Marilyn: A Readers’ Guide

Photo by Jock Carroll, 1952

Over at Book Riot today, Jeffrey Davies suggests six great reads about Marilyn. Among them are several titles I’ve reviewed in depth, including Lois Banner’s MM – Personal, Michelle Morgan’s The Girl, Charles Casillo’s Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, and Marilyn’s own Fragments; plus old favourites like Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn: Norma Jeane, and Marilyn’s 1954 memoir, My Story.

Michael J. Pollard 1939-2019

Michael J. Pollard, the veteran character actor known for his short stature and boyish looks, has died aged 80. He was born in New Jersey to parents of Polish descent, and began attending the Actors’ Studio in the late 1950s. He later shared a memory from that time with Charles Casillo, author of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon

Aged 19 or 20, Michael was sitting in class when he noticed a beautiful blonde, and said to a fellow student, ‘That looks like Marilyn Monroe’. After learning that the blonde was indeed MM, Pollard asked her to do a scene with him, and she agreed without hesitation. Marilyn suggested a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s novella which was soon to be produced at Paramount. 

As Pollard walked with Marilyn to her 57th Street apartment, several passers-by noticed her and called out, ‘Hi, Marilyn!’ There was no screenplay, so Marilyn adapted a scene from the book where Holly Golightly climbs through her neighbour’s window. ‘I’ve got the most terrible man downstairs,’ she says, stepping in from the fire escape.

As the day approached when they were due to perform the scene, Marilyn admitted, ‘I’m really worried about the lines.’ She tore out pages from the book so they could spread them out over the stage area. When the scene was over, the formidable Lee Strasberg told Pollard it was the best work he had done. 

According to another Monroe biographer, Gary Vitacco Robles, Truman Capote was also present and thought her performance ‘terrifically good’. She was Capote’s first choice to play Holly, and George Axelrod (who had worked with her on The Seven Year Itch and Bus Stop) was hired to write the screenplay, but the role ultimately went to Audrey Hepburn.  

Among Pollard’s early movies was a small part in The Stripper (1963), which had been written by William Inge with Marilyn in mind. After her death, Joanne Woodward was cast instead. He also worked in television, with a memorable role as a child cult leader in Star Trek.

Pollard became a household name as C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde (1967.) He went on to star as Billy the Kid in Dirty Little Billy (1972), and with Robert Redford in the biker movie, Little Fauss and Big Halsy. Michael J. Fox would adopt his middle initial as a tribute to Pollard, whose later films included Dick Tracy (1990), opposite Warren Beatty and Madonna. 

Fox News Gets ‘Scandalous’ With Marilyn

Marilyn’s life and death is the subject of a new 3-part documentary in the Fox News Channel series, Scandalous. It began last night, and will continue over the next two Sundays. It’s being aired in the US and Australia, but not as yet in Europe. Interviewees include authors Gary Vitacco Robles, Charles Casillo, Donald McGovern and Keith Badman, plus Elisa Jordan of LA Woman Tours and photographer Larry Schiller and Leigh Weiner’s son Devik. This alone could make it worth watching, although fans have already complained about the use of Marilyn’s autopsy photo on both the show and tabloid coverage.

The Mystery of Marilyn

Charles Casillo, author of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, is interviewed in the July issue of digital journal PHACEMAG. (You can read my review here.)

“Today, celebrities tell everything on Twitter. They write tell-all memoirs. They post their lives on Instagram. And in a way that makes them like everyone else. On the other hand, Marilyn will always remain slightly out of reach. There will never be anyone like her. So I think, no matter what we find out  or what remains unclear, she will always be remembered–for her beauty, her talent, her sensuality, and her humanity–with some mystery thrown in as another powerful ingredient.”  

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!'”

Marilyn’s Tale of Two Biographers

Marilyn by Earl Leaf (1950)

Film historian Antti Alanen has reviewed Gary Vitacco-Robles’ comprehensive 2014 biography, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, on his Film Diary blog.

“Where others read detective fiction I read Marilyn Monroe books. Because of their wildly incompatible approaches they have to be taken with a Rashomon attitude. But I have not been diligent recently and thus have missed the best, Gary Vitacco-Robles’s Icon, in two volumes and almost 1600 pages. It is by far the best Marilyn Monroe biography ever …

I should be familiar with the material as my interest now dates back 40 years, but Vitacco-Robles manages to surprise me on each page. There is a lot of new detail, and from his meaningful interpretation a new portrait emerges. Vitacco-Robles’s approach is sober, but his achievement is ‘A Passion of Marilyn Monroe’. He has a sense of the epic in this story, and psychologically he seems to get deeper than anyone else. This book is a hard act to follow.”

Meanwhile, Charles Casillo’s Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon has been favourably reviewed by Kevin Howell at Shelf Awareness.

“Billy Wilder said Marilyn Monroe was ‘a puzzle without any solution,’ but biographer and novelist Charles Casillo has dug deep …  [he] does an outstanding job of sifting through conflicting testimonies … Monroe’s sad but fascinating life has been told many times before, but Casillo’s sympathetic and psychologically nuanced Marilyn Monroe bio is compulsively readable.”

Casillo’s Marilyn: ‘Not a Cinderella Story’

Marilyn on the set of her last, unfinished film, ‘Something’s Got to Give’ (1962)

Gene Walz, a professor in English and Film Studies at the University of Manitoba, has reviewed Charles Casillo’s new biography, Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, for the Winnipeg Free Press. (I’m currently reading this book, and my own review will follow in due course.)

“Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon, meanwhile, is Charles Casillo’s second Monroe book — his first being The Marilyn Diaries (1999, expanded 2014). That book was a novel purported to be the star’s personal diary. This second one is a sympathetic biography with a substantial bibliography (500 book entries and multiple footnotes). While it contains no Earth-shaking new insights, it’s a serious, commendable study.

This is not a Cinderella story. Not just because Monroe was insecure, terribly needy and never truly happy, but because very few men in her life were princes — and that’s what she so desperately wanted and needed. Certainly not Fox’s executives, who had little respect for her talent … In addition to the un-prince-like men, there were some ‘wicked stepsisters’ as well.

Monroe was not a dumb blonde, as she is elsewhere presented. She was a woman with a quick wit and genuine humour, a gifted and sensitive writer as well as a thoughtful, hard-working actor who wanted to be taken seriously. Her notorious lateness and absences on movie sets were not because she was a prima donna, but because she was a manic depressive wracked by suicidal self-doubt and despair. Her talents and needs were rarely honoured by the people around her. Casillo’s book attempts to rectify this wrong. Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon is like a massive quilt of a book, assembled artfully from other resources and his own interviews. It’s the latest ‘last word’ on the undeniable, unforgettable, but misunderstood star. It’s a readable refresher course for those caught up in Monroe idolatry, providing some new dimensions to her mythic life.”