he opened the front door of 13E and how skyscraper tall he was to me at the time. He smiled warmly at this observance, and looked me straight in the eye and said somewhat wistfully, “Well, not anymore.” And he was correct. I now stood a good hair or two taller than he. He was anxious to make a quick getaway, but not before I asked him if I might be looking forward to seeing some work of his either stage-wise or movie-wise. For a second he let go his impatience by suddenly lighting up with a different energy. “There’s a new film of mine coming out. It’s called “Everybody Wins”.” I said, “Great title”, (thinking to myself, is that possible that everybody can win)? Then he quickly extended his arm and we shook hands. And off he went disappearing into the Third Avenue crowd at a fast clip.

A deep reservoir of tenderness still prevails in my initial vulnerability and affinity with Marilyn, and likewise later with my encounter with Arthur on Third Avenue. Though for far too undeniable reasons, the second encounter in 13E was decimating the rebuke I’d felt. But from that encounter I knew at that moment as I know now that in another sense, Marilyn and Arthur unknowingly gave me the gift of “the reality of life in this business”. The stinging non-verbal rebuke I’d felt was in fact a cautionary response/warning almost from them. It became for me, as resulted with whatever success I may achieve, a major object lesson in understanding that life can be very painful and brutal. And that what appears on the surface may in fact be a lot darker than what is seen in the outward show. Somewhere within me this incident taught me not to take anything for granted. And to not overlook the numberless pitfalls that can befall one in the pursuit of the course I chose to go after. They say when you are consumed with the impassioned longing and ambition and drive that you have to act, and must do it come hell or high water, well that’s it. You’re cooked. You’re cooked because you simply have to and cannot do anything else – whatever the outcome. Marilyn’s former co-star and director, Lord Larry Olivier said it perfectly, “Acting is a masochistic form of exhibitionism. It is not quite the occupation of an adult.”

Cooke Family NYC



  1. I would appreciate knowing a little bit about the person, Nigel, who posted this lovely story.
    Thank you.

  2. Michael’s recall is so crisp and loaded with luminous details! To achieve this in telling of events so many years in the past is stunning. A compelling read, thanks for publishing this.

  3. Just like part 1, captivating.

  4. Well done story! Thanks!

  5. Fabulous and touching

  6. Remarkable that Lord Olivier got the words just right – unfortunately. Still, there is another way to be – fortunately.

  7. Visually written ~ takes you there in exquisite detail! 👌 might there be a Memoir in the making?

  8. Good stuff. You sent me an earlier version a few years ago and I loved it.
    A poet friend was asked, What is the most important quality of a good poem? He said, Honesty. Well, you rang that bell. Second, when reading this
    you made us feel it. And it was damned uncomfortable. Shall I thank you?
    Most certainly. Thank you for sharing this, Michael.”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.