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Two steel filing cabinets, removed from Marilyn Monroe’s home in the days following her death in 1962, have become part of the paraphernalia surrounding her legend. Frequently mentioned in biographies, the cabinets became as symbolic as Marilyn’s white piano or the fluffy tiger found on her lawn by police.  According to whom you read, the files held the key to Monroe’s inner soul or the truth about her untimely demise.

The files were kept by Inez Melson, who was Monroe’s business manager for two years, and became the legal guardian of Gladys Baker Eley, the star’s mentally ill mother who was living in a California sanatorium.  When Marilyn died of an overdose aged just thirty-six, Melson qualified by proxy as her closest relative in Los Angeles. Monroe had instructed her staff to protect her personal documents at all costs. So when Melson took the cabinets, she was only doing her job. She was appointed administrator to Marilyn’s estate, but division of assets proved acrimonious.

Even before her death, Monroe had wanted to change her will. Melson suspected that lawyer Aaron Frosch had colluded with Marilyn’s dramatic mentors, the Strasbergs, to ensure that they would be her main beneficiaries. Unable to prove this, Melson ensured that Mrs Eley’s care was paid for, and she continued as her guardian until 1967. By 2005, Melson had died and the cabinets were in the hands of her nephew, Mill Conroy. He offered an Australian photographer, Mark Anderson, the opportunity to capture the documents on film, as well as clothing and jewellery belonging to Monroe. Anderson contacted Dr Lois Banner, a professor of Cultural History and Women’s Studies at the University of Southern California, who was conducting her own research into Monroe’s life.

The files were then acquired by Anna Strasberg, heir to Monroe’s estate, and she permitted Banner and Anderson to continue their work. Their discovery was first made public in a 2008 cover story for Vanity Fair, marking the magazine’s 25th anniversary. Now a more detailed study has been published, MM — Personal : From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe. ‘Marilyn belongs to the nation,’ Banner writes in her introduction. ‘As with those of any national figure, her papers should be available to scholars and the public.’ While I’m not sure how Marilyn would feel about this, she is one of the most famous women in modern American history, and serious consideration of her life and work is worthwhile.

Banner describes Anderson’s 300 photographs of the items – sometimes framed by Monroe’s favourite things, roses, and Chanel No. 5 – as ‘landscapes haunted by the image of Marilyn.’ The book also includes rare candid photos, a 1950 session with Richard C. Miller, John Bryson’s 1960 magazine spread, and costume test stills from Monroe’s final movies. At first glance, MM – Personal is reminiscent of The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe, the hardback catalogue for the 1999 Christie’s auction of Strasberg’s collection. However, Banner has provided an accompanying text, including a 30-page biographical essay, and further chapters on the archive’s public and private dimensions.

Marilyn in Public

‘As a model,’ Banner writes, ‘she was a photographer’s dream. Norma Jeane suffered from severe stage fright when she had to perform before an audience or a movie director, but it didn’t appear if she spoke no lines and had no audience.’ While Marilyn’s movie performances are justly celebrated, Banner also considers her stunning photographic work. No passive beauty, she brought a joyous energy to the most contrived poses that no other model could match. A 1958 telegram from photographer Richard Avedon proposes a re-shoot, after a promotional session for Some Like it Hot yielded disappointing results. Monroe – known on film sets for her multiple retakes – appreciated his perfectionism. She also admired the illustrator, Jon Whitcomb, and wrote to him of her delight ‘at last to be a Whitcomb girl!’

At times she drove a hard bargain, as a letter from costumier Dorothy Jeakins, written after MM rejected her designs for The Misfits, reveals. Jeakins had dressed the actress in two prior movies: nonetheless, she was replaced. Another letter begs Marilyn to reconsider her decision to omit co-star Frankie Vaughan’s name from the soundtrack to Let’s Make Love, perhaps successfully, as it appears on the final album cover. Business letters between Marilyn’s lawyers and the executives at Twentieth Century-Fox show an uneasy partnership, despite her huge success. After being assigned to Pink Tights in 1954, Monroe replied tersely, ‘I finally receipted script. And exceedingly sorry but I do not like it.’ Her tenacity eventually paid off and she renegotiated her contract. In later years, Fox would have to pay her thousands of dollars for time lost on unprepared projects.

However, Monroe still felt trapped by the studio system. Tensions peaked in 1962 when she was fired from Something’s Got to Give. It is now widely believed that Fox agreed to reinstate MM in the week before her death, though this is not documented here. She recognised her own shortcomings, though, and sweetly offered to ‘do any painting, cleaning, brushing you need around the house’ for director George Cukor.

Marilyn often felt ambivalent about her own performances. Her role in Some Like it Hot, now considered one of the greatest comedies ever made, was still a variation on the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype she had tried so hard to escape. Her friend Norman Rosten reassured her, ‘I feel it’s a shame that you didn’t get more to do…But…nothing could really destroy your wonderful quality that gives the film its one touch of “seriousness” (humanity) it needs for any sort of balance.’

