‘Cursum Perficio’, or how Norma Jeane became Marilyn
Sometimes, one learns about the life of another individual, and some parallels hit home big time. Not necessarily with one’s own life, but with the lives of some of one’s own loved or close ones. In my search for Marilyn Monroe images, in order to combine them with airplanes in my art, portraying a long-lived combination between aerodynamics and MM’s unique hour glass figure, I learned about her tragic life and got intrigued. This is a story, not about an over-publicized blonde myth, but about a real, three-dimensional person behind that myth.
June 1, in the year 1926, marks the birth of an icon. A legend in her own time, larger than life, freeze-framed as a timeless myth in eternity by an untimely death. Forever young, forever beautiful. Born half a year after my own father, who is luckily still alive, she came to us as an illegitimate child, bearing the name Norma Jeane Baker, or Mortenson on her birth certificate. Put on this Earth by Gladys Pearl Baker, a bipolar RKO film cutter, with Stanley Gifford as an absent father who did not want to know the first thing about her. From 9, moving from her then institutionalized mother, something MM herself would experience at one time Decades later, via an orphanage into and out of a dozen Foster homes. Until a first, somewhat arranged marriage to a Lockheed labourer at 16 prevented her from being sent to the orphanage again. He went overseas as a Merchant Marine, leaving her behind at his mother’s place. She never finished high school but remained hungry for knowledge for the rest of her life. Carried stacks of books around , as well as her white baby piano. The odds were against her. A molested, abused, somewhat unstable borderline child that would suffer from an overwhelming emotional damage, vulnerability, insecurities and lack of self-esteem during her entire life. For her as a child, the outside world looked ‘kind of grim’, so she played ‘pretend’ in her room all the time, acting out all the roles of movies that she had seen over and over again, at front row in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Forgetting time and hardship. Dreaming hard.
Yet, despite all these disadvantages, the World came to know her by her alter ego’s name, Marilyn, after former Broadway star Marilyn Miller, and Monroe, her mother’s maiden name. Living a life that would span only 36 years. Filled with a lifelong search for loving, being loved, motherhood, respect, security and just plain, uncomplicated happiness. Wrestling through insomnia, three marriages and divorces (to Jim Dougherty, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller), other love affairs and, desperate to be the mother she would never become, more than one miscarriage due to endometriosis. She liked to associate with preferably older men of some sort of power, searching for a combination of a lover and a protecting father figure. Apparently, she thought she found them, in sports, literature and political arenas. However, these men either used her up and threw her away, or could not handle her psyche, career or image. In her youth, Norma Jeane fantasized of Clark Gable being her father, Decades later she would star in a movie with him, the last film both would ever finish. Gable died of a heart attack a week after wrapping up The Misfits. Crushed, Marilyn blamed herself and her misbehaviour during the movie’s shooting. His widow told her that he had never complained.
After being discovered by military photographer David Conover late in WWII, while working in the Radioplane factory as part of her war effort, Norma Jeane achieved fame as a magazine cover model via the Blue Book agency, who taught her how to pose and walk in such a way that her unique hour glass figure looked at its best. She was all over the place as a cover pinup. A brunette who started to bleach and dye her hair blonde, like her idol Jeane Harlow, underwent a small nose and teeth job and finished all this off with her very specific make-up style. 20th Century Fox executive Ben Lyon discovered her and was responsible for her name change. Agent Johnny Hyde, madly in love with Marilyn, wanting to marry her but dying early without achieving this, really put her on the map at Fox. The studio started to mould her first into one of many starlets through the usual process, and then built her up to world class movie star. They gave her a one-year contract and dropped her. Columbia hired her, made one movie with her, Ladies Of The Chorus, and dropped her too. Rehired by Fox with a seven-year slave contract, Marilyn made the most of small bit parts, such as Groucho Marx’ Love Happy, until she was given a break, playing a real part in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.
A nude photo shoot from 1949 surfaced, threatened to cause a scandal and end Marilyn’s career. Instead of denying it, she owned up to it in public, saying she was in debt at the time. Instead of backfiring, it skyrocketed her popularity even more. Who else could get away with that in the early 1950s? Hugh Hefner owes a lot to MM, because those nude shots that he purchased for 500 dollar really launched his just-established Playboy magazine. After ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ an unhappy child’s dream came true. Marilyn was invited by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to have her hand- and footprints cemented in the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, together with co-star Jane Russell. Fox kept saying ‘Remember, you’re not a star!’ Marilyn’s reply: ‘Well, whatever I am, I am the blonde and the movie is called Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!’ while fighting to have her own dressing room like her much more handsomely paid co-star Russell had. Fighting Fox would last the rest of her lifetime.
