Like any creative human being, I would like a bit more control.
Actress must have no mouth.
She was luminous – on that much everyone seems to agree. Hers is not the flawless matt beauty of Dietrich or Garbo. She is, as one might say, more curvy – I am of course referring to her face, on which, unlike Dietrich, Garbo or indeed Elizabeth Taylor (whom she saw as a rival), there isn’t a single straight line. There is no flattening wash over this face. Even Laurence Olivier, who mostly couldn’t stand her, had to concede that every time she appears in The Prince and the Showgirl, she lights up the scene (the cinematographer Jack Cardiff said that she glowed). That is just one of the things about her that makes her inimitable – which is why the recent My Week with Marilyn could not but fail somewhere as a film. But the question of what – in the aura that surrounds her – she was lighting up or revealing, other than herself, is rarely asked. Luminousness can be a cover – in Hollywood, its own most perfect screen. Monroe’s beauty is dazzling, blinding (no other actress is defined in quite these terms). Of what, then, is she the decoy? What does she allow us to see and not to see? Monroe herself knew the difference between seeing and looking. ‘Men do not see me,’ she said, ‘they just lay their eyes on me.’
In Reno in the summer of 1960, the Manchester Guardian journalist Bill Weatherby found himself Monroe’s confidant. He couldn’t quite understand why, but thought it might have been because he began by showing no interest in her; he had gone to interview Arthur Miller just before filming started on The Misfits, which would be Monroe’s last finished film. ‘I’ve seen you talk,’ he reports her saying, ‘to everyone but me.’ In fact he couldn’t forgive her for having turned Miller into Mr Monroe. ‘Not having fallen for Eisenhower’s charm,’ he writes, ‘I was determined not to succumb to Marilyn Monroe’s.’ Oddly, he seems to have succeeded. ‘Charmed’ never seems quite right, even when they started to meet regularly if intermittently in New York over the last two years of her life. The understanding between them was that these were private conversations (he didn’t publish his version, transcribed from memory after each meeting, till 1976). It is of course a cliché – as well as one of the most well-worn seduction lines in the book – for a man to suggest he is interested, not in a woman’s body, but in her mind. Among her many other talents, Monroe could be credited with blowing that one right out of the water. But Weatherby wasn’t trying to seduce her: he was deeply interested in her thoughts. ‘She made thinking seem like a serious, deliberate process,’ he writes. ‘Some people,’ he hastens to add, ‘who never got over seeing her as a dumb blonde will assume that I am implying she found thinking difficult.’ ‘Quite the opposite,’ he insists. ‘She gave thinking her serious attention.’ The recent publication of Monroe’s written fragments, poems, diaries and notebooks gives us the opportunity to look into the mind of a woman who was not meant to have one.‘In times of crisis,’ she wrote in a set of notes from 1962, ‘I try to think and use my understanding.’ And in her last interview: ‘We human beings are strange creatures and still reserve the right to think for ourselves.’
As filming The Misfits came to some kind of end in November (nobody, least of all Monroe, was happy with the film), Weatherby declined an offer from two set photographers to take him to the Grand Canyon, and headed off instead to New Orleans. Desegregation was about to begin and a social explosion was expected in the city. This drama – ‘in reality instead of in a movie’, as he puts it – would, he thought, be a way of getting Hollywood and Marilyn out of his head. But it wasn’t that simple. At an integration party ‘as secret as a Resistance party in Paris during the German occupation’ (Resistance party?), he became the lover of Christine, a young black woman who would end up a follower of Malcolm X. Monroe, it turned out, was the only white star who had ever interested Christine. In fact she identified with her: ‘She’s been hurt. She knows the score … I don’t read the gossip stuff. That’s what comes out of her movies. She’s someone who was abused. I could identify with her. I never could identify with any other white movie star. They were always white people doing white things.’ (White people doing white things would be a fairly accurate description of most of Monroe’s films.) When Weatherby expressed his incredulity, Christine got angry. ‘Look, us Negroes don’t appear in movies as anything but symbols, Uncle Toms, because white audiences aren’t supposed to be able to identify with Negroes. Well, what they can’t do, we can’t do either.’
