When Arthur Miller first visited his country cousins in Brooklyn in the early 1920s, Midwood was not just a neighborhood, it was a description. Patches of woods stood thick enough near their East Fifth Street home that the boys could hunt squirrels, rabbits and other small game. There were muddy paths and tomato fields, and big sacks of potatoes in the cellar.
Miller’s two salesman uncles — on whom he would base the character Willy Loman — were urban pioneers, planting roots in the borough just after World War I.
The woods have been replaced by houses and streets, but much of what Miller loved and used as inspiration for his plays can still be found.
The centennial of Miller’s birth on Oct. 17, 1915, has put his name front and center in the New York theater world. Among revivals of his work, a spare, searing British production of “A View From the Bridge,” has drawn stellar reviews; “The Crucible,” starring Saoirse Ronan, starts previews in a few weeks; and a centennial celebration reading will be held at the Lyceum Theater in Midtown on Monday.
But nowhere is Miller more alive than in the streets of Brooklyn, from Ocean Parkway to Avenue M, to Coney Island and Brighton Beach, down the old Culver Line to Brooklyn Heights, over to the Navy Yard and the Red Hook piers.
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: three bathrooms, a chauffeur-driven car and a summer place in Far Rockaway.
Before the stock market crash, the business began to fail, and so, in 1928, Isidore and his wife, Augusta — Izzie and Gussie — moved the family to the borough of churches and cheap rents. After a short stint at 1277 Ocean Parkway, the Millers bought for $5,000 a six-room house on East Third Street and Avenue M in the Parkville section, a couple of blocks from Gussie’s family.
In his 1987 memoir, “Timebends: A Life,” Miller writes about the wonder of moving to that dead-end street tucked between the Midwood and Gravesend sections. He was 13, an impressionable age, and was thrilled by the village-like feel of his neighborhood and its many characters. On weekends, he and his cousins would ride the wooden carriages of the elevated Culver line (now the F train) to Coney Island, where they would fish off the rocks for flounder and sea bass.
In Holiday magazine, Miller wrote about his first job delivering bread for the local bakery for $4 a week, rising before the sun and riding his bike down Ocean Parkway, a wide, six-lane boulevard that had its own bridle path, used by people from the riding academy near Prospect Park.
Miller spent $12 of that money on wood to build a back porch onto his family’s house, which did not quite connect to the kitchen. He planted tulips, roses, an apple tree and a pear tree.
The tattered white clapboard and red brick house at 1350 East Third Street still stands, although the back porch is gone. The apple tree fell during a storm many years ago. Miller used it in his 1947 play “All My Sons,” his first hit, as a symbol for the family’s lost son.
His sister, the actress Joan Copeland, 93, visited the house about 10 years ago, around the time Miller died, and was happy to see his pear tree had grown as tall as the house. The building needed a paint job. “But we needed one back then, too,” she said with a laugh in a recent interview.
“It was a happy home,” Ms. Copeland said. “We loved our parents and they loved us.”
Gussie also loved books and would read even when waiting in line in the neighborhood stores.
One of Ms. Copeland’s first memories is of her brothers, Arthur and Kermit, bouncing her between them atop their feet. “They treated me like a little toy,” she recalled.
One time, at Gussie’s urging, Arthur took Joan for a walk in the baby carriage and, inspired by passers-by admiring his beautiful sister, offered to sell her for $3.
Later, Miller would hoist her over the fence at the end of their street to the tennis courts, where he taught her to play, and to a field that he sometimes mowed for 25 cents. The courts and the field are still there, with Washington Cemetery stretching behind them.
The neighborhood, once a mix of Jews, Italians and Irish, is now inhabited mostly by Orthodox Jews. Glatt Kosher delis, hat and wig stores and Moisha’s Supermarket dot Avenue M. The elevated train still rattles by, two blocks away.
At Miller’s house recently, an Orthodox woman answered the door. She said that she remembered Ms. Copeland’s visit, but that Arthur’s pear tree was no longer alive, a victim of Hurricane Sandy. All that was left was a jagged stump.
Nearly three miles away on Ocean Parkway in Brighton Beach stands Miller’s alma mater, Abraham Lincoln High School, built in 1930 and now surrounded by the Belt Parkway and towering Trump Village. Lincoln’s imposing classical facade has not changed much; inside, marble floors, walls and giant W.P.A. murals give it a stately air. Old wooden boards hang in the halls, with honor students’ names painted in gold for each year.
Miller, class of 1932, is conspicuously absent.
Ari Hoogenboom, the principal there now, said the head of the English department, who taught until 1965, would brag that he nearly failed Miller, giving him a 65 because he couldn’t spell.
“Arthur Miller didn’t love Lincoln,” Mr. Hoogenboom acknowledged.
Lincoln, however, loves Miller.
“The Crucible,” a play about the Salem witch trials, widely seen as an allegory of McCarthy-era paranoia, and “A View from the Bridge” are required reading, and teachers make sure students know not only Miller, but also the novelist Joseph Heller, the Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg and the singer Neil Diamond, other famous alumni.
