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.'”

Remembering Robert Mitchum at 100

Robert Mitchum was born 100 years ago, on August 6, 1917. During the early 1940s he worked at the Lockheed munitions plant with Jim Dougherty, and claimed to have met Dougherty’s pretty young wife, Norma Jeane, remembering her as ‘shy and sweet.’ (Dougherty has denied this early encounter between the two future stars occurred.)

One of Hollywood’s most celebrated tough guys, Bob starred with Marilyn in River of No Return (1954.) He and Marilyn remained friendly and worked well together, although neither got along with director Otto Preminger. Bob recalled that she didn’t take her ‘sex goddess’ image seriously, playing it as a kind of burlesque. He was later offered another chance to be her leading man in The Misfits, but was unimpressed by the script and the role went to Clark Gable instead.

Robert Mitchum died in 1997. River of No Return will be screened at this year’s New York Film Festival, as part of a major Mitchum retrospective. You can read more about the shoot here.

Bill Pursel 1925-2017

Bill Pursel, who befriended Marilyn during the early years of her career, has died aged 91, reports the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“William Albert Lloyd Pursel was born July 24, 1925, in Marshalltown, Iowa. His family moved to Las Vegas in 1939. After graduating from Las Vegas High School, class of 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in The European Theatre during World War II. He became a sales manager for KLAS Radio and covered several atomic bomb explosions at the Nevada Test Site. He was a Chartered Life Underwriter and a Chartered Financial Consultant with The Paul Revere Life Insurance Company. He was president of The Life Underwriters Association of Nevada. He was active in The Las Vegas Jr. Chamber of Commerce, a founding member of The Sports Car Club of America in So Nevada, a charter member of Trinity United Methodist Church, and belonged to both the Masonic Lodge and the Elks Lodge. He served two-four year terms as a trustee at Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital (UMC).”

Snapshots given to Bill Pursel by Marilyn in 1947

Bill’s memories of Marilyn – they dated on and off for several years – were unknown to to the public until he spoke with Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed. They met in 1946, when 19 year-old Norma Jeane was staying with a family friend in Las Vegas while waiting her divorce from Jim Dougherty. Bill later visited her in Los Angeles, and was waiting at the house she shared with Ana Lower when she returned from a meeting at Twentieth Century Fox with a contract and a new name.

She was dropped by the studio a year later, but pursued her craft at the Actors Lab, even once asking college student Bill to enroll. They remained close after she began a romance with Fred Karger in 1948, and she later asked Bill to protect her from a ‘beach wolf’ – none other than actor Peter Lawford, who would play a significant role in her final days. Bill saw her as both dedicated and vulnerable in Hollywood, recalling a distressing phonecall during the Love Happy promotional tour of 1949. And then, just as their relationship seemed likely to turn serious, Marilyn called it off – leaving Bill with nothing but a couple of signed photos (now owned by collector Scott Fortner.)

Marilyn’s parting gift to Bill

Bill heard from Marilyn just once more, shortly after she began dating Joe DiMaggio. By then, Bill was happily married. He later recalled seeing her singing Happy Birthday to President Kennedy on television, just months before her death in 1962. He felt no bitterness, and knowing her sensitive nature, he was saddened but not surprised by her tragic demise.

Mr Pursel died last Thursday, June 1st – on what would have been Marilyn’s 91st birthday. He is survived by his wife of more than sixty years, Mabel ‘Mac’ Salisbury Pursel; and his children, William ‘Bill’, Kristie, and Kim (‘Bill’) Toffelmire, her stepchildren and their children, and several nieces and nephews.

Michelle Morgan has written an emotional tribute to Bill Pursel:

“He has been a constant presence in my life since 2005, when I first contacted him during the writing of my Marilyn book. What started out as an interview, turned into a friendship between Bill, his beautiful wife Mac, his family and my own … My work has been deeply enriched because of Bill’s stories, and my life has been changed because of his friendship. He was a huge supporter of my career, and gave me lots of advice in recent years … Good night, Bill. Thank you for your wonderful friendship. You were one of the best friends I ever had.”

You can pay your respects to Bill here.

Marilyn at Julien’s: Childhood and Family

Norma Jeane as a young model, photographed by Andre de Dienes
Norma Jeane as a young model, photographed by Andre de Dienes

In the first of a new series, I’m looking at items from the upcoming auction at Julien’s relating to Marilyn’s family and her early life as Norma Jeane. This photo shows her mother Gladys as a child with brother Marion.

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He would later accompany Gladys and her baby daughter on a trip to a Los Angeles beach. However, Marion disappeared sometime afterwards, and was never heard of again. Norma Jeane would live with his wife and children for a few months after Gladys was committed to a psychiatric hospital.

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Between the ages of nine to twelve, Norma Jeane collected stamps. The fact that she kept hold of the album until she died suggests it brought back calmer memories of what was often an unsettled childhood.

Ana Lower was the aunt of Grace Goddard, who had become Norma Jeane’s legal guardian after Gladys fell ill. Norma Jeane lived with Ana, a devout Christian Scientist, for two years. By then Ana was in her fifties, but this photo shows her as a younger woman.