Christine had put her finger on the pulse of cinema. What matters is who it allows – or rather invites – you to be. Christine refused the invitation because it was not reciprocal: no white person identifies with a ‘Negro’. We are talking about the turn of the 1960s, about New Orleans, a bitterly segregated city where – in one incident described by Weatherby and hard to imagine today – partygoers arriving at a meeting place for the blind could be watched from the window of the house of the federal judge opposite as they were separated into black and white because ‘they couldn’t see to segregate themselves.’ Christine, we could say, was exposing the delusion Hollywood offers, the false democracy of a world in which it appears that everyone can see and be seen, that anyone can become anyone else. If Monroe is an emblem of that delusion – she made her way to the top from nowhere – she also exposed the ruthlessness and anguish at its core.
All at once, Weatherby understood the link between Hollywood and the racist American South. Both hold their stereotypes on a leash. ‘Blacks,’ he states, ‘had been more rigidly typed than Monroe.’ ‘When I saw the angry white mob outside a school, yelling at the two little black girls in their best dresses, I imagined a fantasy in which these faces were in Hollywood, representing what Marilyn – and Betty Grable and the rest – had to contend with.’ This is to turn fantasy, as it is usually associated with Hollywood, on its head. The manufacturer of dreams has turned into the ugly wicked witch. More simply, Hollywood trashes its stars – especially its women (Marilyn, Betty Grable and the rest). Monroe more or less consistently hated the roles she was assigned, most of all Some Like It Hot, her best-loved film. No woman on earth, she complained, would be so dumb as not to see that the two drag artists, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, were men (the director, Billy Wilder, clearly agreed with her, filming in black and white: colour would have been a giveaway). Monroe was a would-be breakout artist. ‘If I hadn’t become popular,’ she said to Weatherby, ‘I’d still be a Hollywood slave.’ The civil rights movement too is a struggle to break free of ‘typecasting’ – a refusal to accept the allotted Uncle Tom role. This is why a young black woman identified with Marilyn Monroe.
James Baldwin identified with her too, as he told Weatherby when he was introduced to him by Tennessee Williams. Not that Weatherby was the only writer on Monroe to spot these moments of what might seem like odd affinity. Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan, remembered a self-portrait Monroe drew alongside a sketch of a Negro girl in ‘a sad-looking dress, one sock falling down around her ankles’. And according to Gloria Steinem, when the Mocambo nightclub in Los Angeles was reluctant to hire a black singer named Ella Fitzgerald, the owner received a personal call from Monroe, who offered to take a front table every night if he hired Fitzgerald (as Monroe had promised, the press went wild and Fitzgerald, by her own account, never had to play a small jazz club again). Fitzgerald never forgot. Monroe, she said later, was ‘an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times’.
How can we explain this? At the very least it should suggest that, wherever Monroe belongs – and there is an argument for saying she never belonged anywhere – it isn’t in the expected place. If Monroe offers an image of American perfectibility, we shouldn’t be surprised to find behind that image, as its hidden companion, a host of other images through which that same – perfectible – America indicts itself (Hollywood as a screaming white mob). To say that Monroe was born on the wrong side of the tracks is an understatement. She spent her childhood moving in and out of foster homes in Los Angeles, living for a few snatched years with the mother who had reclaimed her before being dragged off, watched by her daughter, to a mental home. When Monroe was sent to an orphanage at the age of nine, she protested she was no orphan, since her mother was still alive, as she would go on insisting until the end of her own life. The story has been told many times, not least by Monroe herself; some of the details have been contested, but it is mostly accepted as true. Paradoxically, however, it is the truth of the story that has allowed it to become part of her façade – the rags to riches tale which makes her the embodiment of the American dream. For Monroe, this story was no romance. She was far more precise. ‘The lack of any consistent love and caring. A mistrust and fear of the world was the result. There were no benefits except what it could teach me about the basic needs of the young, the sick and the weak,’ she observed in the 1962 notes: ‘I have great feeling for all the persecuted ones in the world.’ The editors of Fragments suggest these are notes she prepared for an interview, which would make them seem self-promoting, but they read far more as if she were talking to herself. It was, for Weatherby, her genuine feeling for the down and out, for the wino in the street (this is no metaphor: he describes two encounters), which distinguished her from every other celebrity he had ever met.