Miller kept a low profile at Lincoln. He didn’t write for its newspaper, The Lincoln Log. Beneath his yearbook photo he wrote that he would attend Stanford University, though his grades were not good enough. The entry also said he was in the French Club, was on the swim team and, like Biff in “Salesman,” had played football. It was on the school’s football field, now covered in artificial turf, that Miller ripped a ligament in his knee, which kept him out of World War II.
There are 2,200 students at the school now. In the 1930s, there were as many as 7,000, forcing the administration to graduate two classes a year. (Miller got his diploma in January.) It was easy for a student to get lost in such a crowd, said Mr. Hoogenboom, especially during the Great Depression. Miller’s parents did not come to his graduation ceremony.
As the Depression tightened its hold, worries grew in the small white house. Miller’s grandfather moved in and shared a room with him, adding to the tension. Unemployed young men played touch football on the side streets, and suicides were not uncommon in the neighborhood.
Gussie played bridge for money. When the games were raided by the police, she would sweet talk them into letting her go home to cook dinner.
Despite his grades, Miller persuaded the University of Michigan to accept him. Christopher Bigsby, one of his biographers, said Miller found his writer’s voice in Michigan, “though it was growing up in Brooklyn, during the Depression, with suicides on his street, that became a major influence on his work.”
After graduating and marrying his college sweetheart, Mary Slattery, Miller returned to Brooklyn in 1940 and moved in with her and her roommates in a seven-room apartment at 62 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, an impressive Queen-Anne-style building. Built in the 1880s, the 10-story red brick, mortar and terra cotta building near the Promenade is now called the Arlington.
The poet W.H. Auden lived around the corner at 1 Montague Terrace.
“The neighborhood was a haven for artists because it was one of the cheapest places to live in New York,” said Stephen Marino, a professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights and editor of The Arthur Miller Journal, which celebrates his life and work. Back then, there was no Brooklyn-Queens Expressway separating Brooklyn Heights from the East River. Steps ran down a hill to the waterfront.
It was here that Miller began writing his first Broadway play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck” (it closed after four performances in 1944), as well as his first radio plays, including his first broadcast, “Joe, the Motorman,” about a desperate subway driver who rides all day between Coney Island and Manhattan.
Over the next decade and a half, the Millers moved four times, each place just blocks from the last. Dr. Marino attributes this to Miller’s state of mind. “He was unsettled,” he said. “He was still finding himself as a person.”
In 1941, the couple moved to 18 Schermerhorn Street, one of the first single-family homes in the Heights to be converted into apartments. The newly remodeled flat ran through the whole floor and was spacious. From his “quiet, leafy village,” Miller watched the ships come and go in the harbor and observed the neighborhood diversity: Muslims ate in the garden behind his apartment, Mohawk Indians lived a few blocks away, working to build Manhattan’s skyscrapers and bridges.
Though he was writing radio plays, Miller worked nights at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for nearly two years, repairing ships.
During World War II, the Navy Yard was a center of America’s industrial might. It was a chaotic, clanking world of cobblestone streets crammed with 70,000 men — and women — pushing through its turnstiles with tin lunchboxes and thermoses, clocking in and out 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were belching smokestacks, dry docks filled with damaged battleships and aircraft carriers, and the New York skyline and Williamsburg Bridge in the distance.
Based on his time there, Miller wrote a short story in 1966, “Fitter’s Night,” about a man whose goal is to avoid work in the busy yard, but who ends up being a hero.
“The shipfitter’s helper,” Miller wrote, “the burner, the chipper, the welder, painters, carpenters, riggers, drillers, electricians — hundreds of them might spend the first hour of each shift asking one stranger after another where he was supposed to report.”
“Someone must know what was supposed to be happening,” Miller wrote, “if only because damaged ships did limp in under tow from the various oceans and after days, weeks, or sometimes months they did sail out under Brooklyn Bridge, ready once again to fight the enemy.”
These days, the Navy Yard is an industrial park, with artisans and manufacturers occupying the original buildings. Though it is not nearly as crowded, Miller would recognize its warehouses and dry docks.
In 1944, he moved to a wood-paneled duplex at 102 Pierrepont Street, owned, coincidentally, by Norman Mailer’s parents. Whenever he was home from war, Mailer lived upstairs. One day, Mailer approached Miller and said he had seen “All My Sons.” The play, his first Broadway hit, was about a factory owner accused of making faulty parts for wartime planes. “I could write a play like that,” Mailer bragged. Miller just laughed.
After some financial success with the play, Miller, by then the father of two children, Jane and Robert, bought a four-story brownstone at 31 Grace Court in 1947. The Millers rented out the bottom two floors to the president of the Brooklyn Savings Bank.
“Death of a Salesman,” which traces the last day in the failed life of an aging, regretful man, was conceived and finished on Grace Court, though the first draft was written in the family’s new country house in Roxbury, Conn., in a studio Miller built himself.
