THE FAME LUNCHES
This is a story about sadness, writing, the promise of fame, my mother, and, oh yes. Woody Allen. Marilyn Monroe figures in it, too—as someone I’ve thought about enough to try and rescue from her own sadness, after the fact, in the form of writing about her—and somewhere over in the corner is Richard Burton, with his blazing light eyes and thrown-away gifts, whom I’ve also written about in a redemptive fashion. Elvis never spoke much to me—too Southern, too baroque—but if he had, you can be sure I’d have tried to save him, too. What this really is, then, is a story—its roots go back to adolescent fantasy, but it lingers with me even now—about trying to save myself through saving wounded icons. Famous people, in other words, but not just any famous people. These were fragile sorts who required my intervention on their behalf because only I understood the desolation that drove them. I imagined having long, intimate lunches with them, in which we shared ancient sorrows. These occasions would end on a tentative note of self-celebration that was all the more consoling for being so fleeting.
It begins, I guess, with my mother, because it begins with my sense of not having been loved—or, to put it more precisely, responded to in a way that felt like love—as a child. This sense of emotional deprivation, of not having gotten what you needed when you should have, is a deeply subjective feeling. It’s hard to prove, in any event, lacking any concrete evidence except your own impassioned testimony, which is why this conviction elicits its share of eye-rolling impatience from people who believe that this kind of retrospective interpretation is a self-indulgent, fairly recent phenomenon, brought on by too much therapy or too much navel-gazing. Still, it seems to me to be a feeling a lot of people share, and I think it has to be given its due, even if only as a negative trope—a context of origins that explains all later failures or shortfalls. It can lead to radically different outcomes; you can become a serial killer, or you can become an artist. Jeffrey Dahmer or Kurt Cobain. (Interesting, though, how both of them came to violent ends.) Most people, of course, land somewhere in the middle: they try to arrange themselves around this perceived loss and go on from there, hoping they’ll do it better with their own kids or that they’ll find what they need with a lover or spouse, the dream of grown-up romance covering over the scars of childhood.
What it led to in my case was an imaginary life as a serial killer and an ongoing real life as someone who was afraid of (not to mention furious at) her parents but who sought refuge in writing—who kept trying to establish herself, firmly and concretely in her own mind, as a writer. (It’s hard to think of yourself as a professional writer: I still think of it as something I do on the side, even though by now I make something approaching a living at it. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that there’s nowhere to go in the morning when you’re a writer, even if you have an office, except inside your own head.) As for the serial killer business, what I mean by this is not that I was furtively luring people into my home, there to chop them up, and then sprinkling their remains with Chanel No. 5 so no one would suspect anything because of the unspeakably foul odor emanating from my apartment. It was a far more mediated kind of thing, in which for a rather sustained period during my twenties, I continually aired the possibility of killing my parents on my then therapist, a gifted guy with a red beard. He tried to defuse my very evident distress by giving me every antidepressant known to man—this was before the age of Prozac—and he also used to suggest, only half humorously, that I walk up and down in front of my parents’ apartment building with a placard saying, “Merkins unfair to children,” as though I were an underpaid worker on strike.
I read a lot of books about serial murderers, to help fuel my wavering but quite genuine parricidal impulse and out of a sense of identification with their rage. One, called The Shoemaker, about a father-son homicidal duo, stuck out in my head, because of the atrocity of the details, which included the use of a hammer to keep the family in line. But I also wanted to figure out whether any good could possibly come out of this course of action, beyond an extended prison sentence. Perhaps, I mused, I’d grow strong and well in my little cell, away from the impositions of everyone I had known in my past life … It was in this light that I envisioned myself becoming a sort of Birdwoman of Alcatraz, an expert on the mating patterns of the hummingbird. What I really wanted to know, though, was whether my shrink would appear in court in my defense, the better to explain to the stony-faced jurors that I had been mistreated from birth and hence was simply exacting my due.
