Atlanta Celebrates the Jewish Marilyn

Bob Bahr explores Marilyn’s spiritual side in a cover story for the Atlanta Jewish Times (dated August 30.)

“Monroe once told Paula Strasberg, her drama coach at the time, that she felt a special kinship with her newfound faith. ‘I can identify with the Jews,’ she said. ‘Everybody’s out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.’

On the front door of the home where she died, she had affixed a mezuzah with its tiny parchment scroll of sacred Jewish writings. She still had the prayer book with her personal notes written in its pages, a gift from Miller that had once belonged to the Brooklyn synagogue where he had had his bar mitzvah. On her mantle she kept a bronze menorah, which played ‘Hatikvah,’ the national anthem of the State of Israel. It was a present from Miller’s Yiddish-speaking mother.

Rabbi Robert Goldburg had worked with her during her conversion and provided her with a number of Jewish historical and religious works to study. About three weeks after her death, he wrote of his impressions of her at the time.

‘She was aware of the great character that the Jewish people had produced. … She was impressed by the rationalism of Judaism — its ethical and prophetic ideals and its close family life.’

When she rebelled against the exploitation of the Hollywood studio system, broke her contract with 20th Century Fox and fled Hollywood in 1954 for a new life in New York, it was at the urging of Milton Greene, a popular Jewish photographer with whom she founded Marilyn Monroe Productions. For a while she lived with Greene and his wife and helped take care of their year-old son.

Even before the move she lived and worked in what was largely a Jewish world. In Hollywood her agent and publicist and an early drama coach and mentor were all Jewish. She owed her early success, in part, to personal relationships with the powerful Jewish studio executive Joseph Schenck and the important talent agent Johnny Hyde, who had originally emigrated from the Jewish Ukraine. Her three psychiatrists were Jewish as well as many of her doctors. One of her closest journalistic confidants was the newspaper columnist Sidney Skolsky.

But all that accelerated when she moved to New York and enrolled in Lee and Paula Strasberg’s Actors Studio … She quickly fell in with their circle of friends, who made up the theatrical and literary elite of Jewish New York. She volunteered to be the star attraction at a United Jewish Appeal dinner.

The poet Norman Rosten and his wife and children were close friends. She was a regular at a summer of brunches and picnics and cookouts with the Strasbergs in Ocean Beach on Fire Island. She frequently dug into what Paula Strasberg called her ‘Jewish icebox’ there, with its salamis from Zabar’s on New York’s Upper West Side and the honey cakes and fancy European pastries from some of the bakeries started in New York by refugees from Nazi persecution.

It was, in the words of one Monroe biographer, ‘a year of joy,’ made even more joyful by a newfound romance with [Arthur] Miller … Gloria Steinem, the Jewish American essayist and feminist, wrote a perceptive analysis about the relationship and Monroe’s decision just before their marriage to convert to Judaism.

‘Miller himself was not religious, but she wanted to be part of his family’s tradition.”‘I’ll cook noodles like your mother,” she told him on their wedding day. She was optimistic this marriage would work. On the back of a wedding photograph, she wrote “Hope, Hope, Hope.”‘

Her public commitment to Judaism in the mid-50s was just one of the signs that Jews were winning new acceptance in America after the end of World War II and of the changes that the war had brought.

Although she’s been gone these many years, she is not forgotten. Time has treated the memory of Monroe with kindness. Her estate, most of which she left to the Strasberg family, has consistently earned tens of millions of dollars over the more than 50 years since her death … As for that prayer book that Arthur Miller took from his Brooklyn synagogue and Monroe kept to her dying day, it sold at auction last year for $18,000.”

Thanks to Marco at Marilyn Remembered

‘Forever Marilyn’ in Stamford, Connecticut

The world’s media has been eager to report on the alleged controversy caused by the summer-long installation of Seward Johnson’s ‘Forever Marilyn‘ at Latham Park in Stamford, Connecticut. The sculpture, inspired by the iconic ‘subway scene’ from The Seven Year Itch, shows Marilyn’s dress blowing in the wind – and its placement has her rear end facing a local church.

Although the headlines would have us believe that the church’s response has been one of puritanical outrage, the reality is more nuanced – with even the harshest critics stating that it wasn’t Marilyn herself that they found distasteful, but the overtly sexual way in which she is depicted.

“I just find the position to be offensive,” local resident Lorri Tamburro told the Stamford Advocate. “I looked at it and it was, in my eyes, very disrespectful. I think because with what I saw with all the little kids looking up, the height is ruining it. It’s ruining beautiful Marilyn.”

