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Carl Sandburg, Hollywood, Media, and Marylin Monroe

Throughout most of the 1920s poet, Lincoln biographer, and folksong collector/singer Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was the main film critic for the Chicago Daily News. Between 1920 and 1928, including all his reviews, he wrote more than 2,000 columns dealing with films. Many of the best pieces are available in The Movies Are : Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928 (2000), where film critic Roger Ebert has written an introduction. In 1922, Sandburg wrote, “Culturally speaking, there are arguments to be made that Hollywood—for real or woe—is more important than Harvard, Yale or Princeton, singly and collectively. In 1926 he stated: “The cold, real, upstanding fact holds—the movies are. They come so close to pre-empting some functions hitherto held exclusively by the school and the university systems that the philosopher of civilization who doesn't take them into consideration with broad, sympathetic measurement is in danger of being in the place of the drum major of the band who marched up a side street while the band went straight along on the main stem—without leadership.” 

marilyn and carl

About his film reviews, Ebert writes: “He keeps an open mind when going to movies of the broadest possible appeal. He likes Tom Mix's horse, Tony, almost as much as Tom Mix, and then develops an enthusiasm for Tom's dog, Duke.” No elitist highbrow, this people’s poet “says he has seen Fairbanks Senior's “The Thief of Bagdad” three times, and wants to see it three more, and his praise is Whitmanesque: ‘Old and young enjoy it and derive new health from it.’”

But his favorite was Charlie Chaplin, whom he loved for his humane comedy. In his collection of reviews (The Movie Are)there are 78 mentions of him. In a January 1921 review of The Kid —writer, director, and star, Chaplin—Sandburg wrote, “As an artist he is more consequential in extent of audience than any speaking, singing, writing or painting artist today.” A few months later Sandberg interviewed him and found him “an artist of beautiful andgentleseriousness.” He also wrote a poem about him, “Without the Cane and the Derby.”

Besides the Chaplin interview, there were many others, including ones with directors Josef von Sternberg and William de Mille (brother of Cecil B.), the great Russian drama director Constantin Stanislavski, and Groucho Marx. Ebert recalled that in 1972 Groucho told him that he sometimes went to the movies with Sandburg. The poet’s love of film influenced him in various ways. One of his chief biographers wrote that in his poetry “there was an overlay of new imagery, drawn, most likely unconsciously, from the realm of the motion picture. . . . Thus the motion picture was one of the dominant forces at work in Sandburg’s imagination during the decade of the twenties.”

In 1939, he completed his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for history the following year—the Pulitzer Prize for poetry followed in 1951. His work on Lincoln provided the basis for many adaptations for various media, including Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 1938, Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Two years later it was transformed into a film of the same title name based on Sherwood’s film script. In 1953, to honor Sandburg’s seventy-fifth birthday, by which time Sherwood had authored numerous additional plays and scripts, including his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), he helped sponsor a gala dinner party for his friend.

In late 1943, again in 1944, and from time to time after that, Sandburg came to California to work temporarily for the film industry. It began with his acceptance of an MGM contract and outline to write a novel that could be transformed into a screenplay. In keeping with wartime patriotism, it was supposed to be an epic film capturing the spirit of America and the sweep of its history. But what eventually resulted, and only in 1948, was a novel of over a thousand pages, Remembrance Rock, which proved unsuitable for MGM purposes.

By the late 1950s Sandburg was one of the most famous men in America. On February 12, 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, he became the first private citizen in the twentieth century to address a Joint Session of the U. S. Congress.

The year before Hollywood film stars such as Raymond Burr, Glenn Ford, Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, and Eva Maria Saint took part in a tribute to him on the UCLA campus by reciting from his works. His friend Norman Corwin, who had written and/or produced over a hundred programs during the Golden Age of radio, wrote and directed the tribute. Corwin again, working with Sandburg, prepared a script for a stage review in 1960 entitled The World of Carl Sandburg. It starred Bette Davis and toured the country for seventeen weeks before coming to New York for three weeks. In keeping with Sandburg’s rich sense of humor, the review ended with a recitation of some of the jokes he had collected over the years.

His friend writer Harry Golden estimated that by the early 1960s, he was refusing about 500-600 invitations a year to appear somewhere or other. But if, now in his eighties, he was reluctant to travel as much as he once had, some people came to him. For example, in 1964, a young Bob Dylan, not yet as famous as he soon would be, came to his North Carolina home to introduce himself to the old poet, who came out on his porch and talked with him.

In the 1950s and 1960s Sandburg was also often on that new media, television. One of the great pioneers of the industry, Edward R. Murrow came to his North Carolina home in 1954 to interview him and his wife Paula for his “See It Now” TV program. In the years that followed he was often on some of the most popular programs of the time, including those of Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan, as well as the Today and Tonight shows.