After fame had been attained, Marilyn sought respect as a real person. Something she was not granted nearly enough during her lifetime and after her untimely death. On the contrary, she was painfully made fun of and received a truck load of insults. MM’s dumb blonde image and ‘horizontal wiggle’ walk were especially targeted. Even today, people who state that they had ties with her, throw her under the bus with their fantasized statements. Fox boss Darryl Zanuck kept typecasting her as that one-dimensional stereotype. The bubble-head blonde sex bomb heiress replacing Betty Grable generated more money for Fox. Norma Jeane, the person, turning into Marilyn Monroe, the image that she herself had created, was like flipping on a switch. It went like this: tilt head up a bit, smile, eyes half closed, breasts up, jut buttocks out, look taller. ‘Shall I be her?’, then bling, switch on and hordes of passers-by started jumping on her instantly. Switched off, and she became that shy, little, almost average girl next door again, the private Norma Jeane, bothered by no one on the New York streets.
Marilyn was not just that one-dimensional bubble-head dumb blonde sex bomb the world perceived her to be. She was set to also become a serious in deep actress, against Fox’s wishes. Working hard for it, harder than those who truly possessed that technical acting talent, such as the Meryl Streeps later on. Having the guts to walk out of her Fox contract, go to her favourite city New York, rediscover herself and another world out there, wanting to settle down in Brooklyn, go through Lee and Paula Strasberg’s anti-Hollywood Actors Studio as a newbie observer, then receiving private lessons from Lee. Working on something Marilyn had in common with another Studio attendee, Marlon Brando, an incredible emotional intensity and sensitivity. Moving in with the Strasbergs, one of several families Marilyn ‘adopted’ by lack of her own. Confronting herself with her inner demons under the arguably misguided guidance of psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson who overstepped every professional balance. For use on the silver screen, and dealing with her troubled past. It’s debatable whether the Strasbergs and, more so, Dr. Greenson were constructive or destructive to her. She acted on instinct, on screen and in real life. I feel that Lee used the icon Marilyn to boost his career as an actor’s guru. All this was in motion until time was cut short by too much prescription sleeping drugs, that were happily provided by Fox ‘doctors’ for years. Keeping their most bankable movie star ever going as a cash cow, a common practise in those days. In my view, fighting her insomnia, an overdose of barbiturates ended Marilyn’s life on August 4/5, 1962.
The cameras loved her. She did not love all of those cameras back at all. The photographic kind was safe, her friend. Because then she would not have to speak, sing, dance, learn lines, be that ever type casted comedienne. Marilyn befriended many photographers. Among them great ones such as Eve Arnold, Sam Shaw and Douglas Kirkland. In my view the camera held by her close friend Milton Greene showed the real Norma Jeane behind Marilyn. Greene was about the only one who did not want a piece of her as so many others wanted, but genuinely wanted to make her shine as a real person. He smartly stayed away from the sex goddess image. Milton was co-owner of Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc., next to Marilyn who was only the second female actress in history founding her own company, successfully defying the Hollywood Studio System and negotiating pay raises, as well as director and script approvals. It wasn’t about the money or power, it was for respect and recognition that Marilyn took this bold step. She did not care about the money, was quite naive about that, and she saw the relativity of fame. Her remarks “I’m not interested in money, I just want to be wonderful” and “Fame is fickle, and I know it. Fame may go by and… so long, I’ve had you, fame!” attest to that. After Arthur Miller, her last husband, drove a wedge between Marilyn and her only close friend, Milton walked away with just his share in MMP, crushed. He never recovered from it.
Marilyn was scared to death of the silver screen camera and, next to suffering from a short attention span, never felt adequate enough to be at her best and most beautiful in front of it. She wanted to be nothing less than perfect, because she felt that she owed her fans that. Remarks such as Lawrence Olivier’s ‘Marilyn, don’t act, just look sexy’ during the shooting of The Prince And The Showgirl didn’t help either. Despite Bus Stop director Josh Logan telling him not to worry, she’s worth all the trouble. Marilyn was never in a hurry, wouldn’t come out until hours too late or not at all, accidentally or deliberately forgot her lines, got panic attacks, threw up before going on camera, get rashes on her skin. Sheer terror for her. Leaning too much on coach Paula Strasberg, seeking her approval over that of the director. It all happened many times and gave her the undeserved reputation of an unprofessional pain in the ass diva. Simply because the little Norma Jeane inside Marilyn was horrified and, due to all that pressure imposed on her, slowly became too much dependant on prescription drugs.
