Dancing On the Edge With Marilyn

Marilyn during dance rehearsals for ‘Let’s Make Love’, 1960

A wide-ranging essay about Marilyn, encompassing Charles Casillo’s recent biography and comparisons to Hedy Lamarr (and much more), has been posted by David Herrle on his Bookolage blog.

“Sure, many might consider the gulf between Hedy’s public image and her intellectual/scientific passions to be wider than Marilyn’s, teaming up with George Antheil in an invention frenzy and belting out detailed ideas such as breakthrough spread-spectrum technology utilized by the Navy, but Marilyn was much more of a reader and a curiouser cultural dabbler/explorer – and she was…get ready to groan…headier about acting. I think Marilyn had more of a genuine artist in her, and I think her frustrations and pain were of the artists’ brand. But still. She excelled as living art, as bathetic (and perhaps offensive) as that term is.

Marilyn’s despondent spells, her hang-ups, and her fears and sublimations have been categorized as darkness, but I consider the woman essentially a creature of light and an evoker of light for others – including us, and I’m fascinated by the profound light metaphors that were and are so often used about her. ‘I could massage her in the dark because her body gave off light,’ said masseur Ralph Roberts. Henry Hathaway, who directed Marilyn in Niagara, said that she was ‘bright, really bright…naturally bright.’ And in reference to her role as Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Charles Casillo writes that ‘she absolutely glows. Her inner light is so radiant that it’s difficult to believe anything dark ever happened to her – you don’t want to believe it, yet you know there’s darkness there.’

A common assessment is that Marilyn gradually disintegrated throughout her life, but perhaps that’s not quite correct. There must first be integration for disintegration, and I think it’s safe to guess that Marilyn was never integrated, never in any equilibrium, never in a steady orbit around a definite self which could be nourished properly, let alone allowed to burgeon and deepen. I like to imagine that living to old age would have benefited her rather than gradually destroyed her, as the common prediction goes. In my relatively limited knowledge, I think that more time might have provided space for her to hone her cultural interests, refine her poetry, ripen her life philosophy. I can picture her exclaiming like Margaret Fuller once did: ‘I feel within myself an immense power, but I cannot bring it out!'”

Did Rock Hudson Reach Out to Marilyn?

In some ways, Rock Hudson was Marilyn’s male counterpart as a misunderstood sex symbol of 1950s Hollywood.  They partied together at the How to Marry a Millionaire premiere in 1953, and in 1962 Rock would present Marilyn with her final award at the Golden Globes. Sadly they never worked together, but Rock was the initial favourite for her leading man in Bus Stop; and in 1958, she was considered for Pillow Talk before deciding to make Some Like It Hot instead. (Doris Day got the part, the beginning of a great comedy partnership with Rock.)

Until now, it has been unclear how well the two stars knew each other (although a recent hack tome made the unlikely claim that Marilyn and Rock were lovers – as we now know, Hudson was gay.) In a critically praised new biography, All That Heaven Allows, author Mark Griffin draws on interviews with Rock’s secretary, Lois Rupert, who claims they often spoke on the phone. Although the frequency of their conversations may be questioned, the obvious affection of their Golden Globes photos combined with this information could suggest that Rock was one of the few Hollywood figures trusted by Marilyn in her final months – and Griffin also reveals that Hudson generously donated his fee for narrating the 1963 documentary, Marilyn, to a cause very close to her heart.

“It was while he was on location for A Gathering Of Eagles that Rock received word that a friend had died. As Lois Rupert recalled, ‘Rock met me at his front door with the news … “Monroe is dead” is all he said.’

Only five months earlier, Rock and Marilyn Monroe had posed for photographers at the annual Golden Globes ceremonies. In images captured of the event, Monroe, who was named World Film Favourite, is beaming as Hudson enfolds her into a protective embrace. With a shared history of abuse and exploitation, it was inevitable that these two should be drawn to each other. Recognising that he posed no sexual threat to her, Monroe had latched on to Hudson and had lobbied for Rock to co-star with her in Let’s Make Love as well as her uncompleted final film, Something’s Got to Give.

Lois Rupert remembered that in the early 1960s, Rock regularly received late-night distress calls from Monroe as well as another troubled superstar. ‘If it wasn’t Marilyn Monroe crying on his shoulder, then it was Judy Garland,’ Rupert recalled. ‘It was almost like they took turns. Marilyn would call one night and Judy the next. He was always very patient, very understanding with both of them, even though he wasn’t getting much sleep. I think he liked playing the big brother who comes to the rescue.’

Within ten months of Monroe’s death, 20th Century-Fox would release a hastily assembled documentary entitled Marilyn. Fox had initially approached Frank Sinatra about narrating, but when the studio wasn’t able to come to terms with the singer Hudson stepped in. Hudson not only provided poignant commentary – both on and off camera – he donated his salary to help establish the Marilyn Monroe Memorial Fund at the Actors Studio.”

