Tennessee Williams: The Mask of Marilyn

Marilyn by Frank Powolny, 1953

Back in 2012, I posted an extract from Follies of God: The Notebooks, a collection of unpublished writings by playwright Tennessee Williams. Entitled ‘Marilyn Monroe Got What She Wanted,’ the entry was quite cruel. I was disappointed that Williams, who wrote so well about troubled characters and was himself a deeply conflicted man, showed so little compassion for Marilyn.

I was pleased to discover another, more insightful piece by Williams, posted yesterday by editor James Grissom on the Follies of God blog. ‘On the Masks We Wear‘ looks at the gulf between outward appearance and the inner self, using Marilyn as an example.

“Marilyn [Monroe], to use one example, had a literal mask. A lot of people do. Their armor is beauty or strength. Hers was beauty–an almost supernal, lunar beauty. And it took hours–if not days–to create, to manufacture, to maintain. Creams and lotions and unguents and powders and sticks and colorful oils–and then you had Marilyn, the one we all wanted and felt we needed. And she had an identity. An identity of creamy skin and vulnerability. She could face the world with some degree of comfort.”


‘Trouble Doll’: Dennis Hopper on Marilyn

Born in 1936, Dennis Hopper played supporting roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant alongside his friend, James Dean, before falling out of favour with Hollywood. In 1959 he began five years of study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Hopper later found renewed fame when he directed, produced and starred in Easy Rider (1969.) After battling drug addiction, he once again resurfaced, with memorable roles in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Blue Velvet (1987.) He was also a prolific photographer, artist and sculptor.

Dennis Hopper died in 2010. He was rumoured to have attended a 1962 party where Marilyn Monroe met LSD ‘guru’ Dr Timothy Leary (though Leary’s own account has been disputed.)

In another post for his Follies of God blog, James Grissom has featured a portion of an undated interview with Hopper. The extract does not clarify whether Dennis knew Marilyn well – it focuses on his ideas about her enduring fame, though they may have known each other from the Actors Studio. In the excerpt, Hopper compares Marilyn to a Guatemalan trouble doll ( also known as worry dolls.)

Marilyn was like a trouble doll for a lot of people: A lot of people needed her because she was beautiful and she was sweet and she was pretty much what a lot of people believed was a perfect woman–a sexual machine with a heart. And a lot of people needed her because they wanted her to fail or to cry or to die, because they wanted to believe that all of her gifts–physical and otherwise–wouldn’t save her or make her happy. So the ugly and the mean-spirited could feel better about their lives and their various lacks. And a lot of people looked at her and saw money and sex and power and an evil sort of joy that comes from getting off. She was a product, a commodity to them. And a lot of people needed her because she so clearly needed a friend, needed some love, and a lot of people really wanted to give this to her.
Marilyn Monroe was this creamy, sweet, beautiful trouble doll for a lot of people, and we whispered to her image or her memory and told her what we needed, what we desired, and then we believed that things would happen or change. And she got put in her box and was put on an eternal shelf, where we can continue to ask of her what we need.” 

Maureen Stapleton on Marilyn


Born in 1925, Maureen Stapleton was an award-winning actress of stage and screen. An Actors Studio alumni, Maureen performed a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, with Marilyn in the title role, before Lee Strasberg and an audience of fellow students in 1955. (Marilyn’s performance was praised by Strasberg, but typically she thought Maureen was better.)

Stapleton wrote warmly of MM in her 1995 memoir, A Hell of a Life. She died in 2006. James Grissom mentions both women on his Follies of God blog today, quoting from his 1991 interview with Maureen.

“I always felt protective toward her. I liked her. While I had no reason to feel sorry for her–she was beautiful and rich and loved–I did: I just knew that she was a magnet for shit, and I saw a lot of people unload on her. She was a child–a sweet, needy child, and I’m very Irish and very Catholic and basically a decent person, and I think you take care of children and needy people. I think you reach out to the sad people and the sick people, and I always felt that Marilyn was an inch and a half from deep sadness. If I made her comfortable–and she told me I did–it was because I wasn’t after her for anything but friendship, and I had a house full of noise and kids and open doors. She could let it hang with me, and I wish–like a lot of other people–that I had kept the doors open more often. She was a good person. She was not treated well.”

Tennessee Williams on Marilyn

Follies of God: The Notebooks is a forthcoming book by James Grissom about playwright Tennessee Williams. Extracts from the book have been posted on Grissom’s blog.

The book includes a short essay entitled ‘Marilyn Monroe Got What She Wanted.’ Considering that Williams was a fragile, troubled, though gifted man, his opinion of Marilyn is surprisingly uncharitable.

“It’s fine to cry for Marilyn Monroe. I did, and I still do. She was tragic, but she was also lucky. There are beautiful, sad, dumb girls all over the world who endure worse than she did, but they never get to live on the screen or bathe in perfume or populate the dreams of people who love beauty or who love pain or who wonder what it must be like to possess such sexual power.

Let her go. Look at the beauty, but move on. There is nothing else there. A pretty visage with a sad story. Marilyn always said she wanted to be noticed, she wanted to be loved, and she wanted to be left alone and feel safe.
I think Marilyn Monroe got what she wanted.”
Perhaps Williams was referring to the legend that has grown since her death, rather than Marilyn herself. He met Marilyn several times and had wanted her to play the lead in Baby Doll (1956.) Or maybe he was simply jealous that Marilyn died with her youth and beauty still intact, rather than facing the slow, painful decline he suffered.