The shrink in question died abruptly, of a recurrent illness, but to cut to the chase—which is a phrase a friend of mine always uses whenever I go on in my loop-the-loop way, in which one dangling thought leads to another—what I think I’m saying is that I was a desperate character from way back. Even when I was younger and thinner than I am now, I was desperate, although it’s hard for me to imagine from my present vantage point how I could have been desperate then, when I was so young and thin. But I was, and one of the ways I tried to rescue myself from my own sense of desperation, aside from musing about murdering my mother and father, was to imagine that other people—not just any other people, but people who took up space in the public imagination—were as desperate for validation as I appeared to be. I was a nobody, but it seemed to me that even somebodies—somebodies who hadn’t been loved enough in the cradle, that is—felt themselves to be misunderstood nobodies, deep down. I knew this in my bones, just as I knew that I had never liked that famous poem by Emily Dickinson, the one where she trills in her mysterious hide-and-seek voice:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
The woman had it all wrong, but what would she know, stuck in those New England snowdrifts all by herself? The trick was to get out of being a nobody by harnessing yourself to a somebody who was, deep down, a nobody, too. The trick was to give status to your own woundedness.
So I went and wrote a letter to Woody Allen one day in my early twenties. The early, achingly funny, pre-scandalous Woody Allen. After watching Take the Money and Run and Bananas and reading Getting Even, I had fixed on him as my alter ego, somebody who dared to take up space even as he pretended he wasn’t taking up any. He was the perfect non-celebrity for a non-groupie like me. It wasn’t a letter, really; it was a poem, one that I had written in a college writing class. It was, I suppose, a fairly interesting poem as far as such things go, but what I remember about it are the last two lines. “You are my funny man,” I wrote. “You know you can be sad with me.” There it was: I was a nobody who understood the hidden torment of a great comic mind.
What can I say? The hook took. He wrote me back, complimenting me on my poem and pointing out that if you X-rayed his heart, it would come out black. I had been right all along, it seemed. Desolation Row. I rushed in to show the letter to my mother. I shared everything with her, even my plans to kill her. Now, finally, she would realize who I was, hiding my light under a bushel all these years, this savant whom she mistook for an ordinary girl, one of three daughters. Now she’d see: I was me, which was to say I was more than me. I was the wounded icon by proxy.
Time passed. I went from publishing movie reviews in the Barnard newspaper to publishing book reviews in various places, such as Commentary and The New Republic, the sorts of magazines where you had to disguise your heart under your brain, where the price of entry was that you sounded as if you had always thought in polished sentences and never, ever sounded as if you were the kind of person who stood in your kitchen staring at the knife in your hand, wondering if you should use it on yourself. I was living near Columbia, on 106th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, no less desperate than I had been when I was living at home, on Park Avenue, when I got a fan letter in the mail. It was the late 1970s, the period of elaborately plebeian stationery. Woody Allen, his name printed in bold red type at the top of a brown sheet of paper that looked as if it were meant to wrap an egg-salad sandwich, had written to tell me that he liked a book piece of mine in The New Republic, about another wounded creature, the writer Jane Bowles. He added that he wondered why I was wasting my talent on book reviews, and I answered, rather primly, that I considered book reviewing to be an art form and well worth my while.
I did, and I still do, but I knew what he meant. Dare to take up space. He wrote me back and I wrote him again, assuming a correspondence was now in swing, and he replied, not unpromptly. There were promises of getting together for drinks that were always put off, and he continued to send encouraging messages about my writing, but I suppose he never knew what I really wanted from him. I mean, I couldn’t come right out and say save me. I must have come close enough, though, because once there was a phone call from his secretary, offering me the name of a psychiatrist. His psychiatrist, I think it was. But what use was that to me? I had seen virtually every psychiatrist of any repute in New York City, almost as many as I gathered he had. They always threw you back on yourself, when what I wanted was for someone to come and knock on my door and say, “You, Daphne Merkin, are hereby invited to lean your head on my shoulder for ever and ever. You are small and wounded, and I am large and wounded, and together we will create an invulnerable universe.” Or something like that. Needless to say, it never happened.
I did finally get to have a drink with Woody Allen. It came years later, after I had written a novel, gotten married, become a mother, gotten divorced, done many of the things that are supposed to make you realize life is not particularly amenable to gratifying the wishes of the unhappy child you once were but that there are substitute gratifications to be found. The two of us had never completely lost touch, although there was a long barren period after he had returned one of my more inchoately miserable letters, filled—in those long-ago Smith-Corona days—with x-ed-out typos and splashes of Wite-Out. He had gone and scrawled across it: “I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do … If there’s any way I can help you, please let me know.”