Like his friend Murrow, however, Sandburg had mixed feelings about the new medium of television. In a 1958 speech to a Radio-Television News Directors Association convention, Murrow said: “If there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three [major TV] networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”

Although Sandburg recognized the vital importance of television, just as he had movies in the 1920s, he already commented in 1953 that too many people sit “there hours and hours and taking whatever they give you. You then become an addict, which in other terms is a dope. Too many people, and particularly young people, have not learned to be selective about movies, radio, television.” Four years later Time magazine reported the following:

Lured onto a speakers' platform in Asheville, N.C. by the General Federation of Women's Clubs, frosty-haired old (79) Poet Carl Sandburg sat bemusedly while a TV show was praised. Then he took aim at the 21-in.-screen hog caller for the world (“When we reach the stage where all of the people are entertained all of the time, we will be very close to having the opiate of the people”) . . . : “More than half the commercials are filled with inanity, asininity, silliness and cheap trickery.” TV's Arlene Francis burbled a defense (“We're only babies. We have to grow”) after the ancient mellowed slightly and allowed that television is a “young medium, and we will pray for it.”

Asked after this meeting if he had a TV set, he said that he did but also possessed a home-made remote control to avoid commercials. That same year on another occasion he criticized film executives who “aim their product at blood, sex, violence, profits, and who ignore the classics.” Around this same time, he told a friend, “Never was a generation that has been told by a more elaborate system of the printed word, billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio, television—to eat more, play more, have more fun. But General Robert E. Lee told a mother with a child in her arms: ‘Teach him to deny himself.”

In mid 1960, Sandburg made a major commitment to Hollywood when he agreed to work as a consultant to director George Stevens for his film about Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Stevens had asked him to do so because of his great admiration for him, but Sandburg had no special expertise regarding Jesus and once said of himself “I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist. Although Sandburg spent altogether about a year and a half in Hollywood during the early 1960s, the film reflects little of Sandburg’s influence. When it came out in 1965, it was not a commercial success and received only mixed reviews.

In a September 1962 Look magazine issue, Sandburg said that when he was working in Hollywood during 1960 he was assigned to Marilyn Monroe’s “dressing room for use as an office.” He also said that “she made a point of coming to introduce herself. It was as if she wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see her. We hit it off and talked long.'' Another source—Jeffrey Meyers, The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010)—one of the most reliable on her, indicates they had already met briefly, in 1958. Regardless of the exact details, they were friends during the last two years before her death in August 1962. He gave her a copy of his Complete Poems, and the poorly educated Monroe sought his approval for some of the poems she had written.

Earlier, after two previous marriages, the second to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, Monroe had married playwright Arthur Miller, but that marriage officially ended with a Mexican divorce in January 1961. Sandburg was thus not the first writer whom she admired. In the 1950s she had also spent some time with others, for example, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Danish author Isak Dinesen, English poet Dame Edith Sitwell, and Saul Bellow. After coming to London to star in The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier in 1956, she spent some time with the older Sitwell discussing the poets Dylan Thomas, whose poems Monroe was then reading, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1960 she met Vladimir Nabokov, who was then working on a film script for his novel Lolita and found her “a delightful actress.”

The best known meetings of Monroe and Sandburg occurred in the New York apartment of his friend photographer Len Steckler in December 1961 and, a month later, at the home of Hollywood producer Henry Weinstein and his wife Irena, with photographer Arnold Newman and others also there. Photos by Steckler and Newman have recaptured some of these moments. The Look “Tribute to Marilyn” that Sandburg wrote after her death was accompanied by photos from both photographers. Among the photos, there are two of the poet and film star dancing together; another where she’s following his lead in an exercise he recommended to combat insomnia; and still another where she is conversing with him as he sits with his guitar on his lap.

The Look tribute and Steckler later recalled the meeting in his apartment. After Monroe arrived, late as usual, she ran to Sandburg, hugged and kissed him, and began talking to him. He remembered that “she sometimes threw her arm around me, like people do who like each other very much.” After they sat down, she sometimes squeezed his hand. What she found in him was a sympathetic and personable old sage who liked her for herself and not just her fame and looks. Sandburg recalled that “she had some faith in me.” She told him of her insomnia problems and “that she thought herself too intelligent to commit suicide.”

He found her to be down-to-earth and genuine. He said that “she came up the hard way,” and since his path to fame had also been difficult, he probably admired her “rags-to-riches” saga. He thought she “was a good talker.” Although “'there were realms of science, politics and economics in which she wasn't at home, . . . she spoke well on the national scene, the Hollywood scene, and on people who are good to know and people who ain't.” He added that they “agreed, on a number of things—that Charlie Chaplin is beyond imitation, for instance”—and she “never talked about her husbands.” He also found in her “a vitality, a readiness for humor,” which was a characteristic Sandburg always appreciated in others, including Abraham Lincoln. In his Look tribute, he expressed great regret over her death, “I wish I could have been with her that day. . . . I believe I could have persuaded her not to take her life.”

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Although wild rumors and speculations about her death, sometimes involving John and/or Robert Kennedy, are still current fifty years later, we shall not get bogged down dealing with them here. What is not debatable is the feminine allure that Monroe held for so many men, including the two Kennedy brothers and the octogenarian Sandburg. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attended a banquet with her hosted by Twentieth Century–Fox on his U. S. trip in 1959, he “was very obviously smitten with her,” according to Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends: A Life, “and she in turn liked him for his plainness.” Meyers reports that she later said: “He looked at me the way a man looks at a woman. . . . I could tell Khrushchev liked me. He smiled more when he was introduced to me than for anybody else at the whole banquet. . . . He squeezed my hand so long and hard that I thought he would break it.”