Overcoming her fear, Marilyn completed 29 movies and was halfway her 30th when she died. MM perfected the art of being both a sex goddess and a witty comedienne, and started to emerge as a real actress. In my opinion, ‘Bus Stop’ was her best. This featherlight tragi-comedy shows the ‘new’ Marilyn, not even for the first time, working hard to try some method-acting. It shows in quite a few scenes, portraying an untalented, pale, white-skinned saloon singer with an Oklahoma-Texas accent, who never got outdoors and was terrible at song and dance, while MM herself could do both very well. Her in-depth portrayal of that girl, struggling to find her ‘direction’ to Hollywood And Vine, was perfect. During the shoot, the patience of director Josh Logan was thoroughly tried. To co-star Don Murray, she was a real handful. Despite the fact that Logan gave Murray a mission to ‘take over the set, leave no prisoners’, Marilyn stole every scene. Much to the surprise of anyone involved, and the press, Marilyn proved that she could do serious acting, be it in a modest B-movie but nevertheless. Signs had already been there years before. Watch Don’t Bother To Knock and Niagara.
Bus Stop and Arthur Miller’s desperate Valentine screenplay gift to Marilyn, The Misfits movie, raise the question if the hysterically screaming girl is acted or is Norma Jeane tapping into her inner demons in an uncontrolled way. Perhaps it’s a combination of inner demons and barbiturates. She loved the occasional champagne but was not an alcoholic, as some say. The Misfits was the swan song for their marriage, as The Seven Year Itch was for her marriage with Joe DiMaggio years earlier. Before, Marilyn had discovered in Arthur’s personal notes how he really felt about her. They were not very flattering sentiments at all, and her world fell apart. His screen adaption for The Misfits also really crushed her, for it was based too much on her own unstable mental life. One wonders if there would be more real acting coming if she had been able to finish ‘Something’s Got To Give’. Things were looking up there, after firing her as a scapegoat, blaming and sueing her for the studio’s screw-ups, there was rehiring. She was focussed, radiant, despite being plagued by sinusitis and a virus. Then death. At least, she would get two things from that picture: have children and play with them, albeit pretend, and the nude swimming scene provided her with the satisfaction of knocking Liz Taylor off every magazine cover. The blonde sex bomb immortalized one last time, two months before her demise. Her last remaining weapon, a trusted old friend to fall back on.
For feminists, minorities and other disadvantaged, the All-American Marilyn was a trailblazer. She did not distinguish in race, background, religion, or politics. She single-handedly opened up the whole sex taboo in the 1950s, defied the Hollywood, Mafia and Washington powers that be, stuck by a husband who was labelled ‘Communist’ by McCarthy, a courageous move on her part that Arthur selfishly exploited for himself by announcing their wedding at a HUAC hearing via the media, before telling Marilyn. She put black Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald in the main Clubs, sitting front row at every one of her performances in LA. Among ‘takers’, Marilyn was a ‘giver’, the shirt off her back. Come with a sad story, and she would give you money or something else. Sucker for children, animals and the less fortunate. Suffering for the World. Admirer of the ‘working people’, the garbage-men’s whistles were an honour to her. Marilyn herself was quite modest, did not need jewels and furs in private. She and Lee Strasberg’s daughter Susan were more or less sisters. A conversation between the two: ‘Marilyn, what I’d give to be like you!’ ‘Susan, don’t say that! What I’d give to be like you! People respect you!’ Shows how Norma Jeane felt about fake fame and real respect.
My sentiment is that many folks used Marilyn. In life and especially after death. Many said they were ‘with her’, were her friend, her lover, her one-night stand, her biographer. The Robert Slatzers, Jeanne Carmens, Ben Carsons and many more in this World, who come up with one conspiracy theory after another, capitalizing on her, or better yet, parasiting. Proven to have no ties at all with her, they nevertheless continued to fuel ridiculous Kennedy/Mafia murder plots, blabbering about a short annulled marriage in Mexico, being her best friend who was called to deliver sleeping pills on Marilyn’s last evening alive, or sleeping with her. Fact is, that this lady had way more morals than that, but trusted people too easily. And then of course, there is the infamous ‘red diary’. MM never kept an organised diary, she scribbled on loose pieces of paper, random thoughts, poems. All this is dragging Norma Jeane through the mud once more, even though all these folks mentioned have been debunked and have fallen through the cracks now. I can hear Marilyn scream ‘don’t turn me into a joke!’ from her vault. Many books emerged afterwards, on a myth who can not defend herself from her grave.