I guess we were able to meet on slightly more poised footing after I became a movie critic for The New Yorker, alternating a weekly column with Anthony Lane. We had one drink and then another and then lunches every so often. I can’t say it’s changed my life, or even that it’s changed my habit of coming late to everything, although I wish it had. I’m still a desperate character; I’m probably destined to be one until a ripe old age. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago—four or five months ago, to be exact—that I leaned over the table in the fancy Upper East Side restaurant where we were having lunch and told Woody that under my sprightly patter and carefully applied makeup I was feeling depressed. How depressed? he immediately wanted to know. Quite depressed, I said. Did I have trouble getting up in the morning? Lots, I answered. Did I ever stay in bed all day? No, I said, but it was often noon before I got out of my nightgown. But of course I continued to write, he said. I answered that I hadn’t written a word in weeks. He looked quite serious and then gently asked me if I had ever thought about trying shock therapy. Shock therapy? Yes, he said, he knew a friend—a famous friend—for whom it had been quite helpful. Maybe I should try it.
Sure, I said. Thanks. I don’t know what I had been hoping for—some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not go get yourself hooked up to electrodes, baby—but I was slightly stunned. More than slightly. I understood that he was trying to be helpful in his way, but it fell so far short. We shook hands on Madison Avenue and then gave each other a polite peck, as we always did. It was sunny and cool as I made my way home, looking in at the windows full of bright summer dresses. Shock therapy? It wasn’t as though I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who had benefited from it. Still, how on earth did he conceive of me? As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare grayly into space? Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods? Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa.
It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you. People didn’t stop and cluck over the damage done unless you made it worth their while. Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business. Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge, than I cared to admit. Now, that was a refreshing possibility.
Sometimes I think we respond to Marilyn Monroe as strongly as we do not because of her beauty or her body but because of her desperation, which was implacable in the face of fame, fortune, and the love of celebrated men. Every few years, she comes around again, the subject of yet another revelatory book (there are more than a hundred to date) or of a newly discovered series of photographs. Her films continue to be watched and reassessed, her image pilfered by everyone from Madonna to Monica Lewinsky. We will never have enough of Monroe, in part because there is never sufficient explanation for the commotions of her soul, and in part because we will never tire of hearing about the native sadness behind the construction of glamour. The damaged creature behind the pinup, the neglected foster child who became a blond vision in sequins: her story has entered the realm of myth. Its unhappy ending makes her less the exemplary heroine of a fairy tale than its cautionary victim—a glittery example of female entrapment in the male star-making machinery.
Monroe was, of course, the wiggling embodiment of male fantasies at their most pubescent, all boobs and bottom and wet-lipped receptivity. At the same time, there was something wholesome and aboveboard about her image that invited mental pawing without eliciting accompanying feelings of shame. It’s this unsoiled quality that made her a favorite of American troops stationed in Korea and enabled Norman Mailer to describe her as “the sweet angel of sex” in the opening lines of Marilyn, a biography in the form of a sustained masturbatory reverie. And yet, as we well know, she was regarded as a troublesome type, both personally and professionally—the sort of woman who would slip away to consort with her demons as soon as you turned your back, and who wasn’t worth the high maintenance she required.
Monroe’s short, spectacular time on this planet—she died on August 5, 1962, at the age of thirty-six, presumably by her own hand—has prompted greater and more literary examination than, say, the life of Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard. Along with Mailer, the snobbish Diana Trilling weighed in twice (once with a review of Gloria Steinem’s book about the star); Roger Kahn, the author of The Boys of Summer, wrote a book about Joe DiMaggio’s ten-year relationship with Monroe; she has inspired a rarefied academic volume, with footnotes from Foucault and Baudrillard, titled American Monroe: The Making of a Body Politic; and she made more than a passing dent on Saul Bellow, who, in a Playboy interview in 1997, described the actress as having “a kind of curious incandescence under the skin.” (This is not to overlook the endless words contributed by those who had access to her, including her half sister, her personal maids, and former lovers such as Yves Montand.)
