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Ji-min Lee is a Korean novelist and screenwriter. Her first novel published in English is set in the aftermath of the Korean War. “This book was inspired by two photographs,” Lee explains. “One was of a female interpreter at work, standing between a UN soldier and a North Korean POW.” The other, printed in the end-pages, was of Marilyn Monroe performing in Korea for the American military. “I had the same question when I saw those two pictures,” Lee continues. “Where did all the beautiful and hopeful young women go?”

The rather generic European title, Marilyn & Me, was re-branded as The Starlet and the Spy for the US market. Neither title reveals much about the women described, but rather hints at their enigmatic natures. “I always thought it strange that my parents’ generation, having lived through the Korean War, rarely talked about it,” Lee says of the ‘forgotten war,’ adding that as she examined harrowing personal testimonies, “it occurred to me that oblivion might been critical for survival.”

Looking at the picture of Monroe, Lee found it “surreal to see the most famous bombshell of the day singing on top of rubble. She was surprisingly approachable.” This wasn’t a quality unique to the star, though. “All women who survived war had the right to revel in being alive,” Lee says of the women who frequented Korean dancehalls after the war: “I wanted to write about the women who struggled to come alive.”

The main narrative is preceded by a letter from a wounded American soldier to the Marketing Department at Twentieth Century Fox, asking for a signed photograph of ‘Miss Monroe’ and asking if she could visit Korea (“though I know this is a long shot.”) Marilyn had been one of the Army’s favourite pin-ups even when she was still playing bit parts, and by 1954 she was a box-office sensation. She once said it was “not the studio, but the people” who made her a star, and the young men serving in Korea were among her earliest fans.

The novel’s chief protagonist and narrator – the ‘Me’ of the title – is Kim Ae-Sun, or Alice J. Kim as she has renamed herself (the ‘J’ stands for June 25th, 1950, the day war broke out.) By February 1954, Alice is living in the South Korean capital of Seoul, and working for the United Nations at the Information Service Department. “At one point I was known as the UN whore,” she remarks. However, the scars of Alice’s recent past are made visible by her hair, now completely grey though she is not yet thirty; and her badly burned hands are concealed with black lace gloves. “A woman’s strength comes not from age, but misfortune,” she reflects.

Ji-min Lee

Arriving at the office on the morning of February 12, Alice is greeted by her boss, Hammett – his name possibly a nod to the American crime writer, Dashiell Hammett – informing her that Marilyn Monroe is making a surprise visit, and that Alice has been assigned the job of interpreter to the star. The trip was arranged while Marilyn was in Japan with her newlywed husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, but Alice is unexcited by the news. “To me, Marilyn Monroe seems at odds with the institution of marriage,” she ponders. “She moves like a mermaid taking her precarious first steps, smiling stupidly, across the big screen rippling with light.” This description of Monroe’s screen persona, though not exactly flattering, befits Alice’s former vocation as a commercial artist.

Alice had been studying art in Tokyo in 1945 when Korea was ‘liberated’ from Japanese imperial rule. She returned to Seoul, and later began an affair with a married writer, Yo Min-hwan. “He was the talk of the town,” she says, “… the prototypical traitor, steeped in certain values while agonising over others – a Communist working for the American military government.”

Back in 1954, Alice witnesses Marilyn’s arrival at Yoido Airport. “She looks even more sensual wearing a flight jacket and military boots than she does in a dress,” Alice observes. “Her face looks more natural than it does in the movies, but her hair doesn’t. What would she look like if her hair were a different colour, without that overdone icing … Does she hide her sensibilities behind the face of a dumb blonde?” DiMaggio has remained in Tokyo, which Alice believes is a fatal mistake. Standing by as Marilyn greets a crowd of eager G.I.s, Alice feels “as if I’m in a movie myself … but then the fact that I will never be more than a supporting character around Marilyn brings me back to earth.”

Ji-min Lee makes good use of a vast array of press photographs and candid snapshots, as well as journalistic reports and personal testimonies. Marilyn happily serves up dinners in the officers’ mess, and blows out candles on a cake made for her. “A bright halo surrounds her as she walks into the dark hospital; a patient on the brink of death might think an angel had come to take him,” Alice says of Monroe’s encounters with wounded fellow countrymen. “Of course that’s because of the flashes from the cameras that follow her around.” A bedridden soldier tells Marilyn that he once saw himself dead. When she asks if they will see any cities and towns in Korea, Alice refrains from telling her the country is mostly in ruins.

