Isak Dinesen and Marilyn Monroe

ON THE FIFTH OF FEBRUARY, 1959, Carson McCullers gave a luncheon. She seldom entertained anymore, her health was so precarious, but Isak Dinesen was in town—New York, that is—for the first (and only) time, and there were two women she wanted to meet. McCullers was one. The other was Marilyn Monroe.

Dinesen mentioned this to McCullers when they were introduced at a literary function, and Carson said nothing could be easier. She knew Marilyn, she said, and there was Arthur Miller at the next table; she would ask a few old friends as well. It was a little disconcerting to learn that “Tanya,” as Dinesen preferred being called, lived on oysters and white grapes, washed down with champagne—so perhaps a soufflé, too, she told her cook, in case the other guests found that fare meager.

On the day, the Millers called for Dinesen in their car, late.—when was it otherwise with Marilyn? But Monroe did look luscious in her black sheath with the pronounced décolletage and fur collar. Tanya, who weighed eightyodd pounds, wore an elegant gray suit, her head swathed in a turban. After lunch she told one of her tales—about being young in Kenya and killing her first lion and sending the skin to the King of Denmark. It was a hard act to follow. But Marilyn had a story too, if a less heroic one: she was giving a dinner party, using her mother-in-law’s recipe for noodles, but it got late, the guests arrived, and she had to finish off the noodles with a hairdryer. Marilyn was always best in comic parts. Then Carson, as she told it later, put a record on the phonograph and she, Tanya, and Marilyn danced together—on top of the black marble dining table, she said.

Blame it on the oysters and champagne. Illusion prevailed that day: Karen Blixen and Norma Jean Baker were submerged in the myths of Dinesen and Monroe. Marilyn had not disappointed Dinesen, who compared her to a lion cub, all unbounded vitality and innocence. There was a natural sympathy between them; Carson, watching them, even called it love. —Nancy Caldwell Sorel