While living on Grace Court, Miller took long walks over the Brooklyn Bridge and under it, to the working docks where he noticed graffiti that said, “Dove Pete Panto,” Italian for “Where Is Pete Panto?”
“It was down near the piers that this mysterious question covered every surface,” he wrote in “Timebends,” adding, “it was not hard to guess that it was still more evidence of the other world that existed at the foot of peaceful, old-fashioned Brooklyn Heights, the sinister waterfront world of gangster-ridden unions, assassinations, beatings, bodies thrown into the lovely bay at night.”
Mr. Panto had been battling the International Longshoremen’s Association, and disappeared, his body eventually turning up in New Jersey. Miller read about Mr. Panto’s case in the press and tried talking to the longies, or longshoremen, on Columbia Street in Red Hook to write a screenplay.
“He tried asking questions but people thought he was a company spy or some kind of cop,” Nathan Ward, author of “Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront.” said in an interview this month.
With help from a local lawyer, Vincent Longhi, Miller got to know some of the longshoremen, visiting their watering holes and eventually their apartments. The only longie bars still standing are Montero, on Atlantic Avenue, and Sunny’s, on Conover Street. The bordello, the red building that some sailors would visit as soon as they stepped off their ships, still stands at the foot of DeGraw Street, not far from the cranes and modern, containerized port and marine terminals.
Back then, foremen would organize the shape-ups near each pier and choose who would work that day. America ended, Miller wrote, on Columbia Street.
“There were certain clothing stores and barbershops, even places to buy grapes for winemaking, even if you weren’t making wine, where you were ‘encouraged’ to go by the union,” said Mr. Ward, describing the union’s power over the workers.
Before Mr. Longhi died in 2006, he told Mr. Ward about a trip to southern Italy he and Miller took in 1948. Mr. Longhi told Miller about the two illegal immigrants who became characters in “A View From the Bridge,” the story of a longshoreman’s taboo love for his niece. Mr. Longhi himself was the model for the narrator in the play.
From his waterfront research, Miller wrote “The Hook,” a screenplay based on Mr. Panto’s life, which he pitched in Hollywood with Elia Kazan in 1951. The screenplay was never produced, but he met Marilyn Monroe on that trip west.
That same year, Miller, tired of being a landlord, sold the Grace Court house to W.E.B. Dubois. He moved with his family to their final home together at 155 Willow Street, a Federal-style, red brick house two blocks from where Truman Capote would soon live.
Among the oldest in the neighborhood, the house was built in the 1820s. In his top-floor office, Miller wrote “The Crucible” and an early version of “A View From the Bridge.” Trying to be a good husband, and guilty about his feelings for Monroe, Miller installed kitchen cabinets and a tile floor in the hallway.
According to Miller, the marriage was already floundering when he met Monroe. He moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan in 1955, where he spent time in a West Side brownstone and in Monroe’s Waldorf Tower apartment. They eventually moved to a house in Roxbury.
In the spring of 1956, he briefly took up residence in Nevada, divorced his wife and promptly married Monroe. Their marriage lasted five turbulent years, during which he wrote the screenplay for the film “The Misfits” for her.
Miller remained close to his children, who continued to live on Willow Street with their mother.
After he married Monroe, Miller took her to meet his parents in the house where he had grown up. His sister remembers the neighborhood children climbing on one another’s shoulders to peek through the windows for a look.
“My mother would open the window and yell at them to go away,” Ms. Copeland said.
The Willow Street house is still owned by the family who bought it in 1982 from Miller’s first wife, who moved to nearby Monroe Place. On a recent visit, the owner offered a tour of the first floor, with its graceful archway in the entrance hall, and its black marble fireplaces in both the living room and dining room. The house, with its maid’s quarters and strip kitchen, had undergone a major renovation.
Though Miller moved out of New York and lived in Roxbury for the rest of his life, his work and characters still have that accent that can be found only in Brooklyn, along with particulars of the borough: the Brooklyn Paramount, the bowling alley on Flatbush Avenue, St. Agnes Church and Red Hook, “the gullet of New York.”
The actor Brian Dennehy first met Miller in Brooklyn in 1988 while performing in a production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Miller’s daughter Rebecca (the child from his third marriage, to the photographer Inge Morath).
Miller and Mr. Dennehy, who played Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” a decade later, hung out in bars together, though Miller wasn’t a heavy drinker. “He was a very serious man,” Mr. Dennehy said. But he loved to laugh and tell stories, and he told them “in a real Brooklyn accent,” Mr. Dennehy recalled, noting: “It was a very sophisticated version of the accent. He used big words. But the accent was still there.”
Gregory Mosher, who directed a Broadway production of “A View From the Bridge” starring Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson five years ago and is the director of the centennial reading on Monday, said that when we see Brooklyn, we see Miller.
“Brooklyn is Miller’s waterfront, or the Loman house being dwarfed by new buildings, and that little garden he’s planting,” Mr. Mosher said. “He made us see a place differently, and that’s a trick not many artists can pull off.”