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Beyond the Village and Back: Arthur Miller Edition

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of the Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

Our Historic Image Archive is a veritable treasure trove of images that depict New York City throughout the years. Quite often we go on identification adventures and discover any number of interesting tidbits about our city’s history! In the case of 155 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, it wasn’t so much that we didn’t know the address of the building when the image of it was donated to us, which is usually our quest. It was that we discovered that Arthur Miller owned this building and lived there while writing “The Crucible” and an early version of “A View from the Bridge.”  He only gave up living there when he left his wife for Marilyn Monroe.

The doorway of 155 Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights, from our Historic Image Archive, www.archive.gvshp.org.

Miller was born in Manhattan and lived as a boy in Harlem in a spacious apartment overlooking Central Park. His father, Isidore, a Jewish émigré from Poland, owned a clothing business that allowed the family a certain level of luxury. The stock market crash of 1929 was financially devastating to the family and they moved to a smaller, more affordable residence in Brooklyn. After a short stint at 1277 Ocean Parkway, the Millers bought a six-room house on East Third Street and Avenue M in the Parkville section of Brooklyn for $5,000.

Arthur Miller loved Brooklyn all of his life. After marrying his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, the couple settled there, moving to different places and finally purchasing the federal townhouse (pictured in our Historic Image Archive) at 155 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. The pair of three-story row houses at 155-157 Willow Street is typical of many brick houses built in the Federal period, which lasted from the Revolutionary War through the 1830’s. Modesty, simplicity and restraint were the hallmarks of the architectural style, with even doorway and window trim kept to a minimum. Charles Lockwood, of “Bricks and Brownstone” fame, cites these two Willow Street houses (along with a third at Number 159) as “some of the best preserved examples of the period. Specifically, numbers 155 and 157 retain their original pitched roofs and dormers reflecting the period’s emphasis on classical unity.”  Built in the 1820’s, 155 Willow Street is among the oldest dwellings in the Heights.  A plaque on 157 Willow Street says that it hid an underground storage space that was used to hide runaway slaves as they escaped northward to Canada.  Miller left 155 Willow Street when he traveled to Nevada to obtain a divorce from his wife in order to marry Marilyn Monroe.

155 (l.), 157, and 159 Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights, from our Historic Image Archive, www.archive.gvshp.org

While he never lived here, Miller loved the Village too! David Amram, a musician and composer whose name is synonymous with the Village, composed the musical score for Miller’s “After the Fall,” a memory play that depicts, among other things, Miller’s torturous relationship with Monroe.

David Amram generously conducted an oral history with Village Preservation.  According to Amram, “It was at Igor and Sonia Sudarsky’s classic neighborhood delicatessen (the Art Foods Delicatessen) that I worked with Arthur Miller composing the music for his play After the Fall.  Miller loved Greenwich Village, and the Art Deli was where anybody and everyone would go — there were no A tables, and Igor would make you a gigantic sandwich. He used to let me make my own behind the counter. Dustin Hoffman lived right around the corner, and after he did Midnight Cowboy, he still went to the deli because Igor was so nice to him. Whenever he had an interview, he’d take them there, so Igor would have more customers.”

Incidentally, the original production of “After the Fall” was done at The American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) Washington Square Theatre. Located at 40 West 4th St., the theater was originally designed as a prototype for the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with a ¾ thrust stage that tilted toward the audience and did not employ the use of a curtain.  The theater had a seating capacity of 1,158 and was constructed for an estimated $525,000 on land lent by New York University.  Several highly regarded plays had their runs at the ANTA Washington Square. Miller’s “Incident at Vichy” also originated there, as did the 1964 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Marco Millions,” starring Hal Holbrook as Marco Polo . A production relished by many Molière lovers was William Ball’s 1964 staging of “Tartuffe,” with an “outrageous” Michael O’Sullivan in the title role.  Quite likely, the most famous show ever to play at the ANTA Washington Square was the smash hit musical “Man of La Mancha,” which began its first New York run there on November 22, 1965, and transferred to the more conventional Martin Beck Theatre on West 46th Street in 1968, pending the demolition of the Washington Square Theatre.

The unexpected paths we have traveled in our quest to identify and categorize our images has kept us fascinated and busy!  We delight in updating you, our readers, on all of the mysteries we unravel.  Check out our entire Historic Image Archive at www.archive.gvshp.org.

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