Marilyn and the Little Dancer

Bus Stop director Joshua Logan took this charming photograph of Marilyn with Edgar Degas’ most famous sculpture at the home of William B. Goetz, Vice-President of Twentieth Century Fox, in 1956. In a new book, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, author Camille Laurens traces the history of a modern masterpiece, as Celia Wren reports for the Washington Post.

“By creating a sculpture largely made of wax — and wearing real clothing and shoes — Degas was rejecting prevailing aesthetic rules. In the late 19th century, such a piece would have struck viewers as worthy of a toy shop or milliner’s window, not a high-art showcase. Just as shocking was the subject matter: Degas was paying tribute to one of the young Paris Opera dance trainees known as ‘little rats,’ a group that had a scandalous reputation, largely because of their generally impoverished backgrounds, which made them easy prey for lecherous men. ‘Little Dancer’ stirred controversy when it initially appeared in a Paris exhibition in 1881.”

When she first saw the Little Dancer, Marilyn was moved to tears. Art historian Monica Bowen has explored Marilyn’s love of art on her blog, Alberti’s Widow. “I have been researching stars and celebrities of the mid-20th century over the past several months,” she wrote in 2016. “Out of all of the people that I have studied thus far, Marilyn Monroe stands out as one of the people who is most interested in the Western artistic tradition.”

Ai’s Poem for Marilyn: ‘She Didn’t Even Wave’

Killing Floor, a prize-winning 1979 collection from a poet named Ai, has been republished by Tavern Books, as Robert Harn reports for the Portland Mercury.

“There’s a vital socio-political edge to Killing Floor. Ai attempts to reckon with the horrors of the past, acknowledging everything from the violence that occurred in Mexico following the election of Manuel Ávila Camacho to the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe. Killing Floor holds important messages of empathy and survival that many still need to hear.”

I managed to find an extract from the Marilyn-related poem in this contemporary review from the Washington Post. ‘She Didn’t Even Wave’ is dedicated to Marilyn although the subject is a woman killed by lightning. It did remind me a little of Norma Jeane and her tenuous relationship with her mentally ill mother Gladys.

“Let me wave goodby

Mama never got a chance to do it.

She was walking toward the barn when it struck her. I didn’t move;

I just stood at the screen door.

Her whole body was light.

I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

I remember how she cried in the kitchen a few minutes before.

She said, ‘God. Married.

I don’t believe it, Jean, I won’t.

He takes and takes and you just give.’

At the door, she held out her arms and I ran to her . . .

Then she walked outside.

And I kept saying, I’ve got to, Mama, hug me again. Please don’t go. . . .”

 

Marilyn’s Prayer Book Sold for $26K

After going unsold twice in the last year (as reported here), Marilyn’s Jewish prayer book has finally surpassed all expectations by selling for $26,000 at New York auctioneers J. Greenstein & Co. Widespread media coverage probably helped, as it became a viral story in the last month. At the 1999 Christie’s auction Marilyn’s ‘Siddur’ for $4,025, and this time around it was estimated to sell for $7,000 – $12,000 with a starting price of $4,600. The book, which contains annotations in pencil (though it is not confirmed that Marilyn made them – it could have been her Rabbi, Robert E. Goldburg) would probably be worth around $100 without the Monroe connection.

Thanks to Simone at Marilyn Remembered

Joyce Carol Oates Goes Back to ‘Blonde’

Joyce Carol Oates’ novel about Marilyn, Blonde (2000), will be reissued later this month. In a review for The Times, Liza Klaussman claims it is now even more relevant given the recent revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, and the #MeToo movement.

“To capture a quicksilver persona such as Monroe’s is no easy feat. Oates puts multiple perspectives to use, bringing Monroe’s life to us in shards of Technicolor. It is told at once through Norma Jeane’s voice and those close to her … What saves Blonde from descending into a darkness so deep that the reader is forced to look away is in part Oates’s lavish language and its loose structure, which gives the story a high-octane energy. And it can’t be denied that there is voyeuristic pleasure in it. However, the novel is also infused with Monroe’s sly, subversive wit, breaking up the darker matter … What Oates achieves is to restore a crucial element of Monroe’s story, one that has been lost, overlooked — the element of fury. Blonde stands as a cry of rage against the violence, symbolic and physical, that was perpetrated against the woman known as Marilyn Monroe. And, in the end, it leaves us in no doubt of the personal price to be paid for denying that rage.”