Marilyn was also a user, in a smart but harmless way, using the media as they used her. She knew how to play them, she sensed any camera from over a mile distance. Flipped on that posing switch just as easily for the professional photographer as for the little 14-year old kid with his first camera on the streets of NYC who had been waiting for weeks to get in touch with her. Not idolizing, even the gentlest persons have mean streaks, and I’m sure MM had them too. She used that vulnerability as a talent to manipulate others. And believe me, a borderline-ish personality can be impossible to be around. Undeniably, Marilyn was a bit unstable. Who wouldn’t be, bearing that cross of a troubled past while under intense pressure? She did, however, and showed great courage over her insecurities. My definition of a warrior.
All this tends to be forgotten or overshadowed by a shallow blonde bombshell image. How could someone so beautiful also have a real brain, be witty, funny and strong? Never having finished school does not mean that one is not intelligent. Marilyn was uneducated at first, an uncut and unpolished diamond, who had to learn every trick in the book on her own. Reading, acting-, singing-, dancing- and fencing lessons. A struggle. Among the thousands of dreaming aspiring starlets, she ‘dreamed the hardest’ and worked herself into oblivion to fulfil that dream. Only to discover that ‘dreaming of being a actress is far more exciting than being one’, ‘Hollywood is a place where they pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss but fifty cents for your soul’ and ‘a career is wonderful but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night’. What remains today is an eternal, larger-than-life image of the ultimate femininity, both seductive and child-like vulnerable, generating more money after death than in life. She was called The Body, with on average 36-23-36 size. As can be read above, that’s selling Marilyn short, she was way more. Women did not see Marilyn as a threat to their men, as they would with any other bombshell. They loved her too, for that vulnerability, they could relate to it. Men did not just see her as a sex symbol, they all felt the urge to protect this fragile, troubled, little child.
Astronomers say that every star has a dark companion. Marilyn was a star with indeed her own dark companion, an inner demon. Bright stars often die out early, and Marilyn seems to be no exception, burning her candle at both ends. Sort of Rock & Roll death. If only she just would have stayed her cute self, had gotten less influenced and was not carrying around that heavy baggage of her troubled past. If only she was a bit more cynical. If only she hadn’t tried so hard to please others and lose herself in the process. Who knows, she might still have been alive today. Real life made her a real handful, not easy at all to live with. Honest and pure in a naïve, unprotected way. She would never hurt you on purpose but you could destroy little Norma Jeane inside Marilyn in no time. In her own words, she did not want to be rich, just to be loved. Although she felt a tremendous love from the 17,000 soldiers in Korea during her 1954 USO tour there during her honeymoon, she would trade all that in for the genuine love of one man who was devoted to her on all levels and take her for who she was. In a heartbeat. Apparently, Joe wasn’t the one. Neither were Jim before him nor Arthur after him. However, Marilyn knew that she was public property 24/7 and the man in her life would have to share her with the World. ‘I knew I belonged to the public and to the World, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.’
Marilyn died in her Brentwood bedroom. ‘Probable suicide’ as official verdict. However, it could have been an accidental overdose via an enema, something Marilyn used before to control her weight, administered by either Ralph Greenson or Eunice Murray, two individuals Marilyn is said to have fired or about to fire, according to Spoto. Those Kennedy/Mafia murder theories have been debunked over the years. MM’s association with the Kennedy’s was a flirtatious friendship. Science has told us that she died between 8 and 9PM on August 4th, to be officially reported dead 8 hours later. No evidence of injections or pills, besides empty pill bottles. To swallow 47 Nembutals and Chloral Hydrates down with, no glass was ever found. No proof of a Schaefer ambulance driving her back and forth. We will probably never know for sure what conspired in that bedroom. Her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio arranged for Marilyn’s funeral at Westwood. No Hollywood dignitaries present on his directions, because ‘they killed my girl’. Deleting one more chance for the Studio System to exploit even her death. Joe never remarried and saw to it that flowers were sent to her vault weekly for twenty years. Marilyn made the best of the game with the worst possible hand dealt, and lost in the end. She often ended a conversation with ‘keep a good thought for me’. May Norma Jeane have found her peace up there in the Heavens, accompanied by our good thoughts…