Marilyn: A Proto-Synaesthete?

Norma Jeane by Richard C. Miller, 1946

In an article for the New Yorker, no less, Robin Wright says, ‘I have something in common with Marilyn Monroe – and you might, too.’ That shared condition, she claims, is synaesthesia…

“Marilyn Monroe had a condition called synesthesia, a kind of sensory or cognitive fusion in which things seen, heard, smelled, felt, or tasted stimulate a totally unrelated sense—so that music can be heard or food tasted in colors, for instance. Monroe’s first husband, Jim Dougherty, told Norman Mailer about ‘evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots. She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds,’ Mailer recounted, in his 1973 biography of Monroe.”

While Marilyn was never diagnosed with synaesthesia, there’s a good reason for that – it wasn’t an established concept during her lifetime, although Wright believes it has been described in literature for centuries, noting that many artists, musicians and writers exhibit aspects of synaesthesia.

Maureen Seaberg first suggested that Marilyn might have been a synaesthete in a 2012 article for Psychology Today – a hypothesis supported by Mona Rae Miracle. (It would be interesting if a psychologist could examine other incidents from Marilyn’s life from this perspective.)

Marilyn photographed by Milton Greene, in costume for ‘Bus Stop’ (1956)

“It didn’t disturb me that Mr. Mailer did not refer to Ms. Monroe’s displacement of the senses specifically as synesthesia — no one was using that word in 1973. I decided to follow up with her survivors and spent months seeking them until an email arrived from her niece, Mona Rae Miracle, who with her mother, Berniece Baker Miracle, wrote a well-received biography of her famous aunt herself, titled My Sister Marilyn.

‘Synaesthesia is a term Marilyn and I were unaware of; in the past, we simply spoke of the characteristic experiences with terms such as extraordinary sensitivity and/or extraordinary imagination … Marilyn and I both studied acting with Lee Strasberg, who gave students exercises which could bring us awareness of such abilities, and the means of using them to bring characters to life. As you know, the varied experiences can bring sadness or enjoyment … Marilyn’s awesome performance in Bus Stop (the one she was most proud of) grew out of the use of such techniques and quite wore her out.'”

Fighting for the Real Marilyn

Marilyn by George Barris, 1962

Immortal Marilyn president Leslie Kasperowicz gave a powerful speech at the memorial service marking the 55th anniversary of Marilyn’s death earlier this month. You can read the full text here.

“Once upon a time, a false story about Marilyn could only be spread as fast as paper publications could disseminate; and tabloid stories were easily recognizable as fake news. Today, a fake news story about Marilyn spreads in seconds across the globe, and just as quickly becomes ‘fact’ as the tabloid source is obfuscated in the anonymity of the internet share, reblog, ReTweet. The reputation of the source hardly matters anymore. Her true story is lost in the clickbait sensationalism, and I do not know this Marilyn Monroe.

When last I stood here, Photoshopped photos of Marilyn were rare and easy to spot. Today, a new fan’s first image of Marilyn is as likely to be a fake photo as a real one; the fakes so widespread that even Google images has a photoshop in the number one spot for results. Marilyn’s head is seen on the bodies of others, she is shown with people and in situations that never happened in her lifetime; she is seen brandishing guns, throwing gang signs, covered in tattoos. And I do not know this Marilyn Monroe.

Fake quotes spread around the world so fast and so thoroughly that when searched, she is the only source to be found. Inane, vague, and utterly ridiculous statements are attributed to her, she is turned into a talking head for what a new generation thinks of as inspirational words she would never, in reality, have spoken. And I do not know this Marilyn Monroe.

Our Marilyn Monroe is more than an icon, more than a brand, more than a name, more than a character. Our Marilyn Monroe wanted only to find love, to be respected for her work, to be treated with dignity, to be an honest and realized human being – to be treated as such, and to work at being an actress. She was not a joke, no matter how hard some tried to make her one. And she was worth more as a human being to those who love her than her glamorous image ever earned after her death.”

Marilyn Book News: Directors and Co-Stars at Fox

Just published is Twentieth Century Fox: A Century of Entertainment, Michael Troyan’s mammoth study of Marilyn’s home studio. It’s 736 pages long, with 150 photos in a landscape-size hardback.

Anne Bancroft, who made her screen debut in Don’t Bother to Knock and shared a dramatic scene with Marilyn, is the subject of two new biographies: one by Peter Shelley, and another by Douglass K. Daniel.