The next few years were tumultuous years politically. Sandburg had supported John Kennedy in 1960 and even done a little campaigning for him. In 1961, there was the failed Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion and the tensions surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall, and in 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis. That same year, at Kennedy’s request, Sandburg had written the Forward to Kennedy’s early presidential speeches gathered together in To Turn the Tide.In May 1962, Freedom Riders had ridden buses to the South to demonstrate opposition to segregated bus stations, and the Kennedys soon stepped up efforts to overcome the shameful segregation still existing throughout much of the South.

And yet, despite all this political activity, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson, an old friend of Sandburg, describes how in that same month of May 1962 Robert Kennedy was “dodging around her [Monroe] like a moth around a flame.” And he was far from alone in doing so. The occasion was a party after she had sung “Happy Birthday Mr. President,” at Madison Square Garden to John Kennedy on the occasion of his forty-fifth birthday. After quoting Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger, historian and Kennedy adviser, wrote in his biography of Robert Kennedy, “I do not think I have seen anyone so beautiful; I was enchanted by her manner and her wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. . . . Bobby and I engaged in mockcompetition for her; she was most agreeable to him.” (Readers interested in more about her relations with the Kennedys, sexual and otherwise, can consult the Meyers book mentioned above, which attempts to deal with them in a responsible way.)

Thus, many powerful and influential men, whether politicians or intellectuals, young or old, were attracted to Monroe. And despite the octogenarian Sandburg’s kindly paternalism toward her, he was undoubtedly aware of her feminine charms and appreciated them. Although his chief biographer, Penelope Niven, indicates that there is no evidence that he was ever “physically unfaithful,” to his loving wife, Lilian (or Paula as he called her), of almost sixty years, he had many close female friends, so close in a few cases that most wives would have had trouble containing their jealousy.

Perhaps the best example was his relationship with Chicago business woman Donna Workman, who Niven describes as “statuesque and extraordinarily beautiful.” In the late 1950s, he often stayed in her plush apartment when he traveled to Chicago. She was about half his age and greatly admired his writings. She later insisted that there was nothing “illicit” about their relationship, that he never “stepped out of line,” but that he did love her in a special way and that those “not noble of mind enough to understand this kind of love can go to hell!” While staying overnight at her apartment, he sometime lay his head on her lap.

Little has been said in this essay about Sandburg’s talents that earned him two Pulitzer prizes in two different fields, nor his many stage appearances singing folk songs and reciting his poems. But something of his greatness was attested to by three American leaders.

In 1953, at his seventy-fifth birthday celebration, his friend Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and would be again in 1956, said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream. He has the earthiness of the prairies, the majesty of mountains, the anger of deep inland seas. In him is the restlessness of the seeker, the questioner, the explorer of far horizons, the hunger that is never satisfied. In him also is the tough strength that has never been fully measured, never unleashed, the resiliency of youthfulness which wells from within, and which no aging can destroy.”

Ten years later for another birthday celebration President Kennedy sent a congratulatory telegram saying that Sandburg “as a poet, story-teller, minstrel and biographer, has expressed the many-sided American genius.” In 1967, at the Lincoln Memorial, where almost six thousand people gathered for a memorial to him, President Lyndon Johnson referred to him as a “on September 17th, 1967vital, exuberant, wise, and generous man.”

In his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, he displayed all four of these characteristics. By this point in his life, he was certainly wise in many ways. His last major poem, “Timesweep,” completed the year after her death was a meditation revealing his mature acceptance of his own mortality.

Since death is there in the light of the sun, in the song of the wind,
Since death is there in the marvel of the sun coming up to travel
its arc and go down saying, “I am time and you are time,”
Since death is there in the slow creep of every dawn and in all the
steps of shadow moving into evening and dusk of stars,
Since death is there in almost inaudible chimes of every slow
clocktick beginning at the birth hour there must be a tremor
of music in the last little gong, the pling of the final
announcement from the Black Void.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Where I go from here and now, or if I go at all
again, the Maker of sea and land, of sky and
air, can tell.

But the poem also expressed his appreciation of beauty, love, and passion.

Tell me about any strong beautiful wanting
And there is your morning, my morning,
everybody's morning.

Makers and givers may be moon shaken,
may be star lost,
Knowing themselves as sea-deep seekers,
both seeking and sought,
Knowing love is a ring and the ring endless,
Seeing love as a wheel and the wheel endless.

But his relationship with Monroe revealed not only his wisdom, kindness, vibrant exuberance, and appreciation of beauty, but probably also something else, something very human, that many an old man has felt. Perhaps it is best expressed, without further comment, by another old poet, W. B. Yeats, amidst the Spanish Civil War and the growing threat of Hitler:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?

walter moss

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Walter Moss