The front cover image presents – in extreme close-up and suffused in glitter – all the facial attributes of a screen goddess: the bedroom eyes, red lips, and of course her beauty mark (cut into the dustjacket.) And yet, she’s both familiar and strangely not herself: a dazzling mask. Only when the jacket unfolds and the iconic image is revealed in full can we be certain this is Marilyn Monroe, from the same photo shoot that inspired Andy Warhol’s first silkscreens. Beneath this vivid mask, a glossy black hardcover is embossed with a short verse in white font: “No one knows/how it feels/inside my troubled mind/No one wants to.”
Beauty Mask: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe is the latest addition to Carole Boston Weatherford’s extensive series of books for children and young adults, although Monroe represents a departure from her mostly African-American subjects. “For anyone who’s ever been disrespected, mistreated, underestimated, or misunderstood,” the dedication reads, with the addendum: “Let your star shine.”
The interior’s sepia colour scheme and hazy background imagery evokes nostalgia for a lost icon (there are no photos or illustrations of Monroe inside.) Following the initials ‘MM ’ on silk sheets, the first of over 100 poems written from Marilyn’s perspective, ‘Stand Still,’ finds her at a dress fitting for her last major public appearance, a perfect intersection of glamour and politics. Her so-called ‘nude dress,’ worn as she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ to John F. Kennedy, was made from numerous flesh-toned beads (as seen in the background.) However, she was not “sewn into” it as the poem states.
“Nothing in my Norma Jeane beginnings/Pointed towards this moment,” she reflects, leading us back to her humble origins. In ‘Mother Never Smiled,’ we learn that Gladys wasn’t equipped for motherhood (She needs to get her mind right first, grandmother Della says.) Norma Jeane’s removal to a foster family at twelve days old is presented as the outcome of her mother’s first psychotic break. Actually, most biographers agree this came much later. The Bolenders were Della’s Christian neighbours, and Norma Jeane was one of several children they fostered. As a lone parent, Gladys needed the wages from her job as a film cutter in Los Angeles to support her child, and so the arrangement was a practical necessity.
Nonetheless, Norma Jeane found it hard to bond with her fragile mother during weekend visits. In ‘Age Three,’ she recalls “a tug-of-war between my two mothers” when Gladys stuffed her frightened daughter into a duffel bag. The little girl was often confused as to her mother really was: the stern, but caring Ida Bolender (Don’t call me Mama), or the strange woman from the city (Don’t make so much noise, Norma.) After her pet dog was killed by a neighbour, Gladys removed Norma Jeane from her home of seven years. “If only Ida had been able to console me,” she laments (in ‘Tippy.’) The background image of a country lane overlays ‘Reunion’: “I climbed in back and rode off/with a woman I barely knew … Out my window, Aunt Ida faded like a mirage.”
Their first home together was a cramped apartment shared with Gladys’ co-worker, the vivacious Grace. “Grace was the sun over the horizon,” Norma Jeane believed, and “Mama was the moon/waxing and waning between dark moods.” The young girl fixated upon “the only photograph in Mom’s home,” a man with “a moustache and smiling eyes” and “a slouched hat to the side,” noticing that he was “a dead ringer for Clark Gable.” That’s your father, Gladys told her, a man whose daughter would dream of him “a thousand times,” but never know (from ‘My First Happy Time.’) In ‘Daydreaming of Daddy,’ a rain-soaked Norma imagines her father is waiting with galoshes.
Gladys yearned to buy a home for herself and Norma Jeane, and the Bolenders’ simple country house is replaced by the image of a suburban white picket fence in ‘Mama’s Dream House’ (“that dream anchored her,” her daughter observes.) But this was a dream she could scarcely afford. In ‘Who’s Watching?’, Norma charts their desperation: “Aunt Grace tried her best to lift Mama’s spirits/but could not convince her I was happy,” admits the uprooted child, who keeps asking, Are we going to visit Aunt Ida soon? Finally, Grace took action: “She grabbed the one thread of hope/that Mama clung to and wove a vision …”
With the help of a ‘fairy godmother’ – in the guise of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a New Deal program offering low-cost mortgages to cash-strapped workers – Gladys and her girl moved into a house near the Hollywood Bowl. Filled with optimism, she bought a piano and painted it white, for Norma Jeane to play on. “Mom didn’t care much about money,” Norma Jeane remarks (in ‘Homeowners.’) They took in boarders from the film industry, and enjoyed merry nights with Grace – in a striking contrast to her previous life with the Bolenders. But after the first flush of happiness, Gladys came under increasing financial pressure, and so her latent demons resurfaced. “I could not hear or drown out the voices,” Norma says. “They were in her head/but I suppose I lived with them too” (from ‘Housemates.’)