Monroe has been treated by writers like an anthropological find, a sort of Truffautian wild child. The tragic circumstances of her death help to account for this fascination, as does the evidence of her quick wit, which always endears populist icons to the intelligentsia. There is, too, the fact of her seeming to be intriguingly unauthored—a multilayered personality in search of a coherent self. She was constantly looking for guidance, whether from dead eminences, such as Dostoyevsky, Yeats, and Marx, or from real-life gurus, who included Lee Strasberg, the director of the Actors Studio, and her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson. One can’t ignore a certain mutual-admiration aspect in this, either: Monroe was one of the few babes to be drawn to brainy men, specifically writers. When she was put in Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic for four days in 1961, she was reading Freud’s letters (she had already read Ernest Jones’s biography of him), and she herself was a fluid letter writer who was given to jotting little notes to herself about her mental state. It’s hard to imagine whom she might have taken up with if she had lived for any length of time beyond her failed marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller, but you can be sure it wouldn’t have been Eddie Fisher.
The mysteries surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s life are many, beginning with the question of who her father was and ending with the disputed events of her death. The central enigma, however, is whether she was an innocent victim or a calculating user. Was she made of fluff or of steel? Two recent additions to the Monroe canon infuse new life into the hydra-headed genre of biography and conspiracy theory that arises around doomed ur-figures such as Monroe and her most famous lover, Jack Kennedy. Barbara Leaming’s biography, Marilyn Monroe, takes a more ambivalent approach to its subject than does The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, Donald H. Wolfe’s account of the forces that plotted to do Monroe in. Leaming, who has written biographies of Orson Welles and Katharine Hepburn, portrays a woman who both resisted and exploited her own commodification. Her Marilyn is less a sweetheart than a manipulator—someone who is concerned with the effect of her actions on her public image rather than with the personal fallout from those actions. “Though Marilyn had initiated the divorce,” Leaming writes of Monroe’s decision to leave DiMaggio, her second husband, “she must appear to be as devastated as Joe.” She goes on to detail the cunning scenario that Monroe orchestrated, together with her attorney, for the benefit of journalists waiting outside her house after she served the divorce papers: the actress, holding a pair of white gloves in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, “seemed disoriented as flashbulbs exploded en masse,” “appeared to feel faint,” and “seemed on the verge of collapse.”
Leaming provides a glimpse of Monroe’s emotionally impoverished childhood, allotting it eight pages of a 464-page book; although she throws the reader a bunch of social-workerish clichés, conceding that Monroe was a “sad, lonely little girl” filled with a feeling of “utter worthlessness,” she is less interested in probing the vicissitudes that shaped Monroe’s development than in condemning its outcome. The “poor, abused child” rapidly becomes a coy, shrewd young woman with a full-blown exhibitionist complex: “She was willing to pose in any and all circumstances.” Leaming writes that the adult Monroe “affected a quality that Joe Mankiewicz once described as her ‘pasted-on innocence’” and censoriously notes that Monroe’s unhappy early years were immediately enlisted as material for her ongoing press campaign: “In interview after interview, Marilyn portrayed herself as a courageous little orphan girl, a sort of modern-day Cinderella, whose childhood has been spent being passed from one foster home to another.”
But, in truth, it had, hadn’t it? Leaming seems to suffer from a reflexively adverse reaction to her subject’s story that afflicts some of the writers attracted to Monroe. It’s as if the insistent neediness jangling beneath the surface of the actress’s allure were too threatening to contemplate, except from a safe and slightly supercilious distance. Interestingly, it is Wolfe’s account, concerned though it is with the logistical minutiae surrounding Monroe’s death, that delivers the more complex picture of the lost little girl who became, as Nunnally Johnson, the screenwriter for How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), called her, “a lost lady.”
Monroe was born and died in California, that state beloved of dreamers and drifters—people like Maria Wyeth, in Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, who are not “prepared to take the long view.” Monroe’s plight was in essence that of misplacement: an absence of the locating vectors of identity. She started as an illegitimate child without a real home, in Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles, and she ended up alone with her telephone in a newly acquired, barely furnished stucco bungalow on a secluded cul-de-sac in Brentwood. The specter of mental illness haunted Monroe throughout her life: both her maternal grandparents died in mental hospitals, and her mother, Gladys, who suffered from intermittent psychotic episodes, was in and out of state institutions from the time her daughter was very young. Her father was listed as Edward Mortenson, address unknown, but her actual father appears to have been a man named Stan Gifford, whom Monroe tried repeatedly over the years to make contact with, and was always rebuffed.
