November 20, 2013
Fragments of Marilyn
Plenty has been written about Marilyn Monroe, and yet, she still remains something of a mystery. She had a spectacular and sad life. She was treated like a dumb blonde and she played into that image at times. She also wanted to be considered a serious actress. She wrote poetry and journals that never appeared during her lifetime and that, perhaps, she never wanted to appear. She married a high profile baseball legend, Joe Dimaggio, that only turned the wattage on the spotlight even brighter. Then she married an intellectual playwright, Arthur Miller, who must have been attractive for very different reasons.
A few years ago, I bought a collection of her own writing—diaries, poems, and letters— titled Fragments.
It is fragments. Never meant to be a book. It shows many of the scars of her sexual abuse, psychotherapy, betrayals, her fears of madness in her genes, and someone who wanted to really master her art.
Marilyn also wrote (or had ghostwritten by Ben Hecht) an autobiography called My Story when her career was peaking, but it was not published until over a decade after her death. In the book she describes herself as "the kind of girl they found dead in the hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand."
There are a number of photos online of Marilyn reading. A few seem candid. Some seem staged, as if trying to promote that other Marilyn.
A famous one is by Eve Arnold showing her reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her reading and looking casual curled on her sofa in front of her real personal library. Another photograph shows her reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.
The book of her fragments shows that she was serious about writing and that poetry was a way she tried to understand herself and her very strange place in the world.
Her marriage to MIller, like all her marriages and relationships with men, went bad and he was a real betrayal for her. But when her love for him was new, she wrote a poem imagining him as a young boy.
my love sleeps besides me—
in the faint light—I see his manly jaw
give way—and the mouth of his
with a softness softer
its sensitiveness trembling
his eyes must have look out
wonderously from the cave of the little
boy—when the things he did not understand—
but will he look like this when he is dead
oh unbearable fact inevitable
yet sooner would I rather his love die
I don't put the poem forward to say she was an important poet. She wrote, as many of us do, because we feel we must write, even if the audience for our poems is small or non-existent. The poem would not seem out of place at a workshop or open reading or coming from one of my students.
My own boyhood crush on Marilyn the movie star turned in a very different direction when she died the summer of 1962 at age 36. I heard terrible stories about her - the difficult and spoiled diva, drugs and affairs with the Kennedys. When I was a teenager, I read her autobiography and read about her life and each new sad revelation made me feel sorry for her.
I know that she probably didn't want pity, but I definitely went through a phase when I fantasized being the man that might have really understood her - and saved her.
"Goodbye Norma Jean, you lived your life like a candle in the wind," sings Elton John and I'm sure that my fantasy and his were not so far apart. "I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid. Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
Elton John's lyric sums up pretty well the short arc of her career that didn't really end very far from where it started in the eyes of the press and public.
Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
Even when you died
Oh, the press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude
Reading her personal writing again this past weekend reminds me of why we write and what writing can do, and not do, to help us deal with our lives and those lives that are tied to us.