The uncertainty of Norma Jeane’s life with Gladys is evoked in the next poem, ‘From Wonderland to Oz.’ Inspired by the radio serial, The Lone Ranger, the little girl let her imagination fly (“We’d act out all the parts.”) She was increasingly drawn to movies, sitting in the theatre long after the picture ended. “For me, the silver screen/was like a mirror,” she recalls. “I could not see my reflection/but I did glimpse my dreams … the spell was broken when my worried mother arrived.”
While Gladys was often preoccupied, Norma Jeane turned to Grace for affection. “Until Aunt Grace, no one had ever/stroked my face or cheek,” she says (in ‘Stale Bread’.) As financial pressure overwhelmed Gladys, Grace took Norma to the bakery to queue for leftovers, and while waiting in line, told the pretty little girl their hardships would soon end. “Dinner was stale bread and milk,” she says, “but Aunt Grace’s words were delicacies – /cream puffs in my imagination.”
“With mounting debt, Mama worked six days a week,” Norma remembers (in ‘Mama’s Meltdown’), adding, “The tedious work strained not only Mama’s eyesight/but also her emotional footing.” The death of her young son from a previous marriage, and news of her grandfather’s suicide, pushed Gladys over the brink. Following a psychotic episode, she was removed by police to Norwalk, the state mental institution. Meanwhile, Grace – who had recently remarried – had no choice but to send Norma Jeane to an orphanage. This was deeply traumatic for the nine-year-old, who pleads, I can be a good girl … Please don’t send me away (from ‘Los Angeles Orphans’ Home Society.’)
Feeling abandoned, Norma Jeane’s fantasies filled a need more urgent than child’s play. In ‘Naked Before God,’ she recounts a dream of being nude in church. “I could imagine the heavenly Father,” she says, “but not even in daydreams/could I fathom being loved … At most, I dreamed that someone would see me/maybe even call my name.” But even this fantasy harboured anxiety, as she “begged God to stop me from undressing.” The RKO water tower, standing opposite the orphanage, was a constant reminder of Gladys and Grace, who had worked at the studio. “Often I’d pass time imagining that I was special,” Norma says in a poem about her time at the children’s home. “I scripted lines for my admirers … I voiced all the parts.” After leaving the orphanage, she stayed with a real-life aunt she barely knew. “I was last in line for everything,” she says bitterly (in ‘Olive’s Branch of the Family Tree.’)
‘George: My First Love,’ a short, yet tender poem about early sexual exploration, is printed on a background image of a field. “We hid in the grass,” Norma remembers. “No fear, no shame, but I was still shy.” The next poem, ‘Rape’, is bordered in black and relates an attack from a boarder in a foster family. “I had barely said his name/when my aunt cut me off and stood up/for Mr. Kimmel, her star boarder,” Norma says. At a church meeting, “I began confessing my sin and accusing Mr. Kimmel of molesting me,” but “others’ cries drowned out my small voice.” Her rapist stood in the crowd, “praying aloud for others as if he had no plea of his own.” Fortunately, this dark episode is followed by the arrival of Aunt Ana, who told Norma she “was beautiful inside and out/and not to worry what anyone thought of me” (from ‘Ana: Inspiration’.)
Entering high school, Norma became painfully aware of her shabby appearance. But as she developed physically, boys noticed her at last. “I leaned into the gaze like a bloom into the sun,” she admits (in ‘Junior High: Better in a Sweater’.) Despite telling boys she was “hands-off,” she also sparked jealousy in other girls. “All my life, I had waited for my fairy godmother/No matter how hard I wished, she never arrived,” she reflects in the poem’s last verse. “So, with a tight sweater, pencil skirt/and a dab of makeup, I transformed myself …”
“Alone at night, I wondered why boys wanted me,” she ponders (in ‘Baby Siren’.) “Was it my voice, my vibration, my fault, as some claimed/Or was it because I didn’t have a father/to scare them off or a mother to shoo them away?” There was a broad gap between the timid young girl and her womanly body, but at times she exalted in this newfound power. In ‘The Beach and My Beau,’ she shares a memory of being ogled – by men, and women – as she walked along the shore. “That day, I was not just Norma Jeane/I was who I was about to become,” she recalls. “Someone who was, for now, nameless/but who had finally stepped into her destiny … larger than all the oceans combined.”