Within two weeks of her birth in a charity ward, the infant called Norma Jeane Baker was farmed out to a foster family. She spent the longest period—seven years—with Albert and Ida Bolender, a devout couple who boarded children to supplement Albert’s income as a postman. Even those who cast a cool eye on the heart-wrenching version of Monroe’s beginnings—as does Donald Spoto, whose 1993 biography of Monroe is exhaustively researched—concede that the atmosphere of the Bolender household was austere. Standards of discipline were high, the movies were never mentioned, and God hogged the spotlight. Norma Jeane’s mother contrived to set up a home of her own when her daughter was seven; she rented the upstairs to the Kinnells, a British couple who worked in film. As Wolfe tells it, the adult Monroe recalled—first in an interview with Ben Hecht and again a few weeks before she died—that she was molested by Mr. Kinnell during this brief period, which ended with Gladys’s being institutionalized again. (Other writers have dismissed or ignored this charge, but I’m inclined to believe it, since this was decades before the dawning of recovered memory syndrome.)
When Norma Jeane was not yet nine, her mother was declared legally incompetent, and Grace McKee, who had become friendly with Gladys when they worked together in a film-cutting laboratory, acted as her guardian. McKee was genuinely fond of her charge and was the first to see star potential in her. But within less than a year she, too, was unable to look after Norma Jeane, and so, on September 13, 1935, the quiet, pretty little girl with blue-green eyes entered the Los Angeles Orphans Home. McKee stayed in close touch with her, buying her presents (which she billed to Gladys), rhapsodizing over her appearance, and overseeing the family situations in which an adolescent Norma Jeane would be placed after she left the orphanage. Gladys emerged for occasional visits with her daughter, during which she acted dazed and cold, but Norma Jeane’s most stable companions were her glossy daydreams, in which she envisioned “becoming so beautiful that people would turn to look at me when I passed.”
Monroe herself took a fairly grim view of the forces that propelled her. “Yes, there was something special about me,” she once wrote, “and I knew what it was. I was the kind of girl people expect to find dead in a hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand.” In the event, her scenario proved prescient, but it doesn’t explain Norma Jeane’s rapid and dazzling transformation into “the Monroe.” What, then, does? One might deduce from even a minimal acquaintance with the literature that she was aided by casting couches, by mentors cum lovers (including Johnny Hyde, the William Morris agent; the Twentieth Century Fox executive Joe Schenck; and Spyros Skouras, the CFO of Fox), by cosmetic improvement (she had her nose bobbed and her chin rounded), and by sheer will. Did she sleep her way to the top? The answer seems to be yes and no. She slept with men who could help her, if she happened to like them, and she refused to sleep with men in power—among them Harry Cohn, the lecherous head of Columbia Pictures—whom she disliked. She seems, that is, to have been possessed of a situational sense of integrity. Thus she didn’t agree to marry an ailing Hyde in order to inherit his money, as he suggested she do, not only because she didn’t want to look like a gold digger, but because she wasn’t in love with him.
The truth, of course, is that no matter how you contrive to get yourself noticed, you can’t sleep your way to mass appeal—to making your presence indelibly felt by audiences sitting in the dark. Although Monroe insured her own life for a paltry three thousand dollars, and the jewelry and furs she left behind were worth less than fifteen hundred, her box-office value was in the millions. When she died, a frantic Cohn, whose expedient definition of good movies was “those that make money,” is supposed to have yelled, “Get me another blonde!” (He was served up Kim Novak.)
Monroe’s mutation from what the critic Richard Schickel calls a “pneumatic starlet” to a bulb-popping Movie Star has something of the epiphanous, dream-factory quality that adheres to the Lana Turner story. One minute you’re just another pretty hopeful, sipping soda at a Schwab’s counter, and in the next everyone wants a piece of you. Or as Cherie, the wannabe “chantoose” that Monroe played in Bus Stop (1956), hypothesized with exquisite simplicity, “You get discovered, you get options, and you get treated with a little respect, too.” Except in real life it never quite happens that way; in Monroe’s case, a good deal of energy was expended on trying to convince people that there was a serious contender inside the bimbo curves—a concept that continues to this day to be treated with a creeping note of disdain.
In Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, Schickel refers to “her thin and unsingular autobiography” and argues that “confession was a vital part of her success.” But it was Monroe’s early life that gave a poignant edge to the bombshell trope—that, in effect, made her such a compelling mix of visible assets and invisible deficits. I’m also unconvinced that, especially when viewed in light of today’s tell-all standards, she ever made much use of the confessional mode. She seems, rather, to have had a fairly well-developed sense of privacy. When she was asked to comment on the breakup of her marriage to Miller, she replied, “It would be indelicate of me to discuss this. I feel it would be trespassing.”
What’s clear is that Monroe believed in her rapport with the public more than she believed in her rapport with Hollywood. Indeed, there were always industry people on whom her charms were lost, who never saw her as anything but the trophy girlfriend she played in All About Eve (1950)—“a graduate of the Copacabana School of the Dramatic Arts.” Darryl F. Zanuck, the production chief at Twentieth Century Fox, where Monroe was first signed to a studio contract, referred to her as “a strawhead.” (According to Leaming, Fox dropped her in 1947, a year after she was signed, because Zanuck “thought she was unattractive.”) John Huston, who directed her in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Misfits (1961), observed with his cavalier style of non-endorsement that Monroe “impressed me more off the screen than on”; Donald Spoto notes that although Huston took credit in his autobiography for immediately spotting Monroe’s talent, he had initially rejected her for the role of Angela in The Asphalt Jungle and agreed to cast her only after Louis B. Mayer was impressed by a screen test.
Monroe bonded primarily with the camera; her professional conduct was richly unreliable almost from the start. Chronically late and often so flustered that she stammered her lines when she did show up on the set, she required the constant assistance of drama coaches. (Paula Strasberg was eventually paid a queenly salary of three thousand dollars a week for her services, which generally amounted to no more than nodding or shaking her head after a particular take.) Billy Wilder, who directed the actress in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959), resisted what he termed the “cult” of sanctification that blossomed after her death, grouchily observing, “Marilyn Monroe was never on time, never knew her lines.” But he admitted that “for what you finally got on the screen, she was worth it.” Tony Curtis was less charitable: after suffering through retake after retake in Some Like It Hot, he made the notorious observation that kissing Monroe was like kissing Hitler. But Robert Mitchum, who appeared with Monroe in River of No Return (1954), directed by the bullying Otto Preminger, thought that her problems were rooted in a childlike sense of terror rather than in the narcissistic acting out of an indulged nymphette terrible: “Every time a director yelled ‘Action!’ she’d break out in a sweat … I mean it. She was scared.”
There were those who perceived Monroe’s peekaboo brand of magic early on. Groucho Marx was so taken with her signature, hip-wiggling walk when she came in for an interview at the age of twenty-one that he devised a tiny cameo for her in Love Happy (1950). “She’s Mae West, Theda Bara, and Bo Peep all rolled into one,” he enthused. Until that time, Monroe had uttered two words—“Hi, Rad!”—in a movie called Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! A few months later, she posed nude for a calendar manufacturer, who had seen a Pabst beer poster of her in a one-piece swimsuit. The photographer, Tom Kelley, nestled his entirely self-possessed model against a red velvet backdrop and proceeded to shoot her in dozens of positions. The most famous picture, titled Golden Dreams, reappeared several years later as Playboy’s first centerfold. By 1952, when the Los Angeles Herald Examiner got wind of this indiscretion, the actress who had seemed to be destined for nothing much was dating a baseball great and was receiving two or three thousand fan letters a week. Somewhere between Love Happy and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)—where she gave a subtle, nuanced performance in her first leading role, proving her ability to convey the tug of emotion as well as of sex—the ferocity of Monroe’s ambition overcame the obstacles posed by her insecurities. At least for a time.