After Monroe’s first performance for the 45th Division, an officer complains that one of her songs, ‘Do It Again,’ is too provocative. “Doesn’t he know that even ‘Ave Maria’ is seductive when Marilyn sings it?” Alice thinks. Marilyn stands her ground – “It is a classic. It’s George Gershwin” – and alters the wording to the slightly less risqué ‘Kiss Me Again.’ Already nursing a bad cold, she insists on wearing a skimpy cocktail dress for all her shows. “She has to stand on stage, no matter how feverish and ill she is; she has to be in front of an audience no matter how lonely, misunderstood and rejected she might feel,” Alice realises.

Back in her makeshift dressing room, Monroe seems humbled. “I’ve never sung in front of so many people,” she tells Alice. “I’ve never gotten so much applause.” According to biographical lore, Marilyn admitted this during a telephone call to her unimpressed husband. She then searches anxiously for her make-up bag, and the stash of sleeping pills inside. “Those sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past,” Alice reflects.

Marilyn with Korean actress Choi Eun-hee

Monroe then asks her about Choi Eun-hee and Paek Song, the two Korean actresses who posed for photographs with her at the airport. She seems in awe of their careers on stage and screen, recalling that her acting teacher, Michael Chekhov, said her sensuality would always overshadow her other qualities. “I always wish directors and writers would really get to know me and write about the real me,” she confides, but Alice believes this is dangerous: “You’ll hate yourself when you see yourself in someone else’s work,” she warns. “And he will end up hating the character while he is writing.”

Their conversation is interrupted by Hammett, who informs Alice with some urgency that a mutual acquaintance from their past has unexpectedly returned to Seoul. She was first introduced to Joseph, an Asian American claiming to be a missionary, by her lover Min-hwan in 1949. Joseph had offered to teach her English if she taught him Korean, and also introduced her to Hammett. At the same time, she found work creating posters for the new South Korean government, while in the North, a Soviet-backed People’s Republic had been established. “I was that rare propaganda artist who was politically naïve,” she comments, and like many Koreans during this turbulent period, she did not have the luxury of choosing sides.

As her romance with Min-hwan turned sour, Alice embarked upon another clandestine affair. Despite suspecting that Joseph was not all he seemed – “No missionary would kiss as well as you do” – she was irresistibly drawn to him. “A man who suppressed his true nature was dangerous and attractive,” she recalls. “Our love triangle was one that sparkled with youth … Joseph and I were joined together, in the position of betrayal.”

“Are you the intelligence officer who’s been wanting to question me?” Alice confronts Joseph upon his return. He is looking for a woman known to North Koreans as ‘Seoul Crybaby,’ who had been used to broadcast radio propaganda designed to demoralise South Korean and US forces (equivalent to the American-backed Tokyo Rose.) Joseph believes she is with Lim Pok-hum, a guerrilla thought to be heading for Seoul. He was identified by Alice and arrested, but later escaped.

A young Korean refugee carries her brother on her back, 1951

She then explains how this encounter transpired, during the grim months after war broke out in 1950. She was in a POW camp in Huichon, where she helped a Southern agent to gather names. In return, she was smuggled out of the camp with the agent’s granddaughter, Chong-Nim. When the pair arrived at Hungnam Port, the scene was chaotic. “Nobody was going to help us,” Alice says, “we were just a crazy woman and a tiny girl.” After boarding a ship for Pusan, she spotted Pok-hum – they had met once before at a function for the Korean Art Association, where he had complimented her drawings of Stalin. Having tipped off the naval cops, Alice set sail for a refugee camp on Koje Island, where she and Chong-Nim became separated.

After waking Marilyn the next morning, Alice is surprised by her dishevelled appearance and the “crystal glasses and Lucky Strikes” strewn across her bedroom floor. When Alice mentions that she is still looking for Chong-Nim, Monroe recollects her own unsettled childhood. Ji-min Lee then describes another of the star’s few known encounters with Korean troops, as she poses for photographs with the Golden Dragons baseball team. Despite her marriage to one of the world’s greatest players, Monroe seems to know little about the sport.

A helicopter takes them to a marine camp in Pohang. “Hundreds of soldiers are here to see her,” Alice marvels. “Marilyn is waving from the top of a tank, more authoritative than the commander of the UN forces.” But the tour’s breakneck pace takes its toll, and after her next performance, Marilyn collapses. “She’s going to catch pneumonia!” a nurse protests, but Monroe insists the show must go on.

