Charles Casillo is a multi-talented author, actor and screenwriter. His books include the novel, The Marilyn Diaries – a reimagining of Monroe’s final years – and a biography of the novelist and gay icon, John Rechy. Casillo was also a consultant and researcher for J. Randy Taraborrelli’s The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. In an appendix, Taraborrelli acknowledged Casillo as one of the “true experts” on Marilyn’s life, an “’ultimate’ Marilyn Monroe fan who understands her character and personality so well.” Now almost a decade later, with Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon finally published, Taraborrelli hails it as “the book he was always meant to write.”
After a short prologue, Casillo looks back to Marilyn’s maternal lineage at the dawn of the twentieth century. The Monroes were constantly uprooted; they had no lasting friends, and few possessions. After her grandfather Otis Monroe died, his wife Della married off her teenage daughter Gladys to an older work colleague, so she could enjoy her freedom with a new man. When Norma Jeane was born in 1926, Gladys had already been married twice, and her two eldest children had been taken away. While Gladys worked as a film cutter in Los Angeles, her youngest child was cared for by the Bolenders, a decent but staid couple in thrall to Christian fundamentalism.
In 1933, Gladys briefly lived with her daughter before suffering a nervous breakdown. Her friend, Grace Goddard, became legal guardian to both Gladys and Norma Jeane. But this didn’t stop Grace from farming the little girl out to friends and relatives, and a traumatic period in an orphanage followed. While she seems to have been treated fairly well, Marilyn would never forget being labelled an orphan and expressed her horror at being institutionalised with exaggerated tales of cruelty and deprivation. Norma Jeane may also have been sexually abused at least once during these murky years. “Perhaps the most persuasive proof,” Casillo writes, “is in her fractured psyche, her divided adult self.”
Her first real experience of unconditional love came on the brink of adolescence, when she lived with an ‘aunt’, Ana Lower. But Ana was over fifty and in failing health. Grace remained a dominant influence, although in later years Marilyn would feel betrayed by her. Her mother’s history was repeated when at sixteen, Norma Jeane was married off to a neighbour’s son and Grace moved away with her new husband. With so little control over the events in her life, Norma Jeane learned to mask her emotions under a pleasing façade. A schoolfriend, Betty Sue Dugger, grew close to Norma Jeane but never knew of her turbulent background. Similarly, husband Jim Dougherty thought her a happy young bride – and for a time, she was – but Marilyn would remember her first marriage as tedious and unsatisfying.
By her twentieth birthday, Norma Jeane was a successful model, aspiring actress and divorcee. Armed with striking beauty and the ability “to be what people wanted her to be,” she set out to achieve her dream of stardom, and sought out new protectors. John and Lucille Carroll, who welcomed her into their home and were briefly her managers, were part of the Hollywood elite although as Casillo observes, with “a whiff of impropriety” about them. Both Marilyn and producer Joe Schenck would deny their friendship was anything but platonic, although Amy Greene said Marilyn told her otherwise.
A bemused Orson Welles saw her laugh off an incident at a Hollywood party where a man had pulled down her dress. “Laughter hid her fury,” Casillo adds perceptively. Musician Fred Karger, her first great love, and Natasha Lytess – the acting coach who arrived in her life at the same time, shortly after Aunt Ana died – both treated her with “the typical mixture of lust and disdain she routinely aroused.” And yet even while Lytess seemed to follow her every move, Marilyn succeeded in holding her at bay. She was attracted to older men, but her errant father, whose affections she craved most, would never accept her.
But it was her adulterous relationship with agent Johnny Hyde that damned her within the incestuous film community. Although he was thirty years her senior and a known womaniser, it was Marilyn who took the blame for Hyde’s marriage breakdown – and later, his death. One of the tragedies of the Hyde affair is that he would never see her achieve the greatness he had helped to set in motion (securing her first important roles in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.) After his death she was repeatedly propositioned by the same Hollywood men who professed to despise her. She rejected most of them, except for director Elia Kazan, who likened her to “all Charlie Chaplin’s heroines rolled into one.”
It was the contrast between the provocative exterior and the vulnerability bubbling underneath, as noticed by Kazan, that made Marilyn so intriguing. “There was an innocence incorporated with Marilyn’s sexuality that made it difficult to judge,” Casillo admits, adding that Marilyn never slept with men simply because they could advance her: “No one was going to use me or my body,” she said defiantly in an interview from her starlet years. “What was it about Marilyn that made so many in the industry not only dismiss her, but downright dislike her?” Casillo ponders. “Most likely it was the morality of the day, the double standard of male and female sexuality … When Marilyn was a star she loathed the powerful men who ran the studio system, and she did everything in her power to defy them – and they hated her because she knew what they were.”
