Photo by Sergio Serrano
“Let’s talk straight,” Jenna Glatzer writes in her new, illustrated biography. “Marilyn Monroe was a fibber.” Glatzer refers to a Time magazine feature from 1956, which portrayed Marilyn’s childhood as “just short of a life of slavery.” This was an exaggeration, of course – though more likely on the the reporter’s part, than from Marilyn herself.
But Glatzer tempers her scepticism with sympathy, adding, “‘unwanted’ was a feeling she’d spend the rest of her life trying to overcome.” And Marilyn herself once observed, “When you grow up as an orphan, as I did, when you have to do without many of the things other kids enjoy as a matter of course – including love and affection – you feel a little different from others.”
The Marilyn Monroe Treasures boasts a lavish design, classic and rare photographs, and most significantly a collection of memorabilia, in facsimile – all officially endorsed by Monroe’s estate. In a visually-oriented, coffee-table book format, pictures will inevitably say more than words ever could. A photo of her mother Gladys as a happy teenager, is contrasted with the unsmiling, self-conscious woman holding her third baby, Norma Jeane, just eight years later.
And a letter from the Los Angeles Orphans Home, where Norma Jeane lived for a time, is reprinted. “Norma is not the same since Mrs B. (her foster mother for several years prior) visited her,” writes Mrs Dewey, supervisor of the home, to another family friend. “She doesn’t look as happy. When she is naughty she says – ‘Mrs Dewey, I wouldn’t ever want my aunt Grace to know I was naughty.’ She loves you very much.”
Norma Jeane’s birth certificate is reproduced, along with adoption papers signed by Grace Goddard. Poignantly, an expenses sheet handwritten by Goddard is also attached, listing money spent on Norma Jeane. Then, all too soon, comes Norma’s first marriage certificate – she was just sixteen years old. Seeing these papers reminds the reader that she was no figment of our collective imagination, but a real woman in her own time and place. These apparently unremarkable documents help to chart the uncertain course of Norma Jeane’s early life.
During her teens, Norma Jeane discovered a half-sister, Berniece, from Gladys’s first marriage. The thrill Norma must have felt at finding a blood relative is obvious in the letter she wrote to Berniece. “I was so surprised, I could hardly speak…Aunt Ana said that she could see a slight resemblance between you and I and that you looked more like my mother than I did.” Norma Jeane’s handwriting is neat, if sloping – quite different from the large, loopy style seen in signatures from her later years.
Moving onto the years when Marilyn took her stage name, and was a struggling model and starlet, Glatzer addresses the endless rumours about Monroe’s sex life. “Over the years, the number of men who claimed to have slept with Marilyn grew to preposterous proportions,” Glatzer concedes wryly. “She would have had no time to work, eat or sleep if all the tales were true. But those who knew her say that she did have many lovers, regardless of whether she was married or single.” Glatzer is non-judgmental, arguing that ‘career dating’ was commonplace in Hollywood, and furthermore, that Marilyn was ahead of her time in her open-minded attitude towards sex.
There are numerous quotes from her early magazine interviews, and not the usual ones either. This gives a sharp insight into how Marilyn’s identity was shaped, though once again hyperbole may be at work. Marilyn’s words often ring true, and are perceptive, funny and wistful. However, occasionally these quotes sound more like B-movie dialogue than natural speech. It’s possible that some reporters took liberties with what she had actually said, trying to capture the ‘gist’ or perhaps to fit their own agendas.
Glatzer has conducted many interviews with people who have not spoken about Marilyn until now, and this has rewarded her with a wealth of anecdotes and opinions. But there are one or two sources who seem less than credible, and their stories are not really convincing. Here lies perhaps the most uneven, albeit intriguing aspect of the book.
The Marilyn Monroe Treasures is on safer ground when Glatzer debunks the notion of Marilyn as a ‘dumb blonde’, based on the characters that she was generally required to play. “Not a single person who knew Marilyn well reports that she was anything less than intelligent,” Glatzer comments. “She lacked formal education, but she was sharp and quick-witted.” Glatzer also praises Marilyn as “a savvy woman who knew just what she was doing with her image and career.”
A contact sheet by photographer Philippe Halsman, dated from 1949, shows the fledgling actress expressing a wide range of emotions, from laughter to fear. One of the many top-shelf magazines that chose Marilyn as their cover girl is reproduced as an insert. These disparate images show Marilyn at the peak of her beauty and sex appeal. Jane Russell, her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), was one of the few celebrities who grew close to Marilyn, and her charming sketch of Monroe is attached. Another drawing, by costume designer Travilla, envisions Marilyn in the cream silk dress she would immortalise in The Seven Year Itch (1955.)
Marilyn’s trip to the Far East to entertain US troops in 1954 was, in her own words, the most exciting time of her life. She later said, “I never felt like a star until I went to Korea,” and her rapport with the soldiers is obvious in photographs. “She didn’t want to be with the brass,” her band leader Don Obermeyer recalled. “She wanted to be with ‘the guys.’”