However, while Blonde is revered by some critics, others felt that Oates took too many liberties with the facts of Marilyn’s life and presented her as a helpless victim. In her 2004 ‘meta-biography’, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Churchwell challenged Oates’ claim that fictional devices enabled her to give full expression to Marilyn’s complex nature.

“Oates repeatedly protests in interviews against the ‘literalism’ of critics who disliked her extravagant fabrications, but it is not crudely literal to acknowledge that Marilyn Monroe is not totally a product of Joyce Carol Oates’ imagination, and that the story Oates tells is not entirely a product of her imagination. Although Oates can (and does) hide behind the intellectual justification that the novel is postmodern in its ‘experimentations’ with blending fact and fiction, it is hard not to conclude that the experimentation is expedient, and arbitrary … Oates’ postmodern ‘experimentation’ reconfirmed the Marilyn Monroe we’ve known since 1946: artificial, one-dimensional and dim. Oates’ technique is not archetype but stereotype, not only of ‘the Ex-Athlete’ and ‘the Playwright,’ but particularly of breathless, confused, stammering, disintegrating ‘Marilyn’ … In Oates’ approach, Marilyn’s life is such an open secret that we need not bother with its details: we can simply stand back and take in the whole as a panorama adequately represented by selected symbolic ‘truths’.”

Italian Novelist Inspired by ‘Hummingbird’ Marilyn

Come Il Volo Di Un Colibri, a novel by Italian author and politician Giovanna Grignaffini, was published in 2016. The title translates as Like The Flight Of A Hummingbird, which is how Marilyn’s acting teacher, Constance Collier, described her elusive presence; and Eve Arnold’s photo of Marilyn on the set of The Misfits graces the cover. The novel – currently only available in Italian – is set in a house in the woods, where five people come together to discuss Marilyn’s mythic life.  Lea Melandri reviewed it for Il Manifesto.

“To remain there, forever hanging on those walls and mirrors, copied and glued to all those books, paintings, backpacks, ‘it took genius,’ is the conclusion of the author: ‘pure feminine genius.’ If Marilyn had had the doubt of being ‘just a fantasy’ – I guess I am a fantasy – the novel of a singular essayist of cinema and writer like Giovanna Grignaffini, who for years has studied and loved her through her films, it returns it to the collective memory, ‘finally’ as the whole body of a woman: inseparable life and cinema.”

Thanks to Marilyn Monroe: Italia

On Marilyn, Acting and Mental Illness

Marilyn plays a mentally disturbed woman in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ (1952)

In Actresses and Mental Illness, a new academic study, author Fiona Gregory focuses on stars like Vivien Leigh and Frances Farmer, whose psychological problems are as well-known as their dramatic talents. In her introduction to the book, she also mentions Marilyn.

“Marilyn Monroe stands as one of the best-known examples of an actress whose life was impacted by mental illness. Actors’ and directors’ accounts of working with Monroe make frequent reference to unprofessional behaviour (lateness, inability to learn lines, conflicts with colleagues), drug addiction and visits to psychiatrists. While rumours and coded reports of Monroe’s illness circulated during her lifetime, much of the detail of her particular problems and the treatments she pursued has emerged posthumously. Each further revelation – of a psychiatrist visited; a drug treatment tried; a suicide attempt hushed up – has added to the picture of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ as icon of suffering. It’s a picture suffused with irony – imagine, that one of the most beautiful and celebrated women in the world, with seemingly every personal and professional opportunity, should be made so uncomfortable in her own skin by the demons in her mind!

In the biographical record, Monroe’s suffering – taking as its form chronic self-doubt, an unstable sense of self, and a seeming inability to forge healthy relationships – is framed as fundamentally connected to her professional identity as a performing woman. Above all, Monroe is represented in terms of her inability to formulate a stable, coherent identity … In such narratives, the creation of an alternate identity becomes a strategy to mask an essential emptiness. The notion of actress as cypher, evacuated of meaning unless she is performing, recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress…

In 1955, Monroe recorded a dream in which her acting coach, Lee Strasberg, ‘cuts me open’ in an operating theatre, only to find ‘… there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going to be so much – more than he had ever dreamed possible in almost anyone but instead there was absolutely nothing…’

Here, Monroe becomes an eloquent commentator on the fears and insecurities of the performing woman, and on the questions of identity, ambition and meaning that circulate around her. This autobiographical artefact puts emptiness at the core of Monroe’s own psyche. The fact that it is Strasberg – the man who stood as her authority on acting – who has found her out suggests that it was in her own professional realm that Monroe desired to achieve significance but feared she would be found wanting. Monroe’s dream literalises the fear of the ‘nothing’: that the glittering surface will be revealed to mask an essential absence – a lack of talent, a lack of worthiness – that recurs in fictional and biographical representations of the actress and in actress’ own meditations on self.”