And one of Marilyn’s favourite directors, Jean Negulesco (How to Marry a Millionaire), is given the biographical treatment in a new study by Michelangelo Capua.

Coming in September is the much-anticipated Milton Greene retrospective, The Essential Marilyn Monroe (a German version and special edition are also available.) And in November, Marilyn graces the paperback cover of Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles.

Looking further ahead, two intriguing new titles will be hitting our shelves in 2018: Colin Slater’s Marilyn Lost and Forgotten: Images from the Hollywood Photo Archiveand Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, a biography by Charles Casillo. And Elizabeth Winder’s Marilyn in Manhattan will be released in paperback.

Marilyn and Arthur at NYFF

The newlywed Millers dancing in1956

Arthur Miller: Writer, a new documentary helmed by his daughter, the author and filmmaker Rebecca Miller, will have its premiere as part of this year’s New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Deadline reports. (The festival runs from September 28 – October 15, and as previously reported here, Marilyn’s 1954 Western, River of No Return, will also be screened as part of a Robert Mitchum centennial retrospective.)

“Rebecca Miller’s film is a portrait of her father, his times and insights, built around impromptu interviews shot over many years in the family home. This celebration of the great American playwright is quite different from what the public has ever seen. It is a close consideration of a singular life shadowed by the tragedies of the Red Scare and the death of Marilyn Monroe; a bracing look at success and failure in the public eye; an honest accounting of human frailty; a tribute to one artist by another. Arthur Miller: Writer invites you to see how one of America’s sharpest social commentators formed his ideologies, how his life reflected his work, and, even in some small part, shaped the culture of our country in the twentieth century. An HBO Documentary Films release.”

Remembering Marilyn’s Radio Days

Marilyn at a patriotic event in 1952

Over at Reader’s Digest, Tony DiMarco recalls interviewing Marilyn at Twentieth Century Fox for an army radio show in 1952. DiMarco, and presenter Dave Ketchum, broadcast a weekly program for Camp Roberts, which aired on KPRL in Paso Robles, California. It will come as no surprise to those who know of Marilyn’s loyalty to her fans in the military, but the producers found her a delight to work with, and nothing like the ‘difficult’ star her studio warned them about.

“Not only was Marilyn on time, she was friendly, cooperative and a great interview. When it was over she asked if she could add something and, of course, we said yes. She ad-libbed a touching and heartwarming tribute to the servicemen and women, thanking them for listening and wishing 
them the very best of luck. She was beautiful, bright and charming. She was the Marilyn 
we’ll always remember.”

‘Some Like It Hot’ Tops BBC Comedy Poll

Almost 60 years after its release, Some Like It Hot has topped a BBC Culture poll of the 100 Greatest Comedy Films. (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes also made the list, at No. 87.) Nicholas Barber has an insightful take on  the enduring appeal of Billy Wilder’s classic farce…

“It is structured so meticulously that it glides from moment to moment with the elegance of an Olympic figure skater, and the consummate screwball dialogue, by Wilder and IAL Diamond, is so polished that every line includes either a joke, a double meaning, or an allusion to a line elsewhere in the film. To quote one character, it’s a riot of ‘spills, thrills, laughs and games’. To quote another, it deserves to be ‘the biggest thing since the Graf Zeppelin’. So why was it chosen as the best comedy ever made? Simple. What else were we going to choose?

There’s more to Some Like It Hot than its sparkling surface, though. As well as being a romantic comedy, a buddy movie, a crime caper, and a musical, the film is an anthem in praise of tolerance, acceptance, and the possibility of transformation. It’s an anthem that we need to hear now more than ever.

One of the film’s many twists is that when Sugar meets Junior on the beach, he doesn’t throw himself at her. He plays hard to get. Sugar tells him that her band specialises in hot jazz, but he sniffs, ‘Well, I guess some like it hot. But personally, I prefer classical music.’ Sugar doesn’t miss a beat. She claims to have ‘spent three years at the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music’ – a claim she overheard Joe/Josephine making the previous night. ‘Good school,’ murmurs Joe/Junior. Sugar, he realises, is just as adept at lying as he is.