At fifteen, she was living again with Grace and dating the boy next door. Jim Dougherty, a factory worker, was five years her senior. “I giggled too much/for a guy Jim’s age to take me seriously,” she thought at the time. But when Grace’s husband took a job in West Virginia, the spectre of “the dreaded orphanage” was raised again. Before moving away, Grace arranged for Jim to marry the waif she was leaving behind. “I left high school – to learn to be a wife,” Norma Jeane says, although “I had never seen a marriage that worked/Unless you count movie romances.”
“I tried to be responsive, the perfect wife,” she remembers (in ‘Teen Wife’), but “I was still a child who didn’t care for grown-ups/Or know the slightest thing about sex.” She tried to track down her father, but was callously rebuffed. When Jim joined the Merchant Marine, the couple moved to Catalina Island, but he was incensed when his fellow sailors flirted with Norma Jeane. “He blamed the attention on my clothes,” she says, “Even though I dressed just like the other wives.”
Jim was shipped to Shanghai, while Norma lived with his family and took a gruelling job at the munitions plant (from ‘World War II: A Regular Rosie the Riveter’.) At eighteen, she left California for the first time to visit her half-sister, Berniece. The two young women had few memories of Gladys, who in Norma’s words was “more feared than loved” (from ‘Meeting Berniece’.)
“There was nothing glamorous about my factory job,” Norma Jeane says, but army photographer David Conover thought differently. “I wasn’t a bit nervous,” she says of her first modelling job (in ‘Pictures of Patriotism’.) Conover introduced her to other photographers, but Jim dismissed her new career as a “sleazy hobby,” and returned to find his wife “not the child bride I once was/but a woman who could take care of/and make decisions for herself” (from ‘Family Drama.’) In the next poem, ‘Blue Book,’ she recalls her first interview with Emmeline Snively, head of L.A.’s top model agency. “In a way, Miss Snively had rescued me from the depths/of the ocean of my past and shown me a new life,” she reflects. “For the first time I realised where I belonged/and who I belonged to: the public.”
Miss Snively would soon persuade a reluctant Norma Jeane to change her hair colour. “I barely recognised my golden-blond self,” she says (in ‘To Dye Or Not to Dye’.) “I had ambitions beyond/posing on beaches,” she says in the next poem, ‘Dare I Wish? Dare I Dream?’ That “secret dream,” of course, was acting.
In a sequel to ‘Family Drama,’ Norma Jeane recounts her mother’s temporary release from hospital, and her husband’s return from overseas. “Eventually, I gave in – not to Jim but to my mother,” she says, shaken by his fury: “At that moment, I wanted to vanish.” With their marriage over, she focused on modelling and tried to divert Gladys from her religious obsession. This extended poem ends with a verse marking Norma’s quickie divorce, and later reunion with Grace in a Los Angeles restaurant, joining Gladys, Ana and Berniece at the dinner table.
More Than Sizzle
In 1946, Norma Jeane was hired by Twentieth Century Fox, her contract co-signed by Grace (her legal guardian) as she wasn’t yet twenty-one, under a new name – Marilyn Monroe – concocted with the help of talent scout Ben Lyon. Although Marilyn threw herself into acting classes and publicity, opportunities were scarce. “Mine was a Hollywood of highs and lows/hope and hunger – both heady and heartless,” she recalls (in ‘Hollywood Underbelly, 1940s.’) Rumours of sexual exploitation linger over this poem (“We were easy prey for liars, phonies, and failures”), but it’s clear Marilyn kept her own moral code. “I detested men who tried to buy me with money,” she says, ever since “I’d been sold to foster homes for five dollars a week.” Although her commitment never wavered, she suffered bouts of melancholy that her celluloid dreams couldn’t quash: “Hollywood archetypes/strained under the crosses that I bore …” (in ‘The Doldrums Passed Down from Della and Gladys.’)