The contradictory versions of Monroe’s ascension are matched only by the varied explanations of her free fall into personal chaos and professional disfavor. (She was fired from her last film, which was called, appropriately, Something’s Got to Give.) Depending on whom one is inclined to believe, she was either destined for suicide all along (having made four previous attempts at it) or aided and abetted in her self-destruction by everyone around her. Neither view really satisfies: the former seems too briskly dismissive, the latter too puffy with melodrama. If Monroe were a fictional character, I would conjecture that what killed her was fatigue, brought on by extreme insomnia and a lack of resilience. “Life,” as Samuel Butler once wearily remarked, “is one long process of getting tired,” and in Monroe’s case the process was accelerated. By the end, it took her so long to get going that during the shooting of The Misfits she often had to be made up while she was still lying in bed.
In The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, Wolfe asserts that the actress was the victim of foul play—a “premeditated homicide.” Such conspiracy theories are easy to laugh off, and they’re hard to follow in the richness of their speculations unless one is a buff or a complete obsessive. But, except for the hairiest, visitor-from-Mars variety, they usually have valid issues attached to them, and in the instance of Monroe’s passing there are some curiously dangling threads. These include time-line problems—an unexplained lag of several hours between the moment she died and the moment the police were called, during which period her house might have been ransacked—and several puzzling forensic phenomena, such as a number of bruises on her body and the stunning amount of drugs in her bloodstream, which have been attributed to a “hot shot.”
Wolfe builds on the material that appeared in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1985), a spellbinding saga written by the journalist Anthony Summers, who concludes that Bobby Kennedy showed up at Monroe’s residence on the day she died, though he isn’t finally convinced that any malfeasance occurred. Wolfe adds some crucial interviews, particularly with Jack Clemmons, the first LAPD officer to arrive at the Monroe residence after her internist, Hyman Engelberg, called with the news of her suicide. Wolfe goes further than Summers, yet there’s a steady purposiveness to his account; it feels like honorable work, not the effusions of a crackpot. The pivotal detail for Wolfe and other conspiracists is that Monroe, according to Robert Slatzer, a journalist who claimed to have been briefly married to her, was threatening to hold a press conference in order to rat on Jack and Bobby Kennedy after they dumped her. Whether you credit Slatzer’s version or not (Spoto, for one, doesn’t), the welter of incriminatingly replayed scenes and darkly knowing anecdotes begins to fuse together into a menacing set of possibilities.
Was a frightened Monroe invited to a Lake Tahoe lodge co-owned by Frank Sinatra and the mobster Sam Giancana the weekend before she died, drugged, and sexually assaulted on camera to ensure her silence about the Kennedys? Was she accidentally done in by Ralph Greenson, the overinvested and eerily controlling analyst, who, in an effort to revive her, injected her with adrenaline, accidentally hitting a rib instead of her heart? Or was it Bobby Kennedy’s henchmen, brought in to deal with Monroe and to steal a red journal in which she had jotted down top-secret political information that she was privy to, who offed her? Or perhaps the housekeeper did it—Eunice Murray, a bizarre, loitering character whom Monroe had just given notice to. The amassing of documentation only confuses the reader, and yet, in Monroe’s case, such theories have an emotional logic that goes beyond their literal substance: The Monroe that Wolfe portrays is an unclaimed yet invaluable object that everyone had a proprietary eye on. In the gap between her lack of self-regard and her charismatic dependency on others, there was ample space for the kind of exploitation that could shade imperceptibly into very real danger.
Finally, it’s no accident that in Leaming’s biography Elia Kazan is said to have “called her the gayest girl he had ever known,” while in Wolfe’s book Arthur Miller describes himself as being captivated by “the saddest girl I’ve ever seen.” Monroe was both, and perhaps the greatest tragedy of her life is that the depressive swings in her personality weren’t taken seriously enough—weren’t treated, as the doctors at Payne Whitney apparently thought they should have been, as manifestations of a recurrent bipolar mood disorder. Instead, she was persistently categorized as an upper-middle-class neurotic, whose problems could be solved psychodynamically, with five-times-a-week therapy sessions and with endless tranquilizers and sleeping pills—Nembutal, Amytal, and chloral hydrate, among others. This seems regrettable, especially considering Monroe’s unself-pitying attitude toward depression, which she expressed in a letter to Greenson about a doctor at Payne Whitney: “He asked me how I could possibly work when I was depressed … He actually stated it more than he questioned me, so I replied, ‘Don’t you think that perhaps Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and Ingrid Bergman had been depressed when they worked sometimes?’ It’s like saying a ball player like DiMaggio couldn’t hit a ball when he was depressed. Pretty silly.”
