I’m proud to announce this article will be part of the first day of the 2017 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film! Since this blog is still a new thing, I hope my participation will be a sort of “breakthrough”, something to really mark the beginning of my experience into this web community. The subject I’m writing about is very dear to me: Marilyn Monroe. If you have glanced at The Blonde Screwball, you have to know the role Marilyn plays in my every-day life, since she’s the first Old Hollywood actress I’ve known and my first crush, besides the leading lady of the film that made me fall in love with the classics, Some Like It Hot.
Well, I start by saying Marilyn Monroe isn’t the easiest person to talk about; she was a larger-than-life woman when she was alive, and now her legend is even greater, increased by the multitude of books, articles, theories and documentaries that have been written and made about her life, and, unfortunately, her death. Hundreds of biographers (sometimes very poor ones) didn’t take too much time to understand Marilyn’s huge popularity and troubled life could be a safe way to make money. As a fan, I own a certain amount of Monroe stuff, including the most important piece: Marilyn’s autobiography, My Story. When people come out with the classic question “Why do you like Marilyn Monroe?”, my answer is always: read My Story. There you’ll find everything you need to know.
In 1954, Marilyn Monroe was at the peak of her fame. She had became a star about two years before, and by then she had starred in successfull pictures that were going to become classics, like Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry a Millionaire. In 1954 she met with photographer Milton Greene, who she had already befriended and would become her associate in 1956, and famous playwright Ben Hecht, at producer Joseph Schenck’s house in Los Angeles. After taking some spontaneous pictures, Marilyn and Hecht decided to set a series of meetings to write down the actress’first biography book. She would have spoken to Hecht freely, and he would have been her ghostwriter. But what had been conceived as an expedent to promote Hollywood’s hottest product of the moment, soon became a way for Marilyn to let off steam. She talked about her tragic childhood, her desire of a personal release and her troubled climb to success. And, although her narration came until 1954, she didn’t talk a lot about her life as a busy actress and a worldwide icon. Maybe because of its unexpected depth, difficult to conciliate with Marilyn’s cheerful screen image, the manuscript never became a book and nobody read it until it was finally published in 1974, twelwe years after Marilyn’s passing and ten after Hecht’s. My Story isn’t just one of the few testaments of who Marilyn really was and how her early life had been, but the most reliable one. Then, the fact the studio never agreed to publish it is a sort of guarantee, since studios never wanted to show their stars’human. My Story suffered an embellishment, of course, but a tiny tiny little one.
The book is divided in 35 chapters with peculiar titles, starting from How I Rescued a White Piano, set when Marilyn was a little and lonely girl called Norma Jeane, until Korean Serenade, where the then international sex-symbol sings for American soldiers in Korea. When you start reading it’s hard to stop, because at a certain point you forget you have a Marilyn Monroe-the-star book in your hands and get excited for that unknown girl’s adventures back and forth in Tinseltown, feel happy for her successes, root for her when she’s in troubles and be sympathetic when she gets wrong. Every chapter is independent, more similar to a little story than to a part of an autobiography, even thought Ben Hecht put everything in a precise cronological order. Some chapters contain essential facts included in every single Marilyn’s biography, just like her mother’s mental illness, her terrible first sexual experience and her infamous calendar (Marriage Knell, How I Made a Calendar etc.), while others are just little every-day life tales (Lonely Streets, Another Soldier Boy, The Police Enter My Life etc.). The longer ones could be considered little essays about Hollywood in the 1940s and early 1950s, because Marilyn describes everything with such a care but never being boring (“Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul”). She describes perfectly the thin boarder that separated the Hollywood of splendor and fame from the suburbs full of screw ups, undernourished and depressed people. The Hollywood she knew, says, was that of losers.
When you’re young and wealthy, you can plan on Monday to committ suicide, and by Wednesday you’re laughing again.
This is the central idea of all the book. Marilyn passes from exulting for her successes to falling into dejection in a couple of pages. She was a restless soul who lived day by day, always grabbing the best life had to offer, looking for an opportunity and having her discouragements like everybody else. But, and this has great relevance, she never had a martyr behavior. She tells things as they were, and even when she talks about the most agonizing situations she never forget her desire of bettering herself and her condition. Chapter 25, Johnny Dies, is the most touching. The death of Johnny Hide, Marilyn’s agent and one of the few people who trusted her since the beginning, died for heart problems in 1951, and that was one of Marilyn’s heaviest losses to handle. Another sad chapter is My First Love, who sees Marilyn pretty much humiliated by a man she really was in love with (she says he became the husband of a famous actress after their affair, but prefers not to reveal his name) who tells her she wouldn’t be a good mother or a long life companion. On the other hand, every Marilyn’s fan will find absolutely enjoyable the reading of chapters like Lonely Streets, About Men and Women and the one about her infamous feud with Hollywood veteran Joan Crawford.
In My Story Marilyn tries to analize herself as she was during her childhood (“a sullen orphan”), and her climb to success (“the kind of girl they found dead in a hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand”). The two final chapters, I Marry Joe and Korean Serenade, are about her relationship with Joe DiMaggio and her show in front of the soldiers in Korea. They’re full of hope, like if Marilyn wanted to cut with the past and start a new life starting from her new marriage. Perhaps for the same reason she didn’t want to talk too much of her life as a famous human being… It could have been the perfect topic for another book, maybe. An happier one. Anyway, it’s a pity she was asked to write down her story so early in her carrer, and would have been amazing to know how she felt in the following years of her life, as a more mature woman.
This is certainly the best purchase you can do if you’re interested in Marilyn Monroe. I also suggest it to every biographer who’d like to write about her, since reading bios full of lies and misspelled names is seriously anguishing. But My Story has another string in its bow: the wonderful photographs of Milton Greene. It contains pictures from the Ballerina sitting, the Balalaika sitting and some taken on Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl’s set. There’s also a foreword by the photographer’s son, Joshua Greene, who knew Marilyn when he was a child and was snapped with her in the photo below.
For those who are poor in happiness, each time is a first time; happiness never becomes a habit.