Ladies of the Chorus takes its name from a B-grade musical filmed in 1948. Her beloved Aunt Ana had died shortly before she got the part – her first lead – and as she admits, “My need for love runs deep.” She found it in Natasha Lytess, a drama coach who “saw something in me -/something indescribable yet intriguing -/perhaps more than I could see in myself.” They would work together for seven years, even living together for a time, but there was always an uneasy balance of power. “Natasha demanded I submit to her/For a while, I did,’ Marilyn says, but she never felt as “fully and fiercely” as Lytess. In a sequel poem, she talks about other powerful Hollywood women she encountered: Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck. However, Monroe really belongs to that misunderstood pantheon of sex symbols, and a closer study of Jean Harlow, Betty Grable or Lana Turner would surely be more apt here.
Named after a song she would make her own in later years, ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ focuses on her first great love, Fred Karger, whom she also met while filming Ladies of the Chorus. Karger nurtured her musical talent, but never fully returned her affections. “I realised that love is not an equation/where both sides can be balanced,” she reflects. Money was tight, and in ‘Golden Dreams Calendar Girl’ she describes posing nude for a photographer to pay for car repairs. “I wondered/whether those pictures might haunt me someday,” she says, but then explains, “a starlet with no car could not chase dreams.”
After a walk-on scene in the final Marx Brothers movie, Love Happy (1949), she was sent on a whirlwind tour of the East Coast. “I felt like Cinderella before the clock struck twelve,” she remarks. By then, she had an important ally – and lover – in Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde, a man more than twice her age whom she trusted, but refused to marry. “Our pairing was a deal, not a romance,” she says, as she made her breakthrough in The Asphalt Jungle (1950.) But Johnny would not live to see her star rise (“I missed him so much I felt like dying too.”)
In early 1951 she returned to Fox, the same studio that had discovered, and then dropped her just five years earlier. After a significant role in All About Eve, the studio gave her small parts in a string of forgettable movies. In-between making “film after film for two years without a breather,” she posed uncomplainingly for pin-ups, which “raised my profile.”
“But I wanted more than sizzle,” she reminds us. “I wanted steak -/the respect due a serious dramatic actress.” In ‘All About Oscar,’ she recalls attending the Academy Awards “in a black tulle ball gown and with glitter in my hair,” but would never gain so much as a nomination. Quoting the tagline from Monkey Business (1952) – ‘You’re old only when you forget you’re young’ – she observes that in Hollywood, “the best defence against old age/is dying young.”
In ‘Film Noir’, we explore some of the meatier parts she played at this time, in Clash By Night, Don’t Bother to Knock, and Niagara. “There is no happily-ever-after for film noir femmes fatales,” she says. Off-screen, she met the man whose fame preceded hers. “My photo is what caught Joe DiMaggio’s eye/I was with posing with two of the Chicago Red Sox,” she explains. “We were both under a spell that was cast/between the sheets” (in ‘Blondes Prefer Gentle Men.’)
On her twenty-sixth birthday, Marilyn won the “plum role” which would transform her from ‘femme fatale’ to a more lovable figure (in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: My Die is Cast.’) She was not the preferred choice: the role of gold-digger Lorelei Lee had been marked for the studio’s reigning blonde, Betty Grable. “But Betty cost too much,” she says. “I was a bargain.” There would be no “battle of the bombshells” with Jane Russell, who co-starred as Lorelei’s wise-cracking friend. “When I sat frozen in fear, she fetched me/from my trailer and walked me to the set,” Marilyn remembers.
Of her signature number, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,’ she notes that “the scene certainly shed light on how men/viewed women in the first decade after the war.” Later, she says that “one line in the movie – about brainy women – made me cringe.” In fact, this line – ‘I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it’ – was suggested by Monroe herself, in an ironic nod to the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype foisted upon her.
“Why should women hide their smarts to charm men?” she ruminates in verse. “This I know for sure/Knowledge is a girl’s best friend.” She had hoped that the film’s success would bring her “a raise, some respect/or the right to decide which parts I played. No such luck,” she bemoans. “Rather than rescuing me from the mire of sexpot roles/fame was an ironclad shovel digging a deeper rut.”