In summary, Some Like It Hot is the story of people who lie and cheat in order to con other people into bed or out of their cash. Wilder has a reputation for dark, cynical films (see also Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity), and Some Like It Hot could be categorised as one of them. But it has so much warmth that it carries the viewer upwards like a hot-air balloon. Rather than condemning its unscrupulous anti-heroes, it respects them and sympathises with them in a way which must have seemed radical in 1959, and which seems more radical nearly six decades later.

Just imagine how the film’s scenario would be treated in a Hollywood comedy today. Joe and Jerry would be punished for their deceit. Sugar would have to catch Joe out, and he would have to apologise, and the viewer would have to sit through a montage of their shared misery before she forgave him …

Some Like It Hot is too buoyant to be brought down to earth by such prissiness. When Sugar learns that Joe has been tricking her, she runs straight into his arms. When Osgood learns that Jerry has been tricking him, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. The message is that there is nothing wrong with faking it until you make it. Experimenting with a new identity can help you become a better, happier person. It can help you survive. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll find someone who accepts you for whomever you want to be – perfect or otherwise.

It’s a boldly inclusive message, but it’s one that must have been close to the film-makers’ hearts. After all, several of them had reinvented themselves, just as the characters do: emigrating from Germany (in Wilder’s case) and Romania (in Diamond’s), distancing themselves from their hardscrabble pasts in Californian foster homes (in Monroe’s case) and on the streets of the Bronx (in Curtis’s). For a frantic farce about two cross-dressers on the run from prohibition-era mobsters, Some Like It Hot is a strikingly personal, even semi-autobiographical film.”

Jerry Lewis 1926-2017

One of the most popular American comedians of the last century, Jerry Lewis has died of heart disease aged 91.

He was born Joseph (or Jerome) Levitch to Russian Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. His father was a vaudeville performer, and his mother played piano. He joined them onstage at an early age, and dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. A heart murmur rendered him ineligible for military service in World War II. Already a prankster at 15, he developed a ‘Record Act’, exaggeratedly miming the lyrics to popular songs. He married singer Patti Palmer in 1944, and they would raise six sons together.

In 1946, he formed a comedy partnership with crooner Dean Martin. Over the next ten years, they graduated from nightclub act to the internationally celebrated stars of radio, television and movies.

On February 9, 1953, Marilyn Monroe met Lewis and Martin for the first time, at the annual Photoplay Awards at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was wearing the revealing gold lame dress fleetingly glimpsed in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Actress Joan Crawford would later speak witheringly of Marilyn’s ‘vulgar display’ as she collected the award for Fastest Rising Star. “The audience yelled and shouted, and Jerry Lewis shouted,” Crawford told reporter Bob Thomas. “But those of us in the industry just shuddered. It reminded me of a burlesque show.” At twenty-six, Marilyn was the same age as Jerry Lewis, and part of Hollywood’s new vanguard. Crawford, a star from a prior generation, later apologised for her remarks amid widespread criticism.

On February 24, Marilyn appeared on the Martin and Lewis Radio Show, accepting an award from Redbook magazine, and sparring with the comedy duo in an eight-minute sketch, ‘So Who Needs Friends.’ Columnist Sidney Skolsky, who accompanied her that day, wrote about it in his 1954 book, Marilyn.

“Jerry Lewis visited her dressing room and said, ‘I know you’re scared. Don’t be. I was awfully nervous when I went on the radio for the first time, with Bob Hope.’ He pressed her hand. ‘You’ll be great,’ he said, and left the room. This brief talk and vote of confidence from Lewis helped Marilyn considerably. Marilyn was great on the program. After it, Jerry said to me, ‘She’s got nothing to worry about. She knows more about sex than I do about comedy.’ Which is the highest compliment a comedian could bestow on an actress who is selling glamour.”

Marilyn became good friends with both Jerry and Dean Martin. Sensing her loneliness, they often invited her to dinner alongside fellow pal Sammy Davis Jr. A lifelong insomniac, Marilyn would sometimes call them in the small hours and ask to meet up at all-night diners.

On October 18th, columnist Sheilah Graham published an interview with Marilyn in which she named the ten most fascinating men in the world, including future husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her River of No Return co-star Robert Mitchum, Asphalt Jungle director John Huston, close friends Marlon Brando and Sidney Skolsky, acting coach Michael Chekhov, photographer Milton Greene, and India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (the only one she hadn’t met.) And the last man on her list was Jerry Lewis…

“I think that Jerry has a lot of sex appeal. It might have something to do with his vitality. I can’t figure out what it is. He makes funny faces because he thinks people want him to make funny faces. But behind it all there’s something serious and very sexy. I just think he’s sexy.”

