Famous Visitations

Posted in: A Summary View, Visiting Monticello

On May 22, 56 years ago, Marilyn Monroe and her husband of less than a year, Arthur Miller, walked into Monticello, hoping to take a tour without anyone recognizing them.  Unfortunately for them, their hopes were dashed almost immediately.

The word got out, and the local newspaper sent a reporter up pronto to grill the Monticello guide staff on every detail of the visit.  "The glamourous star appeared at Thomas Jefferson's home about 3:15 p.m. in an unglamourous outfit and no make-up," the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported the next day ("Movie Star Marilyn Monroe, Her Husband Visit Monticello," May 23, 1957).  The Progress goes on to describe her attire in great detail, then mentions again her lack of makeup, remarking disappointedly, "she did not wear even lipstick."  (Arthur Miller's outfit is not mentioned.)

Stock photo of Marilyn Monroe

Despite the couple's efforts to go incognito, Monroe was quickly recognized by her "unmistakable walk," and that was the end of Monroe and Miller's group tour experience.  They were taken aside and given a private tour by Terry Tilman, the head guide at the time.  Mrs. Tilman recorded her recollections of her career at Monticello years later - I pulled out the transcript of her interview, and although she doesn't mention Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, she does mention having had the pleasure of guiding many "stars of stage and screen" through the house.  At the time, Mrs. Tilman told the Daily Progress that Monroe was "very shy and quiet," while Miller was "especially courteous." Obviously no one at Monticello was informed beforehand that the couple would be visiting, so there were no "official" photographs of them touring the house or grounds.  The Daily Progress ran a stock photo of Monroe looking as glamorous as humanly possible.

I do wonder whether perhaps another visitor might have surreptitiously managed to get a shot, which is even now silently waiting to be discovered in some family photo album.  (Note: Look for a photo of a lady wearing "a beige shirt and blouse with a trench coat thrown over her shoulders...white high-heeled shoes and a white scarf over her hair." And no lipstick.)  Until we get that magical phone call or email informing us of such a find, we'll have to make do with Monroe and Miller's signatures in the Monticello guest book:

Signatures of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Miller in the Monticello guest book

Miller and Monroe mentioned that they planned to visit James Monroe's home at Ash Lawn-Highland after Monticello, although our Daily Progress article notes that "if they appeared later at Ash Lawn, they were not recognized there."  Perhaps that comment was a clever ruse to throw off the papparazzi.

Undoubtedly the couple were already a bit stressed out at the time.  The reason they were in the area at all was because Arthur Miller had been summoned to Washington by Congress.  The year before, he had refused to provide names of alleged Communist associates during his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he had been called back to Washington to testify in his own trial for contempt of Congress.  This extremely entertaining obituary of Miller in The Guardian claims that Marilyn Monroe also testified on his behalf in May 1957, although I couldn't confirm that.  At any rate, Miller was convicted of contempt a little more than a week after he and his wife visited Monticello.  But don't worry, there's a happy ending - his conviction was later overturned on appeal.

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