Over the first few years of her film career, Marilyn toiled in mostly unrewarding bit parts. Of the 1948 B-musical, Ladies of the Chorus, Casillo notes that “the Monroe glow was in evidence, if at a lower wattage.” Her role as factory girl Peggy in Clash By Night (1952) revealed her as “juicy without the usual glamour girl trappings,” while in the final scene of Don’t Bother to Knock – where she played an emotionally disturbed woman – she was “instinctively convincing,” with Casillo comparing her to Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the Technicolour thriller, Niagara (1953), she gained top billing and Casillo cites the scene in which she sings along to ‘Kiss’ as the moment where “the indelible Monroe legend was born.” But it was in her next film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that she found her niche, both as a gifted comedienne and the “ultimate dumb blonde”.
“Are there really any nice guys left?” Marilyn wondered, on the eve of her first date with Joe DiMaggio. Two years later, as her war with Twentieth Century Fox began, she married him. Bandleader Al Guastefeste, who accompanied her while entertaining troops in Korea, observed that she strove towards perfection in everything. On the set of There’s No Business Like Show Business, as she grappled with a failing marriage, she began using sleeping pills to combat exhaustion. Among the studio naysayers, however, there were a few astute enough to recognise her talent, and not just her box-office appeal. “She had a kind of elegant vulgarity,” said Billy Wilder, who first directed her in The Seven Year Itch (1955.)
“They still loved each other deeply,” Casillo says of the DiMaggios, “but Marilyn was discovering that wasn’t enough.” Even after their divorce, “Marilyn never let go of Joe completely – and he continued to hold onto her.” Just when she needed it most, Marilyn found an unlikely champion in fashion photographer Milton Greene. Abandoning her studio contract, she followed him to New York and they became business partners. While visiting Greene’s Connecticut home, Tennessee Williams asked Marilyn if she would play ‘Maggie the Cat’ in his new play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. “You’re a movie star,” Milton demurred – perhaps sensing that Marilyn’s insecurities would be mercilessly exposed in the theatre.
Lee Strasberg, who welcomed Marilyn into the Actors Studio, urged her to seek therapy in order to access her ‘sense memory’. She also became an unofficial member of Strasberg’s rather dysfunctional family unit. “Marilyn had almost no confidence in herself, so she found people to have it for her,” Casillo remarks. “When someone did something she perceived as an insult, she left them and found someone else.” While this was ostensibly a ‘renaissance period’ for Marilyn, the temptation to ‘indulge her dysfunction’ was strong.
By 1956, she had signed a lucrative new contract with director approval and the right to work outside the studio. “Marilyn had no vanity about Cherie in Bus Stop – her goal was realism,” Casillo writes. “Everything about Marilyn as Cherie comes across as genuine and touching.” At the same time, however, this new depth in her acting made her ever more self-critical, and slowly eroded her professionalism. As Casillo reflects, “the male-dominated film industry would never forgive Marilyn for her victory. What she wanted most – respect – was not granted.” The self-produced Prince and the Showgirl was a commercial misfire, though her performance is charming. In fact, that may have been the problem: her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier was rightly worried that she would outshine him, and in Marilyn’s view, he did his utmost to upstage her. It didn’t help that the cast and crew were Olivier’s loyal associates, and her own self-doubt led to constant delays and demands for retakes.
Marilyn spent the next year living quietly with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller. They had first met in 1951, and as Casillo suggests, “they were each other’s fantasy come to life.” Under his influence, her partnership with Greene soon collapsed. She embraced domesticity and loved her step-children, though as sister-in-law Joan Copeland tells Casillo, “a lot of good things in her life didn’t last very long.” The warning signs were evident – during their engagement, Miller told Frank Langella, he had saved her from overdosing at least once. Casillo also believes that Miller was ashamed of Marilyn’s sexual past, and as the marriage foundered, he would become “the embodiment of all the men in her life who took advantage and then looked down on her.”
Although it has been claimed that Marilyn loathed her next movie, Some Like It Hot (1959) – and only agreed to make it because she needed the money – Casillo points out that she accepted the part enthusiastically after reading just a brief outline from director Billy Wilder, and though the tales of her misbehaviour are legion, photos from the set suggest a congenial mood. “There is no doubt that Marilyn was difficult to work with,” Casillo writes, “but because of embellishments related after the fact, some of her behaviour has been distorted.” A prime example is the story of her repeatedly fluffing a simple line, “Where’s that bourbon?” As Casillo observes, she said the line with her back to the camera, so it could easily have been dubbed later. Al Breneman, who played a hotel bellboy, was present when the sequence was filmed. “It wasn’t that she couldn’t say the line correctly,” he told Casillo, adding, “I don’t know what she didn’t like about the scene, but she felt that it wasn’t right.”