At this momentous point in her career, Marilyn was briefly married to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Their marriage certificate and air tickets from Tokyo are attached. Glatzer describes the dramatic breakdown of their two-year relationship, quoting from an interview with pianist and arranger Hal Schaefer, who worked with Marilyn on There’s No Business Like Show Business and, by his own admission, became her secret lover.
After her divorce, Marilyn left Hollywood for New York. She studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, met regularly with a psychiatrist, and fell in love with playwright Arthur Miller. This was a time of self-discovery for Marilyn. Glatzer includes one of Marilyn’s rather beautiful, unpublished poems, ‘To The Weeping Willow’, and covers in pictures her visit to Bement, a small town in Illinois where her girlhood idol, Abraham Lincoln, once stayed.
Joshua Greene, son of photographer Milton Greene, told Glatzer, “(Marilyn) enjoyed being with people who had talent as opposed to money. Money for the sake of money or power for the sake of power didn’t impress her in quite the same way as people with talent and a gift.”
But the changes in Marilyn’s lifestyle were not all for the best, and this period of introspection may have unsettled her. “Marilyn’s mental state was shaky, however,” Glatzer adds. “She grew more interested in pills and alcohol as loneliness crept in and as her insomnia worsened.” Larry Shaw, son of photographer Sam Shaw, has said, “Eventually, there were so many phone calls coming into the house from Marilyn that my mother couldn’t take it anymore, two or three in the morning.”
In 1956, Marilyn married Arthur Miller. Her certificate of conversion to Judaism is reproduced, accompanied by joyous wedding photographs. Miller was not a practising Jew, but Marilyn’s devotion to him was intense. He was being targeted by the CIA, and would eventually go to court to defend his left-wing views. While Miller admitted to having briefly joined the Communist Party in his youth, he refused to name names and was finally acquitted. Marilyn supported him throughout the investigation, risking her own career. A copy of a rather sinister FBI file on Miller reveals the political climate of fear and suspicion he and his new wife had to face.
By 1960, Marilyn’s third marriage was over and her life was in turmoil. Her current therapist, Dr Marianne Kris, was so concerned that she had Marilyn committed to a psychiatric ward. Marilyn was terrified that, like her mother before her, she would lose her sanity. A heartrending letter to the Strasbergs is included, begging them to get her out. Ultimately it was Marilyn’s former love, Joe DiMaggio, who would rescue her.
The final chapters of The Marilyn Monroe Treasures are deeply moving, and Glatzer pulls no punches in depicting the dark cloud of sadness that was rapidly descending on Marilyn. Her fame showed no sign of fading, despite adverse publicity, and an invitation to join the board of directors for a proposed Hollywood Motion Picture Museum is attached, along with Marilyn’s enthusiastically scrawled approval. A delicate watercolour of a red rose, supposedly painted by Marilyn for President Kennedy, is a lovely addition. However it is quite unlike her other personal sketches, which were abstract and impressionistic, and some fans have questioned its authenticity.
Marilyn’s behaviour on film sets was increasingly erratic and while this had been tolerated in the past, the studio system was now ailing. According to some friends, Marilyn worried constantly about losing her looks.
James Gray-Gold, son of baseball manager ‘Lefty’ O’Doul, claims to have encountered Marilyn days before her death, at Frank Sinatra’s infamous Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe. “It made me very sad to see her so dishevelled and unhappy,” he admitted. However, there are so many conflicting versions of this final trip to Lake Tahoe that it is very difficult to separate facts from melodrama.
Glatzer concludes her narrative with an astute, if bittersweet observation. “Looking at Marilyn is like looking into a reflecting pool,” she writes. “She represents qualities in each of us, and in people we love. And there’s something so heartbreaking about the knowledge that the world’s most everlasting star died alone, achieving so much yet not reaching the dreams she wanted most.”
Perhaps that other great star, Bette Davis, understood Marilyn’s plight better than most. Davis first met Marilyn on the set of All About Eve in 1950. “I felt a certain envy for what I assumed was Marilyn’s more-than-obvious popularity,” Bette told a biographer. “Then, I noticed how shy she was, and I think now that she was as lonely as I was. Lonelier. It was something I felt, a deep well of loneliness she was trying to fill.”
The Marilyn Monroe Treasures was published in 2008 by Barnes and Noble and distributed in the US and Europe, though not in the UK. The first edition sold out soon after release, and currently just a few used copies are available, mostly through online sellers. With a few minor reservations, I can recommend this book as a great introduction to Marilyn’s life, and an essential compendium for collectors. Along with most of the Monroe fan community, I hope that Glatzer’s unique book will be reissued soon, so that it can reach the wider audience it most definitely deserves.