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Vol. LXV, No. 2
Happy New Year!
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
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Book Review

Into 2011: Marilyn Monroe in Grief and Glory, Speaking Low

Stuart Mitchner

New Year’s Eve and I’ve got a bad head cold. Thus no party, no champagne in the house. Who cares, I’ve got a date with a beautiful woman. But first I turn on the TV to Turner Classic Movies and a Marx Brothers marathon. Animal Crackers, one of their best, has just begun. After the big “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” number, Chico and Harpo (“the Professor”) arrive, each announced in turn by Hollywood’s favorite portly butler, Robert Grieg. When a black-caped, black-top-hatted Harpo saunters forth sporting his customary psychotic leer, a cigarette in his mouth, Groucho wisecracks as only Groucho can, “The gate swung open and a fig newton entered!” After Harpo does his cigarette routine, pushing tiny perfect bubbles of smoke through his lips, including a chocolate one when Groucho dares him, he hands his cloak to the butler, which sends the women screaming out of the room because the Professor is clad in nothing but the top hat, a sleeveless undershirt and some shorts. Spotting Captain Spaulding’s gun rack, Harpo grabs a pistol and starts shooting, hits himself in the foot, hops briefly about, removes a rifle from the rack, takes aim, and shoots the swinging pendulum on a clock to a standstill, then takes two shots at a singing canary in a cage (a squawk suggests that the second shot found its mark), shoots the plumed hats off two women as they scurry past, shoots a bottle off the butler’s tray, shoots at a statue of two wrestlers who come to life, whip out pistols, and fire back. Unfazed, Harpo exits the scene chasing a girl.

Enter Marilyn

Cheered by Harpo’s antics, I’m ready for my New Year’s date. For a vicarious head-cold night on the town, I’d thought about luminaries from Garbo to Dietrich, Harlow to Hayworth, Madonna to Lady Gaga, but the one star I can imagine outshining the occasion is Marilyn Monroe as she was the night she wowed a full house at JFK’s Madison Square Garden birthday party, a shyly sexy champagne and silver lamé goddess of celebration singing “Happy Birthday” to the Commander-in-Chief in that fabulous glowing dream of an evening gown.

My choice for the perfect New Year’s Eve double feature would be The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). In the earlier film she’s charmingly tipsy and formidably lovely sipping champagne with actor/director Laurence Olivier’s Grand Duke Charles of Carpathia. Henry James himself might have admired how spiritedly she deals with the Grand Duke, an American beauty doing the Old World: she’s intelligent, witty, wholly unaffected, yet brilliantly funny, and in the drunk scenes, you can see her relaxing into the euphoria of her genius, a delighted and delightful spirit. During the filming of Some Like It Hot she was hours late and sometimes required as many as 40 takes to get a simple line right, but on the screen all that matters is that her warmth, beauty, sensuality, and humanity come through and give director Billy Wilder’s romp some much-needed heart.

Getting to Know Her

Of course what makes Marilyn Monroe great and greatly loved almost 50 years after her death has as much to do with grief as with glory. The night she graced the president’s birthday spectacle was May 29, 1962. A little over two months later, she was dead. For all that’s been written about her (even her dog gets into the act), nothing is likely to bring you as close to her as a new book called Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe (Farrar Straus and Giroux $30). Edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, it’s a handsomely and thoughtfully illustrated volume, in which almost all the photos show the actress reading books or else enjoying the presence of writers — dancing with Truman Capote, having fun with Carl Sandburg (if not with her husband, Arthur Miller), communing with Isak Dinesen, Carson McCullers, and Edith Sitwell. We see her fetchingly absorbed in everything from the poems of Heine to James Joyce’s Ulysses, but the most important feature of Fragments is the abundance of intimate, first-hand material in Marilyn’s own hand. Too bad Andrew O’Hagan wasn’t able to peruse it while he was writing The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $24). According to Robin Romm’s piece in last Sunday’s N.Y. Times Book Review, we learn more about the dog’s mind than its owner’s, for in spite of all of O’Hagan’s research, “the particular workings of Marilyn’s thoughts, dreams and fears — and all they’d tell us about her fabled life and mysterious death — remain as elusive as ever.”