When Alice jokingly talks about a houseboy who asked if the actress was really blonde, Marilyn admits she is actually a redhead: “But now this is my real colour,” she adds. “If Marilyn Monroe isn’t a blonde, everyone is going to feel betrayed.” Like Alice, Monroe had transformed herself several years before: by becoming a blonde, and changing her name (although her military identification card shows that legally, she was still Norma Jeane DiMaggio.)

That evening, Joseph returns with another ‘ghost’ – Min-hwan. “I heard you died up north,” Alice says, and he replies, “That’s no rumour. I am dead. I’ll be a dead man until I’m really dead for good.” With most of his family dead, Min-hwan escaped to Tokyo and has returned to search for his young daughter. “I’ve forgotten everything,” he tells Alice. “You should, too. That’s the only way we can go on.” But he still doesn’t know the extent of her betrayal, in the form of a letter sent to his wife shortly before war broke out in May 1950. As with the fan-mail which drew Marilyn to Korea, this letter set in motion a chain of events which Alice could not have imagined.

The novel’s penultimate chapter is preceded by a dramatic confrontation with Lim Pok-Hum in a movie theatre which seems to recall the infamous shooting of American gangster John Dillinger by federal agents outside a Chicago cinema in 1934. During the melee, a yellow paint pot is spilled over Alice’s grey hair (“I’m an instant blonde,” she says drily.) However, this Noir-ish scene is merely the violent prelude to a long letter written by Alice to Min-hwan, revealing her horrific memories of the war. Joseph tries to dissuade her: “Do you still not understand what kind of man he is? Betrayal is a two-way street.” Alice in turn, begs Joseph to give up his search for Seoul Crybaby (“She doesn’t want to come back.”)

But it’s Marilyn, not Joseph, who will finally lift Alice from her despair. “Well, here we are, two fake blondes,” she sighs. As Alice confesses that all this was for a man, Monroe asks no more. They head back to Noido Airport, where Marilyn will board a flight for Tokyo and rejoin her husband. In a scene reminiscent of Casablanca’s bittersweet ending, Min-hwan asks Alice to leave Seoul with him. But her last goodbye is to Monroe, who may not even know her real name, but will remember their adventure through a portrait that has reawakened Alice’s creative spark.

In reality there was no Alice Kim, and Marilyn’s interactions with ordinary Koreans seem to have been limited. Her closest companion on the trip was Jean O’Doul, wife of baseball player Lefty O’Doul. Monroe wasn’t the only Hollywood star who entertained the troops in Korea; but her visit has lingered in public memory, and she considered it one of the high points of her life. By placing a Korean woman centre-stage, Ji-Min Lee enables Western readers to understand the war from a new perspective. Ultimately, Marilyn’s impact was not merely patriotic, but a lesson in reaching out to all humanity. In Marilyn & Me, her iconic power is sensitively explored and also provides a universal key to this forgotten war.

Eight years later, Monroe died from an overdose of sleeping pills. “I think she was a victim of her own beauty,” Ji-Min Lee writes in her afterword. “If I could meet her, I would ask her if she could have been stronger, more vicious, more solitary so that she wouldn’t have had to sacrifice herself.” But the novel’s strength lies in not dwelling on Monroe’s tragic fate, but in finding a common ground of trauma and survival with another woman. “In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five,” Lee notes, “the main character says he wants to write an anti-war novel. A movie maker says he should write an anti-glacier book instead. I’m sure that for someone like me, who didn’t experience war first-hand, writing about it isn’t all that different from touching only the tip of an enormous glacier.”

Eschewing the broad scope of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, Marilyn & Me is on a par with more restrained fictions focusing on shorter periods of Monroe’s life, such as Adam Braver’s Misfit. With her screenwriting background, it’s tempting to wonder of Ji-min Lee has considered bringing her novel to the big screen, as after the runaway success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Korean cinema is currently in high demand. And despite being fiction, Marilyn & Me offers a more intimate vision than the purportedly factual 2011 biopic, My Week With Marilyn.

Among Lee’s listed references are Carl G. Rollyson’s Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, and Marilyn’s own memoir, My Story, concluded shortly after her return from Korea, both translated in 2003. As an introduction to the real-life story, I would recommend ‘When Marilyn Monroe Interrupted Her Honeymoon to Go to Korea,’ Liesl Bradner’s article for Military History Quarterly; and for further insight, read A Different View of Marilyn by her bandleader Al Guastefeste.