Her lateness and on-set demands while filming Some Like it Hot led to public insults from director Billy Wilder, while co-star Tony Curtis infamously told a reporter, ‘Kissing Marilyn Monroe was like kissing Hitler.’ In later years, Curtis insisted he had been misquoted, and even claimed to have had a long affair with the actress. In a 2009 memoir, Curtis alleged that Marilyn miscarried his child. Although widely publicised, most MM fans consider his tales to be bogus, and this may be supported by a personal note of hers: ‘There is only way he could comment on my sexuality and I’m afraid he has never had the opportunity!’

In an era when reputations were made or destroyed by the all-powerful gossip columnist, Marilyn developed a shrewd grasp of publicity. Sidney Skolsky and Louella Parsons were among her champions, but when she had an adulterous affair with Yves Montand in 1960, the tide turned. Hedda Hopper published an interview with Montand, where he apparently described Marilyn’s feelings for him as a mere ‘schoolgirl crush’. Letters from Monroe’s lawyers show how betrayed she must have felt, though she never sued any newspaper for libel.

Despite all its drawbacks, Marilyn revelled in her fame and, sentimentally, kept letters from fans. After her show-stopping performances for US troops in Korea, one soldier wrote to his mother about how, unlike other celebrities, Marilyn gladly signed autographs, posed for pictures, cooked meals and ate with the men.  ‘You are a real soldier,’ his mother wrote to Marilyn. She kept a few snapshots sent to her by soldiers, writing underneath one, ‘This is my favourite.’

Marilyn in Private

Marilyn Monroe ‘created a fan magazine image of herself’, Banner writes, and this was particularly true of her past. The young Norma Jeane suffered abandonment and neglect, but the truth is more complex than the Dickensian narratives that have appeared in biographies and documentaries. Ida Bolender, Norma Jeane’s foster mother until she was seven, was ‘heartbroken’ by negative depictions of her in the press. Banner agrees that Bolender was an ‘efficient caregiver.’  Although she was not deprived in a material sense, Monroe often described herself as a ‘waif’.

The happiest period in Norma Jeane’s fractured upbringing came in her early teens when she lived with Ana Lower, a relative of her legal guardian, Grace Goddard. Lower, a childless widow, treated Norma like her own daughter. A letter from Ana shows her deep warmth and spirituality, and her influence resonated with Marilyn for life.

On the other hand, Monroe’s relationship with her own mother was fraught. She barely knew Gladys Baker Eley as a child, and was frightened by her erratic behaviour. In later life, Gladys refused to acknowledge her famous daughter. She had retreated into a fantasy world of religious fixation. Shortly after Marilyn died, her half-sister received a letter from a man called Harry Wilson, who claimed to have been in love with Gladys when Norma Jeane was still a child. He said he had hoped to marry Gladys and adopt her young daughter, and never recovered from the shock of Gladys’s breakdown.

Letters from friends are scattered throughout the book, countering the myth that Marilyn had isolated herself. Towards the end of her life, she lost touch with some old acquaintances. A former manager, Lucille Ryman, was hurt by Marilyn’s perceived indifference, perhaps not knowing how stressful her life had become. Marilyn’s choreographer, Jack Cole, wrote in 1960: ‘The universe sparkles with miracles but none among them shines like you. Remember that when you go to sleep.’

Her three marriages may have failed, but Marilyn was devoted to her stepchildren. Her snapshots and letters to Bobby and Jane Miller are featured, including one letter written in the voice of the family dog. Despite her depressive episodes, Marilyn retained a mischievous sense of humour. A note signed ‘T.S. Eliot’ was, in fact, an in-joke with her poet friend, Norman Rosten. Monroe’s pharmaceutical bills are reproduced in montage, and her debilitating addictions are, rightly, acknowledged. Nor does Banner gloss over Marilyn’s tangled relationships with men. Overall, though, the files give us a sense not of a dazed neurotic, but a bright, vital young woman, struggling against the odds.

‘Rebelling Against the Male Gaze’

Lois Banner has been researching Monroe’s life for nearly eight years, initially ‘as the major historical exemplar of the sexual objectification of women’. Upon further investigation, Banner found that her subject ‘also exemplified sexual pleasure – the joy of physical expression’, and that ‘as much as she constructed herself for the male gaze, she rebelled against that gaze…saw herself as a sexual pioneer.’ Had Marilyn lived longer, Banner speculates, she might have drawn strength from ‘the concept of sexism as a way to understand the oppression she endured and the idea of sisterhood as a redemptive possibility’. In this sentiment, Banner echoes Gloria Steinem, whose Marilyn: Norma Jeane was published in 1986. But Steinem saw Monroe more as a victim than a pioneer.

Monroe was, in Banner’s estimation, ‘a genius at self-creation’ whose impact is endlessly analysed and imitated, nearly fifty years after her death. She ‘embodies the contradictions at the heart of the American character, as we tell ebullient tales for public consumption and try to hide the secrets of the heart that might shame us and bring us down.’ Banner, who contributed two further articles about Monroe to Women’s Review of Books in June 2010, is currently writing an academic biography of MM and hopes that the documents featured in this book, now held by Monroe’s estate, will eventually be transferred to a museum or permanent archive.