Most simply, however high her star rose, Monroe never let go of her roots. ‘I would have never thought that our ordinary lives would have interested someone like her but they did,’ Lena Pepitone, her personal maid in the last years of her life, said in Marilyn Monroe – Confidential, written with William Stadiem. Clearly she spotted a fellow traveller in Weatherby. When she went after him – ‘I’ve seen you talk to everyone but me’ – charming him is not what she had in mind, but something more like an exposé of the dirty side of Hollywood. ‘You’ve been seeing the famous,’ she told him. ‘Now you ought to see the unknowns, those who are trying to make it … Try Schwab’s.’ Schwab’s was the Sunset Boulevard drugstore haunt of movie dealmakers and actors looking for a break. When he returned, horrified at the addiction, failure, poverty and misery on display, she told him he had graduated: ‘When I starred in my first movie, I went back to Schwab’s. I had the idea that it would help their confidence to see someone who had gotten a break. But no one recognised me and I was too shy to tell anyone. I was a misfit there!’ They don’t recognise her but they are her audience, the ones by whom she most wanted to be seen (she insisted that it was the people, not the studios, who made her a star). ‘She relied,’ Arthur Miller wrote, ‘on the most ordinary layer of the audience, the working people, the guys in the bars, the housewives in the trailers bedevilled by unpaid bills, the high school kids mystified by explanations they could not understand, the ignorant and – as she saw them – tricked and manipulated masses. She wanted them to feel they’d got their money’s worth when they saw a picture of hers.’
One of Monroe’s heroes was Abraham Lincoln. She described a first moment of not feeling lonely in the late 1940s when, still undiscovered, she was walking the Hollywood streets with Bill Cox, a 77-year-old man who had befriended her and who could remember Hollywood as a desert with Indians ‘right where we’re walking’. He talked to her about his experiences as a soldier in the Spanish-American War and about the life of Abraham Lincoln. At moments she would describe Lincoln as her father. Occasionally Clark Gable would be assigned the same role (since she had never known her own father, she could, as she pointed out, pick and choose). In the 1950s, such admiration was not typical. At Eisenhower’s 1953 inauguration ball, a musical portrait of Lincoln by Aaron Copland – a full orchestral piece with excerpts from his speeches – was dropped at the last minute as ‘un-American’. But Lincoln was crucial to Monroe. Carl Sandburg, his biographer, became an important friend in the last years of her life. In the 1962 notes, she describes Sandburg’s poems as ‘songs of the people by the people and for people’. Monroe was ‘not the usual movie idol’, Sandburg commented, returning her compliment. There was ‘something democratic about her.’ So when the showgirl expostulates to the Balkan prince in The Prince and the Showgirl, telling him that he should pay more attention to democracy (‘General elections are a good thing. They’re democratic’), Monroe, we could say, was playing herself. (Dismissing ‘political freedom and democratic rights’ as nonsense, the prince sounds like President Assad emailing his wife.) ‘That’s the funny thing about general elections,’ she continues, ‘you never know who’s going to win.’ (None of this, unsurprisingly, makes it into My Week with Marilyn.)