The unstructured, uninhibited persona randomly taking shape in Fragments offers some significant insights into that “fabled life” while providing nothing to bolster the theory that she was murdered. The facts are hard and cold: the fatherless childhood, mentally ill mother, suicide attempts, insomnia, miscarriages, involuntary commitment, and then death, at 36, alone.

Life Force

Handwriting experts would have a field day with the facsimiles of Marilyn’s scrawled notes, some printed, some cursive, in Fragments (not to mention palm readers who can study a close-up of her open hand taken in 1946). Her jottings sometimes explode in irregular formations, literally all over the place, making the typed “translations” a maze of lines and arrows. In one notebook from around 1951, the 25-year-old, still-unknown actress and part-time student at UCLA writes on top of the first page, in big cursive letters, “Alone!!!!! I am alone, I am always alone no matter what.” After quoting FDR on the same page (“There is nothing to fear but fear itself”), she writes, in ink, “I believe in myself/even my most delicate/intangible feelings/in the end everything is intangible/my most precious liquid must/never spill/life force/ they are all my feelings/no matter what “ — then, in pencil: “My feeling doesn’t/happen to swell/into words.” Those spontaneous phrases have resonance, especially “life force,” given what she became and what she remains in the American imagination, and, again, though the next two pages contain notes specific to acting, certain words and phrases stand out: “the feeling only,” “body only,” “letting go — face feeling/mind,” “no attitude/listening to the body” [emphasis mine], “listen with the eyes/buoyancy/Tension/loose — having no brakes/letting go of everything.”

The closing pages of the 1951 journal offer a glimpse of Marilyn as a passenger catching a Greyhound in Monterey. After mentioning a group of Italian fishermen headed downstate (“warm, lusty, and friendly as hell”), she refers to “damn near breaking” her back “trying not to sleep all over the filipino boy” (“he smelled good like/flowers”). Changing seats, she lands in the same situation, a girl in her mid-twenties, an unknown, just another passenger riding on a crowded bus with “small and crowded” seats, the girl next to her (“younger than I with a kid about five”): “I slept all over the kid next to me and the kid slept all over me.” This last passage is one of the few that she crossed out, which seems odd. But given the way the notebook begins, with that exclamatory “Alone,” how right somehow that it ends with her sleeping “all over” strangers and they “all over” her on a crowded bus.

Becoming Nell

The only film meaningfully referenced in Fragments is Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in which Marilyn plays Nell, a seriously disturbed girl fresh from an asylum with scars on her wrists from a suicide attempt. The first time I saw this movie I didn’t recognize the plainly dressed person with no makeup, her hair tied back. In a typed letter Marilyn wrote to her psychiatrist about her confinement in a locked ward at the Payne-Whitney clinic in February 1961, she describes how she drew attention to the injustice of her plight: “I got the idea from a movie I made once called Don’t Bother to Knock. I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it … against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass. So I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in.” The fact that she keeps a piece of the broken glass hidden in her hand is a deliberate reprise of what Nell does with a razor in the last scene of Don’t Bother to Knock. In the letter, Marilyn makes sure to emphasize the fact that it was all an act and that she would “never intentionally mark or mar” herself.

Daryl F. Zanuck’s response to Monroe’s brave, scarily revealing performance as Nell tells you all you need to know about her situation at 20th Century Fox: “She’s a dumb tomato and half-crazy to boot. She’s a sex pot who wiggles and walks and breathes sex, and each picture she’s in she’ll earn her keep, but no more dramatic roles.”

Fox did its best to put a sexual spin on this unlikely work. The posters for Don’t Bother to Knock show her bulging out of a strapless evening gown never seen in the film and the sales line is “She’s Dynamite! A wicked sensation as the lonely girl in Room 809.” What redeems this vulgarization is that Marilyn Monroe so beautifully transcended it to become what she became, the legend, the icon, the bright star shining on and on, year after year.

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