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Marilyn considered Ana to be one of the most important influences in her life. This letter, written while Norma Jeane was visiting her half-sister for the first time, shows that the affection was mutual.

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My precious Girl,” Ana wrote, “You are outward bound on a happy journey. May each moment of its joyous expectations be filled to the brim. New places, faces and experiences await you. You will meet them all with your usual sweetness and loving courtesy. When you see your sister you will truly both receive a blessing.”

These photos of Marilyn’s first husband, James Dougherty, were found behind the portrait of Ana. He is wearing his Merchant Marine’s uniform.

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By the late 1940s, Gladys had been released from hospital, but her condition quickly deteriorated.  She suffered from severe delusions, and disapproved of Norma Jeane’s ambition to act. However, there were still tender moments between mother and daughter, as this card from Gladys reveals.

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“Dear One,” she wrote, “I am very grateful for all the kindness you’ve shown me and as a Loving Christian Scientist (my pencil broke) I hope our God will let me return some goodness to you with out doing myself any harm. For I know good is reflected in goodness, the same as Love is reflected in Love. As a Christian Scientist I remain very truly your Mother.”

As Marilyn’s fame grew, she tried her best to shield family members from unwanted publicity. Grace Goddard, who had retained guardianship of Gladys throughout her long illness, wrote an anxious letter to Marilyn in August 1953. Gladys had recently been admitted to a private rest-home, and Marilyn would pay for her mother’s care until she died.

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Such a burden for a delicate little girl like you to hear,” Grace wrote. Marilyn, then filming River of No Return in Canada, sent her money transfer for $600. Grace, who had cancer, passed away weeks later.

Pepper Davis at University High

Lavonne ‘Pepper Paire’ Davis, a wartime star of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, attended University Senior High School, West Los Angeles, at the same time as Norma Jeane Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe.

Born in 1924, Davis would probably have been two academic grades above Norma Jeane, who briefly attended from February to June 1942, when she left to marry Jim Dougherty. It’s therefore unlikely that the girls knew each other well, although Davis admits, ‘People still call to buy my yearbook.’ University High has often been used as a location in films and TV.

University Senior High, Los Angeles

Interestingly, Davis worked at Lockheed Munitions Plant after leaving high school. She was studying English at UCLA (where Marilyn would later take night classes) when a baseball scout picked her for the team. Davis travelled across America with the All-Stars, earning just $55 a week.

Jim Dougherty had worked at Lockheed in 1941, when he first met Norma Jeane. After Dougherty joined the Merchant Marine, Norma Jeane worked at the Radioplane Munitions Factory where she was first discovered by photographer David Conover. After finding fame in Hollywood as Marilyn Monroe, she married one of baseball’s all-time greats, Joe DiMaggio, in 1954.

Described on Wikipedia as ‘a fine defensive player with good range on the field and a strong throwing arm’, Pepper played with the All-Stars from 1944-53. She was portrayed by Geena Davis (no relation) in the 1992 movie, A League of Their Own, and her autobiography, Dirt in the Skirt, was published in 2009.

 

Norma Jeane on Catalina Island

The Los Angeles Times reports today of a new exhibition, ‘Before She Was Marilyn’, opening at Catalina Island Museum in August. The display, featuring letters and photos, will focus on Marilyn’s time living with her first husband, Jim Dougherty, on the island during World War II, when it was used as a Marine base.

August 6, 2011 – October 31, 2011

“I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”

‘Before She Was Marilyn: Marilyn Monroe on Catalina Island is the first major exhibition documenting the year Marilyn Monroe lived on Catalina Island. Although a brief period that is often ignored by historians, this candid and often disturbing exhibition brings to light documentary evidence and photographs that reveal the pivotal importance of this period in understanding the troubled psychology of a woman who would become an icon of popular culture. Born to an emotionally unstable mother who was often institutionalized, uncertain of her father’s identity, shuffled off to live with relatives and in a succession of foster homes, the early life of Norma Jeane Baker was tragic. To escape the miseries of yet another foster home, she – along with the boy`s own sympathetic mother – convinced a reluctant neighbor boy, James Dougherty, to marry her. She was only sixteen. The danger was real, and biographers speculate that the young Norma Jeane had been sexually abused, possibly as early as 12 years of age. After graduating from high school, Jim Dougherty entered the Merchant Marine at the height of World War II, and took his young wife with him when stationed on Catalina Island during 1943. Through diary entries, letters and photographs that have never before been assigned to Marilyn Monroe`s life on the island, the exhibition reveals a playful, even girlish Norma Jeane Dougherty. Indeed, the young girl is, as she would suggest in letters, liberated from the anguish of a tormented childhood. Far from the sophisticated “blonde bombshell” who later entered into a secret liaison with a U.S. President, the exhibition probes deeply into a woman who, by her own admission, did not feel married and enjoyed playing with neighborhood children until called home late in the evening by her husband. Possessing a radiant smile that would serve her well in the future, she can be seen on the island`s beaches, rowing with girlfriends and posing before the island`s most famous landmark, the Avalon Casino. But she remained “a lonely girl with a dream,” and only months after leaving Catalina Island, she was discovered by a photographer whose remarkable photographs launched a film career that continues to be one of the most compelling in American history.’