Being attached to Lincoln is a way of reminding America of one of its saving moments, of a strong but permanently threatened liberal version of itself. Lincoln also gets a walk-on part in Let’s Make Love, a film mostly forgotten today but one with an unmistakably radical edge. Yves Montand plays a billionaire who falls in love with an actress – played by Monroe – when he tries to take over a theatre company rehearsing a play in which he has heard he will be viciously satirised. (If the film is remembered at all, it is as a minor George Cukor film and for the off-screen love affair between Montand and Monroe). Mistaken for an actor, he ends up playing himself onstage, which allows her character to tell him to his face what she thinks of the billionaire who he in fact is: ‘Nothing but a rich louse, as soon as he tells a girl his name, he expects her to drop dead of the honour.’ When he does eventually reveal the truth, she doesn’t believe him. In an attempt to cure him of his ‘delusion’, she tells him about the actor who played Abe Lincoln for so long he wouldn’t have been satisfied until he got shot.
Let’s Make Love, made in 1960 and usually considered one of Monroe’s worst films, is not the first in which she plays out on screen something of her early role in real life – the struggling artiste who deserves more. Nor is it the only film in which the line between the movies and the theatre of politics is so thinly drawn. In this case, the allusion to Lincoln and her character’s contempt for money belong together, putting her on the other side of American power. Interestingly, films where she plays a gold-digger, like Asphalt Jungle, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like it Hot, are far better known (although the latter is ambiguous: when Sugar Cane falls for the Tony Curtis character, she thinks he is the owner of Shell, but he turns out to be another of the down and out saxophonists who have littered her love life). We will pass over for a moment that she ends up being seduced by the billionaire (having fallen for him as an impoverished actor, she then forgives him for being rich) – a portent of the time when being seduced by billionaires would become de rigueur in the neoliberal economies of the West. Mostly wealth is shameful and deadly (women drop dead). The stage, on the other hand, is a place of multiple freedoms: the freedom to insult the billionaires of America to their face; the freedom to survive outside the sphere of corruption (indeed to expose it); the freedom to educate yourself. The Marilyn character spends her evenings studying for a high school diploma. She is ‘tired of being ignorant’. ‘The politicians get away with murder,’ Monroe observed to Weatherby, ‘because most Americans don’t know any more about [politics] than I do.’ Like the character in her film, only more so, Monroe was tireless in her indictment of the part played by ignorance in a death-dealing world.
It is something of a truism for psychoanalysis that one member of a family can carry the unconscious secrets of a whole family, can fall sick, as it were, on their behalf. My question is: for whom or what in 1950s and early 1960s America was Marilyn Monroe carrying the can? This is not, I should stress, the same as asking: what or even who killed her? Or: did she commit suicide? These are questions that I see as a diversion and to which in any case I strongly believe we can offer no definitive reply. I am interested, rather, in what she, unknowingly, but also crucially for my argument knowingly, is enacting on behalf of postwar America. ‘Perhaps,’ Cecil Beaton wrote, ‘she was born just the postwar day we had need of her.’ He could be talking of the First World War: Monroe was born in 1926, an infancy scarred by the Depression along with everything else. But ‘postwar’ can also refer here to the Second World War, which comes to its end exactly as her star begins to rise. This is a moment when patriotism, to cite Weatherby, was ‘an excuse not to think’. He is alluding to McCarthyism and the Cold War. When another radical journalist, I.F. Stone, listened to Eisenhower’s inaugural address, what he heard behind its rhetoric of freedom was the drumbeat of war (although Eisenhower was reluctant to send troops to the region, the build-up to Vietnam would start on his watch). Stone was appalled that, along with the musical tribute to Abraham Lincoln, a passage from an earlier version on ‘teaching with integrity’ had been dropped from the address, which, he observed, contained no trace of a plea for academic freedom or any kind of civil liberty. One of Eisenhower’s first moves as president was to appoint Charles Erwin Wilson, the head of General Motors, as secretary of defense. He is the man who said: ‘What is good for General Motors is good for the country and what is good for the country is good for General Motors.’ ‘No administration,’ Stone commented, ‘ever started with a bigger, more revealing or more resounding pratfall.’