Her next role, as short-sighted Pola in How to Marry a Millionaire, honed her comedic skills. In the accompanying poem, Marilyn views her character with bemusement. “What difference does glasses make?” she wonders. “Isn’t love blind?” While filming River of No Return in Canada, she clashed with her director: “But we both had studio contracts and no choice/but to do as Fox executives ordered.” During a rafting scene on the rapids, she slipped and nearly drowned. “When I wasn’t risking my life,” she remarks, “I was a prop” (from ‘The Gold Rush’.)
Having “stage-managed the scandal” of her nude calendar by confessing her “sin,” it resurfaced again as the centrefold of a new men’s magazine (in ‘Launching Playboy.’) Over the Christmas break, she pondered a new script (rejected) and a marriage proposal from Joe (accepted.)
“I staged a one-woman strike,” she says, before telling the studio that “Joe was my future” (in ‘No Pink Tights But a Gold Band.’) Soon after their wedding, she joined Joe on a baseball tour of Japan, and was invited to sing for U.S. troops in Korea. “Joe and I were newlyweds/ but how could I refuse?” she reflects. “If I conquered stage fright, it was because/the boys in uniform handed me a victory” (from ‘Second Honeymoon in Asia.’)
Fox backed down, and she took a role in the glitzy musical, There’s No Business Like Show Business. “By No Business, I had perfected Marilyn,” she says. “She was my invention …” The film gave her an opportunity to perform classic songs by Irving Berlin. “Thanks to voice lessons, I overcame stuttering/learned to carry a tune and deliver the goods/with dramatic gestures,” she says proudly (in ‘I Got Rhythm.’) After her vocal coach advised her to study Ella Fitzgerald’s records, “some of her stylings rubbed off on me.”
The next verse relates how Marilyn persuaded the Mocambo Club manager to book Ella after she was refused “because of her race,” but promising to sit at the front table on opening night. This story is mostly true, and has recently been the subject of several children’s books. However, it was not racism that deterred Fitzgerald; the Mocambo wasn’t segregated, but the intervention secured her a lucrative engagement.
Meanwhile, Marilyn’s marriage was floundering, with tensions boiling over while filming a scene from The Seven Year Itch. “A subway grate/sealed my fate,” she says simply. “I lost my Joe/my beau, my mate” (from ‘Nine Months Hitched.’) “I could not retreat to the sidelines, to being Norma Jeane … Every day I strove to prove that I was not a fake,” she says (in ‘When Love Goes Wrong Nothing Goes Right,’ after a number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) This union of American idols ended as it began, with an unforgettable image. “Her fifty-two-foot likeness overlooked times Square,” she notes with wry detachment (from ‘Fantasy: The Girl Upstairs.’)
The Bus Stops Here
By 1955, Marilyn’s career was at odds with her ambitions, and she felt like a stranger to herself. “The press overexposed her, fans mobbed her,” she says, “and the studio treated me/like property.” Typecast as a dumb blonde, she began to see herself as “a sex machine/to stick in a niche,” fearing that unless the studio system would “spit me out for good.” She had lost control of the persona she created – “Hard work had transformed me into Marilyn,” she says indignantly, “And where did that dedication get me?” Leaving Hollywood behind, she took a flight incognito (from ‘I Move to New York.’)
The triumphant ‘I Am Incorporated’ is inspired by the production company she had formed with photographer Milton Greene. Facing a Fox lawsuit for breach of contract, she was under no illusions about the road ahead. “I began reshaping my career and redefining my image,” she recalls, “to reap the sorts of roles, the types of men/the kind of life I dreamed of.”
Her first step was to audition for Lee Strasberg, founder of the Actors Studio. “The Method’s intimacy and self-centredness/suited me,” she says, “and I dove in headfirst, fully clothed.” She also began seeing a psychiatrist, “to probe the depths/of my childhood trauma.” Thus began a tortuous journey: “Psychoanalysis woke ghosts/and left my feelings raw,” she admits. “Pills dulled the ache” (from ‘The Method and the Madness.’)
Manhattan, with all its “grit and its lustre,” liberated Marilyn. “I traded my ermine stole for a sweatshirt,” she declares gleefully (in ‘New York Orbit’.) “For once I could study my surroundings/without being studied, swarmed and surrounded.” As this year of freedom rolled by, she found herself “falling in love with the Brooklyn Bridge/and playwright Arthur Miller at the same time.” In another poem, ‘Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover,’ she peruses her library of over 400 books. “I only finished tenth grade,” she says, “but I never stopped wanting to know more.”