On December 6, Hedda Hopper reported that Jerry and Dean had called upon friends to donate items for a charity auction for muscular dystrophy. “They asked Marilyn Monroe for something personal – anything close to her. What they got was a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace autographed by Marilyn.”

After Marilyn moved to New York in early 1955, the men-only Friars’ Club broke code and invited her to their annual roast, compered by Milton Berle in Martin and Lewis’s honour. When Berle called her to the podium, Marilyn blew a kiss and whispered, “I love you, Jerry.”

Lewis remembered Marilyn with great affection in his 2005 memoir, Dean & Me: A Love Story…

“To my vast regret, the one actress we never performed with was Marilyn Monroe – and how great she would have been in a Martin and Lewis picture. She had a delicious sense of humour, an ability not only to appreciate what was funny but to see the absurdity of things in general. God, she was magnificent – perfect physically and in every other way. She was someone anyone would just love to be with, not only for the obvious reasons but for her energy and perseverance and yes, focus. She had the capacity to make you feel that she was totally engaged with whatever you were talking about. She was kind, she was good, she was beautiful, and the press took shots at her that she didn’t deserve. They got on her case from day one – a textbook example of celebrity-bashing.”

In 1956, the Martin and Lewis collaboration ended as Dean, tired of being the ‘straight man’, decided to pursue a solo career. Jerry was heartbroken but his partner was adamant, and despite occasional public appearances together, the pair were estranged for thirty years.

In 1958, Jerry was offered the chance to star opposite Marilyn as jazz musician and ‘bosom pal’ Jerry/Daphne in Billy Wilder’s classic drag farce, Some Like It Hot. Unsure of his ability to convincingly impersonate a woman, he declined and the part went to Jack Lemmon. In 1959, Lewis signed a groundbreaking deal with Paramount Pictures, earning $10 million plus 60% of the profits for 14 films over the next 7 years. In partnership with director Frank Tashlin, Jerry also produced and co-wrote his movies, including his greatest success, The Nutty Professor (1962.)

Shortly before her death in 1962, Marilyn had been filming Something’s Got to Give with Dean Martin, who refused to work with another actress after Monroe was fired. Many of the rumours surrounding her demise have focused on her alleged affair with John F. Kennedy, but in a 2002 interview with GQ magazine, Lewis – himself a friend of the president – quipped that it wasn’t true, because Marilyn was having an affair with him. This bizarre remark – possibly a joke – nonetheless made headlines, but a sexual liaison at this time seems unlikely.

By the mid-1960s, Jerry’s popularity was fading, though he became a cult figure in France, where he was hailed as a comedic auteur. In 1966, he hosted the first of 44 annual US telethons for muscular dystrophy on Labour Day weekend. His long marriage to Patti Palmer ended in 1982, and a year later he married 30 year-Old stewardess San-Dee Pitnick. They later adopted a daughter.

His performance in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy (1983), as a television host stalked by obsessive fans, hinted at a darker side to the Lewis persona and established him as a serious actor. He played further acclaimed roles in Arizona Dream (1994), Funny Bones (1995.)

In recent years he suffered from increasingly poor health. Tragedy struck in 2009 when his 45 year-old son Joseph died of a drug overdose, and in 2010, Lewis began raising funds to build a facility for vulnerable and traumatised children in Melbourne, Australia. In a recent television interview, he spoke candidly about his fear of dying. He continued working until the end, playing the titular role in Max Rose (2016.) Jerry Lewis died at home in Las Vegas on August 20, 2017.