Parishioner Jean Meyer, however, felt differently. “You’re going to have different opinions on it, but you have to have a sense of humor,” she said. “There are bigger issues to worry about,” said another church member, Maureen Matthews. “But I’ll be interested to see how people talk about it on Sunday.”

“It is art and we don’t believe it’s offensive,” said Sandy Goldstein, who helped to organise this year’s ‘Art in Public Spaces’ exhibit. Pointing out that many nude female statues can be seen in Europe (including near churches), she added, “We absolutely mean no disrespect to the church.”

“The issue is, why that statue?” Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman of the First Congregational Church wrote in an email to the Associated Press. “Marilyn Monroe was an artist deserving our respect. Why appropriate her image in this way. Is this the best we can do?”

In a report for HuffPost, Carol Kuruvilla spoke with Yonkman:

“He said he understands the statue is a ‘piece of art’ that is ‘designed to make the viewer uncomfortable … It makes me uncomfortable,’ Yonkman told HuffPost in an email. ‘The question for each one of us is, What will you do with your discomfort? I am choosing grace.’.

Yonkman said he and his congregation, which is part of the progressive mainline Protestant denomination the United Church of Christ, don’t plan on taking any action about the placement of the statue. Instead, they want to use it as an opportunity to connect with their community.

The church has been planning to host a Pride event in Latham Park to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. ‘Marilyn is a gay icon, so it turns out that this may be a fortuitous coincidence,’ Yonkman wrote.”

Marilyn and Arthur in Philadelphia

In an article for the Jewish Press, Saul Jay Singer explores the Judaism of Marilyn and Arthur Miller, including their 1959 appearance at an American Friends of the Hebrew University dinner at Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

“Invited along with her husband to address a United Jewish Appeal (UJA) conference in Miami, Monroe wrote a speech about why she believed that Jewish institutions, especially Israel, deserve broad public support, but she ultimately declined to deliver the address when the UJA rescinded its invitation to Miller after his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC ) indictment. She did, however, later attend a dinner held on September 27, 1959 in Philadelphia by a chapter of the American Friends of the Hebrew University where Miller was awarded an honorary degree to commemorate his ‘distinguished achievement in the Dramatic Arts.’

Shown here is a unique and rare item from my collection, a program from that historic event on which Monroe has signed and inscribed ‘To Stevie – Happy Bar Mitzvah! Marilyn Monroe.'”

Bad Faith: Marilyn and the Mormons

Marilyn’s name has all too often been exploited for profit, but a recent incident involving a posthumous ‘proxy baptism’ by the Church of Latter Day Saints is downright creepy, as revealed in an Associated Press report for The Guardian. Despite having no living connection to the Mormon faith, Marilyn is one of several dead celebrities to be appropriated in this manner.

“Mormons have recently posthumously baptised at least 20 Holocaust victims, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and the Queen Mother, according to a researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the church’s massive genealogical database.

The researcher, Helen Radkey, is a former Mormon who left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the mid-1970s and was excommunicated after publicly criticising it. She was blocked from the baptisms section of the massive collection of genealogical records the Utah-based church makes available to the public through its website, familysearch.org, until she was given a login by a friend.

Printouts and screenshots show that in the past five years, proxy baptisms were performed on at least 20 Holocaust victims. Radkey said she found no evidence of ancestral ties to Mormons in those baptisms or in those linked to famous people.

Her discoveries will bring new scrutiny to a practice that has become a sensitive issue for the church. In a statement, the church acknowledged the ceremonies violated its policy and said they would be invalidated.”

Marilyn’s Prayer Book Heads to Auction

A Jewish daily prayer-book acquired by Marilyn at the time of her 1956 marriage to Arthur Miller will be auctioned at William Doyle Galleries of New York as part of their Rare Books, Autographs & Maps sale on Tuesday, November 7. The book, which numbers some 648 pages, is described as ‘quite worn’ and includes a few notations in pencil, apparently by Marilyn herself. It was originally sold at Christie’s in 1999. The estimated price this time around is $4,000-$6,000. For more information on Marilyn’s conversion, read this excellent article by Simone Esther.

Also featured in the auction is a postcard reproduction of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, signed by the artist.

UPDATE:  The Warhol postcard sold for $1,250, but Marilyn’s prayer-book went unsold.

Marilyn’s Journey to Judaism

Marilyn with Arthur Miller and his parents shortly before their wedding in 1956

In a fascinating blog post, MM fan Simone Esther looks at Marilyn’s conversion to Judaism in 1956 in the context of a lifelong spiritual journey.