After using her stage name for a decade, she made it official. “The legal name was less a rebirth/than an erasure,” she reflects. “ʻShe’ had eclipsed me.” Interpolating a line from her ghost-written 1954 memoir, My Story, she hints at darker times to come: “In my mind’s eye, I was the girl/most likely to be found dead/clutching a pill bottle” (from ‘Living Up to My Name.’) However, this sentence did not appear in the original manuscript, and may have been inserted by another writer when it was finally published, posthumously.
In ‘The Bus Stops Here,’ Marilyn discusses her comeback role as Cherie, “a saloon singer with a chequered past/and more ambition than talent.” Her performance won critical praise, but her rebellion was not forgiven. “Critics thought I was a sure bet /for an Oscar nomination,” she recalls. “I hope no one/put money on it.” For her next film, The Prince and the Showgirl, she was paired with England’s most revered actor. With Olivier directing, and Monroe producing, an epic power struggle raged offscreen. “I had hoped that Larry’s classical training/would rub off on me,” she explains. “Instead, I rubbed him the wrong way … He has yet to direct another picture.”
In June 1956, as Arthur Miller’s battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee heated up, his wedding to Marilyn shocked the nation. “Surely, everyone presumed, he is out of her league,” she remembers. “But perhaps he saw me/as a greater prize – not a metal or glass statue/but a trophy in the flesh” (from ‘Marriage No.3.’) “By the time I married Arthur/I was weary of the battleground of Hollywood,” she reveals (in ‘Diary of a Marriage.’) In her Manhattan apartment, she “played housewife,” while at their farm in Connecticut, she “dabbled in gardening.”
She struggled with feelings of unworthiness, suspecting Arthur thought her “childish, pitiful, and not as smart as he had hoped.” And though she talked with her psychiatrist nearly every day, “my painful past still ached like a new wound.”
While her marriage was in flux, her next film became a runaway success. In Some Like It Hot (1959) she plays singer Sugar Kane, “a lovable lush.” A poem about the film dwells mostly on its jazz-age storyline, brushing over the tensions on the set. Shortly after shooting wrapped, she suffered a second miscarriage. She desperately wanted a baby, and was still reeling from her first ectopic pregnancy. “The role I want most/dies inside of me again/and again,” she laments (in ‘Miscarriage Blues.’)
Arthur tried to soothe his wife’s woes by writing her a screenplay, but first she would fulfil an obligation to Fox. “Funny that a twice-married sex symbol/who never liked lovemaking until after she was thirty/would be cast in the movie Let’s Make Love,” she says (in ‘Love Offering.’) Soon she was embroiled in scandal due to her affair with leading man Yves Montand. This ended badly for all involved, including Yves’ wife, actress Simone Signoret, whom Marilyn liked. “Yves chalked up/my feelings to a schoolgirl crush,” she recalls. “He had chosen his words to spare Simone’s feelings/But he had hurt mine.”
In the wake of this affair, Marilyn began shooting The Misfits, which Arthur had written for her, in the Nevada desert over the summer of 1960. “Against the landscape of the vanishing West/a parable of alienation unfolds,” she says of the story, as off-camera, life mirrored art. “Like roping a wild Mustang, the punishing shoot … tested cast, crew, and my crumbling marriage.” She was in awe of leading man Clark Gable, who resembled her absent father. “Would the camera conjure those ghosts?” she worries.
After The Misfits, she returned to New York alone and filed for divorce. “Newspapers were so hungry for a statement/that one reporter shoved a microphone/into my mouth and chipped my tooth,” she remembers. At the same time, she was devastated by Gable’s sudden demise. “Even though Clark smoked/and drank, she blamed me for his death,” she says of his widow, Kay – but Marilyn would be invited to the christening of their only son, born a few months later.
As she did for Joe, Marilyn laments her marriage to Arthur by citing one of her own song titles: ‘After You Get What You Want, You Don’t Want It.’ “Of all my husbands,” she says, he “understood me most.” Miller “fed my hunger to hone my talent,” and “tolerated my tirades and tears,” but her “fear of losing Arthur/Made me throw his love away.” Worse was yet to come. “My mother swears by Christian Science,” she says. “I have put my faith in psychoanalysis … I fought drowning, floated/on prescription pills, or was marooned …” (From ‘1961: The Psych Ward.’)