Further Reading

Holding a Good Thought for Marilyn: 1926-1954 – The Hollywood Years by Stacy Eubank (2015)

‘Jerry Lewis: the knockabout clown with a dark and melancholy inner life’ by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, August 20, 2017

‘Marilyn, Jerry Lewis and Some Like It Hot’ by Tara Hanks, ES Updates, October 8, 2015

‘Jerry Lewis and Marilyn Monroe: Inside the Comedy King’s Story of His Secret Affair With the Sexy Screen Siren’ by Victoria Miller, The Inquisitr, August 21, 2017

‘My Two Days With Jerry Lewis’ by Amy Wallace, GQ, August 21, 2017

The Misfits: Marilyn’s ‘Ghost’ Movie

Photo by Inge Morath

As The Misfits is re-released in selected French cinemas, Ludevic Beot writes for Les Inrockuptibles about its ‘morbid’ history. (Apologies for any errors in my translation…)

“This is the end of an era, the myth of the free cowboy in nature, and the great American western. In this, the screenplay of writer Arthur Miller draws a sad and particularly bleak observation of Eisenhower’s America from the late fifties, a nation that has trouble communicating and whose dream of the Founding Fathers has failed … Even today, it seems very difficult to resist the disturbing charm of this mirror work, not to be carried away by the elegiac melody of this ultimate dance with the dead. The images of Huston have captured for the last time the faces of his disappearing actors. All these elements make The Misfits one of the most beautiful ghost movies in American cinema.”

Unveiling Marilyn’s Beautiful Scars

Surgical scars can be seen on Marilyn’s tummy in two of her final photo shoots, with George Barris (left) and Bert Stern (right), and in her ‘nude’ swim scene for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, as Mehera Bonner reports for Marie-Claire. Marilyn underwent an appendectomy in 1952, and had her gallbladder removed in 1961, a year before she died. She also underwent several operations to alleviate her endometriosis and help her to have children, sadly without success. While surgical procedures are considerably more sophisticated today, our expectations have also increased. While there’s something rather liberating about these gorgeous, unaltered shots, it’s also important to remember that Marilyn – who exerted rigid control over her photo shoots, if not her movies – may herself have wanted to airbrush these photos had she lived long enough to fully review them. In fact, she vetoed many of Stern’s images, marking the rejects with an orange ‘X’; but after her death, he published the session in its entirety.

Now you see her, now you don’t: Marilyn in ‘Something’s Got to Give’

“Though she was famous for her perceived ‘perfection’ and ‘flawlessness’ (all the eye-rolls at the inherent sexism that goes into these terms), Marilyn Monroe had a pretty big scar across her stomach—which appears in both the Last Sitting and in Something’s Got to Give.

The scar itself is the result of gallbladder surgery that occurred before Stern’s famous images were taken. He says Marilyn was self-conscious about it, and called upon her hairdresser George [Masters] for reassurance before shooting. When Stern noticed the scar, he reportedly remembered Diana Vreeland saying to him, ‘I think there’s nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. A woman is beautiful by her scars.’

Diana Vreeland is right: women *are* beautiful with scars. But she’s also incorrect about women without them being dull. Either way, the sometimes-removal of Marilyn’s scar offers a fascinating insight into beauty standards in Old Hollywood—did she ever truly have agency as to how her body was portrayed?

Ironically, Something’s Got to Give was the first time Monroe was ‘allowed’ to expose her belly button on film—as most of her previous swimwear moments were high-waisted. Before her death, she’s said to have quipped ‘I guess the censors are willing to recognize that everybody has a navel.’

Guess what? Everyone has scars too—even Marilyn.”

Facing the Future With Marilyn

Marilyn in ‘Niagara’ (1953)

Any longtime  Marilyn fan will know the challenges we face in preserving her true legacy, and two recent news stories suggest our troubles are only beginning. Toby Walsh, a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI), believes that by 2050 – a century after she first found fame – Marilyn will be ‘starring in movies via an avatar program that talks and acts like her, with machines having learned her speech and mannerisms from her films,’ reports The Australian.

Even more alarming is an article in The Sun about the burgeoning popularity of sex robots. ‘Marilyn comes up quite often,’ says engineer Douglas Hines, of the public requests for celebrity lookalike dolls. ‘The caveat is we need the approval of the person or family. If you wanted a robot that looked like Marilyn Monroe, you would have to have her estate approve it.’ (The idea of a ‘Marilyn Monroebot‘ was first mooted – albeit in jest – on a 2001 episode of the animated series, Futurama.)

Fortunately, Marilyn’s estate has not granted permission for a robot MM, and hopefully they never will. But how long will it take until ‘bootleg’ sex dolls hit the market? And meanwhile, CGI ‘hologram‘ Marilyns have already been seen in TV ads, with her estate planning digitalised ‘live’ shows starring Marilyn and other dead icons. They can replicate her body, but not her soul, and Monroe fans of the future will have to be ever more vigilant against degrading misrepresentations.