 “Norma Jeane’s interest in [Christian Science] drastically subsided when Aunt Ana tragically died of heart failure in 1948, but with her natural intellect and eager curiosity it did not take long for an interest in psychoanalysis and philosophy to develop; an interest which would stay with her until her death.

Perhaps this is one thing that Marilyn found attractive in the Jews that she came to be surrounded by in the 1950s – the tradition’s affirmation of critical thinking, rationalism and natural embrace of philosophical ideals (see The Haskalah).

Already Marilyn’s closest associates were Jews  – including photographer Milton Greene, his wife Amy, poet Norman Rosten and her former acting coach Natasha Lytess – and she held a deep admiration for Jewish physicist Albert Einstein; But it was when she moved to New York to become a ‘serious actress’ at The Actor’s Studio in 1955, that the Jewish home of Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula became her second dwelling. There, she became Paula’s third child and she took comfort in the strong family values instilled by the tradition, something she never had the pleasure of enjoying in her youth. Susan Strasberg once recounted how Marilyn had told her, ‘I can identify with the Jews. Everybody’s always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me.’

So when Marilyn became engaged to Arthur Miller, whom she had known since 1951, it seemed natural for her to approach him and inquire about  joining the faith of his forefathers; Arthur found the entire thing wholly unnecessary, but supported his bride’s decision nonetheless.

Truth be told, Judaism played little role besides providing community in Marilyn’s life once her initial enthusiasm faded – she even later described herself as a ‘Jewish atheist’. Yet in the brief time of her observance, no matter how valid we consider her conversion to be, she provided a platform to other Jews-By-Choice and paved a path for many of her contemporaries to soon, perhaps more stringently, venture for themselves.”

When Jane Met Marilyn…

In Scotland’s Sunday Post this weekend, Craig Campbell looks back at the life of Marilyn’s most congenial co-star, Jane Russell, who would have turned 96 this week. The article was first published in the June 17 issue of Weekly News – and you can read my own tribute to Jane at Immortal Marilyn.

“This most-unusual woman, by Hollywood standards, also started a weekly Bible study group, something she would invite a most-unexpected guest to in years to come.

Jane was an established star by the time that she made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953 with the most-famous blonde of them all — but her opposite number certainly hadn’t yet attained iconic status.

Already an ‘old, established broad who’d been around’, Jane felt Marilyn Monroe might like to come to some faith discussions, but the idea didn’t quite click.

‘At that time, Marilyn didn’t even have her own dressing-room, which sounds insane now!’ Jane laughed. ‘She only got one for that movie.’

‘She was super-sensitive, had her feelings hurt a lot, and the guys around the studio weren’t exactly tactful.’

‘We had a group called The Hollywood Christian Group, and I asked Marilyn along.’

‘She did say the next day: It’s not for me!’

What both leading ladies did have in common, however, was movie success … Jane’s razor-sharp wit was the perfect foil for Marilyn’s portrayal of gold-digger Lorelei Lei, and the song ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ became a classic.

Russell would also star in the follow-up, Gentlemen Prefer Brunettes, which was lacking the Monroe effect and didn’t fare so well.”

Becoming Jewish: Warhol’s Liz and Marilyn

Becoming Jewish: Warhol’s Liz and Marilyn, a new exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, explores the parallels between Marilyn and Elizabeth Taylor, who both converted to Judaism, and Andy Warhol’s fascination with the cult of celebrity.

As Flavorpill reports, the exhibition (opening on September 25, through to February 7, 2016) is divided into three sections – Celebrity, Conversion, and Myth & Legend.

The New York Observer reveals that Marilyn’s Menorah will be on display, alongside two 1962 paintings by Warhol, ‘Mint Marilyn’ and ‘Blue Liz’, as well as two print portraits of the women, and assorted photographs, letters, and ephemera.

Marilyn and Arthur: Not Such an Odd Couple

Writing for St Louis Jewish Light, Robert A. Cohn looks back at Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller.

“Like Joe DiMaggio before him, Miller was completely smitten by Monroe, who despite her ‘dumb blonde’ persona in many of her roles, was actually quite intelligent and a graduate of the Actors Studio, along with Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Dustin Hoffman. Monroe fully requited Miller’s love, and became a Jew by choice under the supervision of Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg, who signed her official Certificate of Conversion on July 1, 1956. Her conversion pleased Miller’s parents and siblings at the time, and even after her divorce, she continued to identify herself as ‘Jewish.’ Among her prized possessions was a Hanukkah menorah that played ‘Hatikva’, Israel’s national anthem, an item that fetched a tidy sum when auctioned off by Christie’s in New York in 1999.”