A Woman In Search of Herself
Still in recovery, Marilyn returned to Los Angeles and quickly found a new beau. “Frank Sinatra and I always come in/and out of each other’s lives,” she says, but her most steady companion was a white poodle named Maf, whose name was said to be a nod to Sinatra’s underworld connections. “I like animals. They don’t tell you to shut up,” she says (from ‘Dogs Are a Girl’s Best Friend’.) In ‘Secrets of Style,’ she muses on glamour: “Surprise with wit. Seduce with smiles. My beauty mark is real.” And in ‘The Physics of Ferragamos,” she shops for shoes: but “the wiggle is all mine. All Marilyn.”
“My childhood was not a playground, but a prophecy,” she broods (in ‘Monroe-try.’) “When I was an orphan, the only thing I owned/The only home I knew for long – was my body/No wonder it became a temple.” In 1962, she began shooting Something’s Got to Give at Fox, but was plagued by illness. After she flew to New York and sang for President Kennedy, the studio fired her. “When the helicopter took off,” she recalls, “I saw how tiny the backlot – conjurer of worlds/spinner of dreams – really was.”
In ‘The Birthday Gift’, she paints a red rose for John F. Kennedy. “Watercolours funnel tears into the sublime,” she says. The poem is inspired by a painting inscribed to Kennedy, and questionably attributed to Marilyn. This poem foreshadows the roses ex-husband Joe DiMaggio would have delivered to Monroe’s crypt, and the image of a rose underlays the final pages. A related poem, ‘The Kennedys,’ dangles a long-standing rumour: “I will never discuss my ties to the Kennedys,” Marilyn vows. “Call that love if you like … Some secrets I will carry to the grave.”
For her final public performance at Madison Square Garden, she was introduced as “the late Marilyn Monroe,” a joking reference to her habitual tardiness, ghoulish in retrospect. “I am late because legends do not emerge overnight,” she asserts, with rising impatience: “How much longer? How much longer must I stand still?” (From ‘Late: A Litany of Excuses.’) In the next poem, she asks, ‘Who is Marilyn Monroe?’ “For Americans, I am democratic beauty,” she muses, “as everyday as a lunch counter waitress.” But while her body is enshrined, her soul remains elusive: “I’m not even sure that I remember her anymore,” she says of the girl who began as Norma Jeane. “I am a woman in search of herself.”
These are her final words in Beauty Mark, followed by an epilogue, a ‘found poem’ composed of headlines tracking her public afterlife. ‘Marilyn Monroe Kills Self/Found Nude in Bed,’ newspapers note on a dusty August morning in 1962. A year later, President Kennedy’s murder is decried in block capitals. In 1999, a magazine readers’ poll names Monroe as the century’s sexiest woman; and as a new millennium dawns, DiMaggio dies, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner will be buried beside Marilyn, whose dresses now fetch millions on the auction block.
Beauty Mark is the first verse novel dedicated to Marilyn. However, her life has also inspired shorter volumes by poets Marilyn Bowering, Lyn Lifshin and Nellie McClung; while several non-fiction biographies of Monroe have been penned for younger readers. Carole Boston Weatherford has expanded the narrative of her predecessors in the field. She writes well about the young Norma Jeane, and is sensitive about issues like sexuality, addiction and mental illness. Nonetheless, her scope is so wide that Marilyn’s own voice is sometimes lost within layers of exposition; and with so much biographical material to draw on, Weatherford occasionally blunders into factoid territory.
For comparison’s sake, I turned to another of Weatherford’s books, Becoming Billie Holiday. This was also written in verse, but focuses on the great jazz singer’s own troubled childhood and rise to fame, omitting her later years, and this narrative boundary allows readers to engage more directly with the protagonist.
“To me, Marilyn was not just a movie star; she was a mood and a mystery,” Weatherford said in an interview for the Here Wee Read blog. “Her life was a poem. Though typecast as a blond bombshell, Marilyn was so much more. She was a producer, poet, painter, gardener, avid reader, and, most importantly, the brains behind her brand … I wanted the narrative to read like a one-woman show, in which Marilyn was recalling her story in an intimate setting.”