Letters at 3am

illustration by Jason Stout

Thomas Jefferson would have to take the cake as the American figure who most closely approximates Hamlet -- by "Hamlet" I mean a figure whose appeal and influence derive from the very contradictions that torture him most deeply. But Marilyn Monroe would be a close second: Lady Hamlet. No other woman of our iconography has shown so many selves, in so many ways, all so contradictory, and all begging the question: What is a human being anyway, if so much can be known about an individual, yet she remains essentially unknown? When the archivist Michael Ochs approached me to write the text for a book of previously unpublished Monroe photographs, it was this question that impelled me. What follows are excerpts from that book, recently published, Marilyn Monroe: From Beginning to End.

Marilyn Monroe in 1950, two weeks before her 24th birthday, three years before her stardom. Does she look like someone who had already studied The Human Fabric, an authoritative work on anatomy by Andreas Vesalius? She marked the book, "in detail," as biographer Graham McCann put it, "and even at the end of her life would still instruct young friends with an encyclopedic knowledge of the human bone structure." Does she look like she'd studied make-up with such subtlety that even master Hollywood make-up people, the best in the world, would be in awe of her? Whitey Snyder, one of those masters, said: "Marilyn has make-up tricks that nobody has and nobody knows."

And does she look like someone who would say this: "I knew how third-rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn. To change, to improve! I didn't want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act."

Or this: "The truth is I've never fooled anyone. I've let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn't bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn't argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn't. When they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them."

Does she look like someone who didn't have to look like Marilyn Monroe? Even after she'd become the most famous woman of her time, she would decide to leave "Marilyn" at home and show up at parties, or meet friends in bars, looking so different that people she knew did not recognize her until she said something with that unmistakable voice -- and strangers didn't recognize her at all.

When beauty is a gift, it's both a blessing and a burden. When beauty is a choice, it's a journey. The lost-little-girl, born-to-be-doomed, victimized character who's usually presented in biographies as Marilyn Monroe, doesn't jibe with the woman who created her own look, perfected her gifts, embarked on her journey. What she found on that journey was many times more terrible than she'd anticipated, and it destroyed her. But being destroyed by the consequences of your own journey isn't the same as getting run over by somebody else's. Marilyn Monroe deserves to be remembered as much more than a victim.

Marilyn in 1956, the biggest star in the world... Does she look like a woman on whom the FBI has been keeping a file for over a year? (That file is still heavily censored for "security reasons.") Does she look like a woman who, on hearing that Ella Fitzgerald had been barred from a Los Angeles nightclub, promised to sit at the front table every night if they'd book the singer? ("Marilyn was there," Ella later said, "front table, night after night. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.")

Does she look like a woman ready to risk everything she's worked so hard for, and in such loneliness, to defend the man she loves? In 1956, Marilyn's lover and future husband, playwright Arthur Miller, was called before HUAC, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Anything leftist, even anything intellectual, was under suspicion in those years, and a censure from HUAC ended many careers, especially for people in
theatre and film. Associates begged Monroe to stand aside from Arthur Miller 'til it all blew over. Instead, she went with him to the hearings. In her words: "Some of those bastards in Hollywood wanted me to drop Arthur, said it would ruin my career. They're born cowards and they want you to be like them."

"When the photographers come," she said, "it's like looking in a mirror." Someone who looked into mirrors as often as she did, for hours on end, with her precise eye for appearance, must have watched herself change day by day, almost hour by hour, with a fascination mixed of deep fear and great expectation. Will the woman she's trying to be suddenly appear? Will it take another day, another year? Will it ever happen? I suspect that Marilyn Monroe looked into mirrors with that level of anxiety all her life -- the way, as we know, she obsessively studied photographs of herself. For Marilyn, the photograph was the mirror's report to her. Its judgment. Its confirmation. We feel great art in the photographed Marilyn, because art is greatest when it conveys the act of becoming. And that is all Marilyn did, most specifically in front of a camera: She became and became and became.

1958... something has broken. There has been a shattering. In the photos of 1956, shot after shot reveals a sequence of many Marilyns. In the photos of 1958, each shot contains many Marilyns. There is a healthy way for that to happen, and a not-so-healthy way. A person can grow into embodying all their elements so completely that one feels a wholeness in their presence; or those elements can smash together at such a rate that instead of wholeness we're aware of a kind of flicker, as from a film projector, as various fragments pass across the face too quickly to catch. That is Monroe's look now, and would continue to be until her death.

It is difficult to think of anyone more fragile, more haunted, than Marilyn Monroe. A reductive explanation of her accomplishments, the more or less standard psychological explanation, would hold that her very stardom was a measure of her fragility -- that she needed to be worshipped as a goddess in order to conceal that fragility. Doubtless there's some truth in that, but it leaves Marilyn (as so many analyses leave her) as little more than a hysteric frantically compensating for her hysteria.

What if, rather, she was a woman of uncommon intelligence, but no education; a woman with no family, no supports, nowhere to run; a restless, reckless woman, who couldn't be satisfied with either an affluent marriage or obscurity; a woman driven by a need to express something, something felt urgently and wordlessly, as any artist feels it; a woman who had taken the measure of her world and who found a way that she, in particular, could walk through it; a woman who knew only too well her own cravings, terrors, hysterias, passions -- knew only too well the odds against her; yet went on, into uncharted territory, wielding the only thing in her existence that she could depend on: her beauty. Why isn't her beauty, which she so painstakingly created, seen not as compensation for victimization, but as an extraordinary act of creation and courage -- all the more courageous for the inner terrors that tore her without let-up?

She could have withdrawn, but she didn't. She insisted on being Marilyn Monroe, to the end. "I want the courage," she said, "to be loyal to the face I've made." It became a horrific journey, but to reduce it to a symptom -- symptomatic of her psychology, or the patriarchy, or whatever -- robs Marilyn of her reason for being, and of her victory. For when it was all over, the images she'd taken such care to create didn't stop with her death, but took on their own life, grew in number and dimension, and have tattooed the psyches of everyone who has ever looked at her. That was what she wanted, even when she didn't want to want it. She paid a terrible price, but that is not uncommon when one wants a terrible thing.

For isn't it a terrible thing, to be determined that everyone who sees you must remember you? Isn't that asking for a power over others beyond all proportion to the beauty she was prepared to give in exchange? Marilyn Monroe got the power she worked so hard for. Working stiffs and presidents, housewives and Queen Elizabeth, intellectuals and the secret police, paid her beauty their own kinds of homage. But getting power over them, riveting their attention, cost her power over herself. In the end she was crushed by what she'd set in motion.

To the writer Hans Lembourn she remarked: "You said one day that life subsists by its own inner contrasts. If that's true, I'm the most alive person in the world!"

And if she'd survived the terrible complications of her life in 1962? She had promised to grow old without face-lifts. "Sometimes I think it would be easier to avoid old age, to die young, but then you'd never complete your life, would you? You'd never wholly know yourself." Can't you see a Marilyn buoyed by the feminist liberation movement that picked up steam only a few short years after her death? Can't you see a Marilyn reveling in the early militant stages of that movement, and being one of its most public warriors?

For one of her favorite sentences, repeated often to friends, was: "Come on -- let's make some mischief."

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