After filming ended, Marilyn was shocked to hear of co-star Tony Curtis’ retort that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler.” As she confided to publicist Rupert Allan, Curtis had been so courteous that she even suspected he was making a play for her. His vicious remark “touched her deepest insecurities,” Casillo writes, “further proving that she couldn’t trust anybody.” Fellow co-star Jack Lemmon was more sympathetic: “Her lateness was never caused by temperament,” he said. “She didn’t mean it to be selfish – it was the only way she could work.”
Her greatest success was followed by the disappointing Let’s Make Love, which Casillo argues was sabotaged when Arthur Miller stepped in to help rewrite the script. The great dramatist was out of his element in light comedy: “Miller had never written a truly funny line in his career.” Casillo also takes a dim view of The Misfits, which was written by Miller and shot under enormous strain as their marriage fell apart. “It has been suggested that Marilyn disliked the script because it was too close to her real self,” Casillo argues. “That is not the case. Marilyn worked hard to bring nuance and shading to a character that lacked depth.” Prior to filming The Misfits, Marilyn had been offered the leading role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but Miller’s aides urged her to decline, a decision Casillo which describes as “one of the greatest tragedies of Marilyn’s career.”
Shortly after divorcing Miller, a suicidal Monroe was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. Although Joe DiMaggio swiftly came to her rescue, this grim episode resurrected Marilyn’s worst fear – of inheriting her mother’s schizophrenia – and she felt that, because of her fame, the staff treated her as a curiosity. In late 1961, she returned to Los Angeles and attempted to rebuild her career. She defied press jibes over her fluctuating weight and encroaching middle age (she was thirty-five) with drastic weight loss and a more youthful look, switching her classic neutrals for the colourful, modish designs of Emilio Pucci. She also began socialising with Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford and their ‘Rat Pack’ cohorts, needing a constant supply of champagne and pills to conjure the party girl of yore.
Her new psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, controversially treated her in his home and installed a housekeeper, Eunice Murray, at her own residence. Mrs. Murray’s unofficial role was to monitor Marilyn’s mental state, though she had no formal training. “Greenson was not malevolent but vastly unwise,” Casillo reflects, “and like Strasberg and Miller, essentially condescending.” Another important figure to enter Marilyn’s life at this time was publicist Pat Newcomb. According to Susan Strasberg, who said Marilyn’s nickname for Pat was ‘Sybil’, there was a competitive edge to their friendship. Nonetheless they grew very close, although tending to Marilyn’s frequent demands was also part of the job. “She’d call and call,” Pat remembered. “I tried to do everything I could, but sometimes it was just too much.”
Perhaps the crowning moment of Marilyn’s final months was her performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mister President’ to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, in May 1962. This was partly arranged by Pat, though it would be the final straw for Marilyn’s contract at Twentieth Century Fox, where filming of Something’s Got to Give was already behind schedule. Now the studio would take its revenge for all her past rebellions. Director George Cukor claimed Marilyn was finished, although footage from the movie (unseen until 1992) proves she looked wonderful, and gave it her all.
After her firing, Marilyn threw herself into interviews and photo shoots, most notably with Bert Stern for Vogue. Stern’s handling of Monroe verged on exploitation, and in the more harshly-lit shots she looks tired and wan. Editor Diana Vreeland ordered a reshoot. “Astutely observing the new phase of Marilyn’s beauty, she wanted to see her in couture,” Casillo writes. The resulting images, including the elegant portrait of Marilyn in a black Dior dress that graces the book’s cover, offer a tantalising glimpse of “the actress who might have been.”
“Evidence of Marilyn’s relationships with the Kennedys is mostly anecdotal – but substantial,” Casillo asserts. He compares multiple accounts of key events, including the disputed claim that Bobby Kennedy visited Marilyn on her last day alive. However, he does not give credit to the many conspiracy theories implicating the Kennedys in Marilyn’s death. The whole subject has become something of an urban myth, and some long-term fans feel that it has distorted Marilyn’s legacy.
With a life as scrutinised as Marilyn’s, there are many competing narratives. In an echo of his Marilyn Diaries, Casillo devotes almost half the book’s length to her final years. “Marilyn could not resolve her feelings of being unloved because she felt she was unlovable,” he writes, adding that “the depression that enveloped her in 1962 was like nothing she had experienced before.”
Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Casillo’s arguments are logically structured and carefully documented. In addition to his own interviews and research, he draws upon archive materials compiled by prior biographers Anthony Summers and Donald Spoto. While sensitive and empathic to Monroe’s plight, Casillo is objective enough to realise that nobody else could have saved her. “Rather than being tired of living, she was tired of dying,” he concludes. In Marilyn Monroe: The Private of a Public Icon, Casillo draws out his subject in all her complexity, shifting the media-led perception of “a woman who wanted too much” (too much love, too much power) to something more eternal: “an unusual woman for all times.”