One assumes that both Greenson and Marianne Kris, her New York City analyst, meant well by her; certainly Greenson, who consulted with Anna Freud on how best to deal with Monroe, was available to her by phone in the wee hours of the morning and in person, often at a moment’s notice. But all those who came into Monroe’s presence ended up ceding their boundaries, as if offering more of themselves would make Monroe think more of herself. It didn’t work, didn’t prevent her “night terrors” from taking big chunks out of her. “Last night I was awake all night again,” she wrote to Greenson about a year before she died. “Sometimes I wonder what the nighttime is for. It almost doesn’t exist for me—it all seems like one long, long horrible day.”
Unlike other survivors of difficult childhoods, such as Joan Crawford, Monroe doesn’t seem to have been toughened by experience, and remained intensely vulnerable to loss. (She never got over her breakup with Miller or the two miscarriages she suffered during her marriage to him.) Still, at times she understood herself better than the experts did. In a 1955 note to herself she wrote, “My problem of desperation in my work and life—I must begin to face it continually, making my work routine more continuous, and of more importance than my desperation.” It’s customary to say that Hollywood destroyed Monroe, but in fact she might have been happier if she had been able to embrace her career and comfortably inhabit her stardom, as Elizabeth Taylor did, instead of holding the costume of celebrity at arm’s length and finding it full of holes. In her last interview, with the Life reporter Richard Meryman, she pointed out that fame, like caviar, “wasn’t really for a daily diet, that’s not what fulfills you.”
In the end, Monroe retained the mind-set of a waif, looking for the sort of unconditional embrace from men that only a child comes by naturally, from his or her parents. What she needed was larger than sex, although she continually sought refuge in that easy place: it was a permanent fixing of things gone wrong, an undoing of her history. The stalwart DiMaggio, whom she nicknamed Slugger, loved her with the sort of potato love that might have made her strong if she had been able to take it in—and if he had been able to accept her with all her glamour-puss trappings instead of being enraged by them. “It’s no fun being married to an electric light,” he growled. Yet it strikes me that it was Arthur Miller—who comes off badly in many accounts of Monroe’s life, and emerges least well in Leaming’s biography, where he is painted as a pious, unself-aware careerist—who comprehended the desolation that drove her, the “relief” she sought from what he called her “detached and centerless and invaded life.” Whether or not Miller wrote The Misfits out of a genuine artistic impulse or with an eye to creating a vehicle for his wife that would enhance his dwindling reputation, the role of Roslyn captures the bleakness that yawned beneath the lush persona, spreading emptiness. “The trouble is,” Monroe says at the start of the movie to a sympathetic Thelma Ritter, “I always end up back where I started. I never had anybody much.”
I can see why Monroe’s genius—at least as far as men are concerned—is said to reside in stills, where she doesn’t appear anxious and promises the kind of sexual fulfillment you don’t need to buy but have only to ask for. She has also been widely acclaimed for her deft touch as a comedienne, in films like The Seven Year Itch and How to Marry a Millionaire. And there is indeed something innately humorous about the cognitive dissonance she inspires—the way her physical impact rubs up against her shy, self-effacing side, which is reflected in the Kewpie-doll voice and what one of her co-stars called “those famous liquid eyes.” But I find her most interesting to watch in unfunny movies, like Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits, where the dissonance is all but gone and, in its place, distress flickers around her like a penumbra, a halo of misery above her light hair. Give me, she says; I need you. Her eyes widen, her teeth glisten, her lips do that strange quivering thing which suggests, by some unconscious association of orifices, that she is yearning to take the male spectator inside her. And what about the female spectator? We sense her panic, and we wonder if anyone so beautiful—“gleaming there, so pale and white,” as Don Murray gushes when he first spots her in Bus Stop—has ever conveyed so much loneliness. When she’s not sending out that huge, delighted, and delight-inducing smile of hers, she looks inconsolable.
Copyright © 2014 by Daphne Merkin