To say that Monroe was attuned to this is again an understatement. In 1950, a mere starlet with a walk-on part in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve, she took the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the original muck-raking journalist, onto the set. All about Eve is another of her films about the lengths to which an actress will go to make it. Steffens is famous for having taken the lid off city hall corruption (‘Hell with the Lid Lifted’ was the title of a famous dispatch from Pittsburgh). His heroes were beggars, prostitutes and thieves. The world Steffens exposes is that of The Asphalt Jungle, the other Monroe film of the same year, where she plays the almost-child lover of Alonzo Emmerich, a crooked lawyer, who shoots himself when he is caught by the police. Emmerich describes crime as merely a ‘left-handed form of human endeavour’ (though giving him that name and having him shoot himself suggests the problem is not wholly American and in any case can be got rid of).
Like Monroe, Steffens detested ignorance above all else. He preferred the honesty of crooks to that of good, ignorant men who ‘sincerely believe things are as they seem and truthfully repeat to you the current lies that make everything look all right’. The malaise went to the very heart of the nation: ‘There was something wrong in our ends as well as in our beginnings,’ he wrote, ‘in what we are after as well as in what is after us.’ He was writing in the 1930s but already for Steffens, the power of the moneyed oligarchy meant that democracy in America was effectively dead. He was one of the first American writers to expose the political dangers of a credit-driven economy: ‘There is indeed such a thing in America as sovereignty, a throne, which, as in Europe, had slipped from under the kings and the president and away from the people too. It was the unidentified seat of actual power, which, in the final analysis, was the absolute control of credit.’ When Weatherby interviewed the playwright Clifford Odets, in the throes of despair about what he saw as the collapse of political hope, Odets asked ‘What’s the problem?’ and then answered his own question: ‘In America – I won’t talk about the rest of the world – the problem is: “Are peace and plenty possible together with the democratic growth to use them?”’ Can you have democracy and growth or does a moneyed economy by definition wrest control from the people? Let’s just say that this problem has not gone away.
Of course Monroe wanted money. She was angry that she was paid so much less than her co-star Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. ‘After all I am the blonde and it is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ she apparently quipped on set. She was also reported to be livid ten years later when she heard how much Elizabeth Taylor was being paid for Cleopatra. But she wanted money to free herself, to stop herself, in Weatherby’s word, being ‘typed’. In 1954, she broke her contract with Twentieth Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck, leaving Hollywood for New York to set up her own film company with the photographer Milton Greene (she made sure she controlled 51 per cent of the stock). It was a scandal. Although the project was short-lived, she was at that moment the only star to have taken on the moguls and won. Fox agreed to give her script and director approval on all her films and to pay her $100,000 a film. A recently discovered letter of 1961 shows that she never gave up on her dream. At a time when the Hollywood studios were more or less writing her off, she wrote to Lee Strasberg – the head of the Actors Studio, which she’d been attending since she left Hollywood for New York – that she and her attorneys were planning to set up an independent production unit. ‘I’ll never tie myself to a studio again,’ she said to Weatherby, ‘I’d rather retire.’ She wanted her fair share. She wanted some money to stop bigger money from controlling her fate. But she never, as many have attested, wanted money for itself. ‘It does not take money long to make plain its impotence,’ the narrator observes in Sister Carrie, perhaps the earliest exposé of the curse of celebrity, and one of the many books that Monroe owned.
According to Ben Hecht, Monroe said that Steffens’s autobiography excited her ‘more than any other book I had read’. She was excited by it at the exact moment when the world, for very different reasons, was about to be excited by her, when she was on the verge of gaining access to one of the citadels of American power. Mankiewicz spotted Monroe reading Steffens on his set, and warned her not to go around raving about him in case she was branded a radical; Fox removed his name when she put him first on a list (for a publicity stunt) of the ten greatest men in the world. She told Hecht that she carried on reading it in secret, hiding the second volume under her bed: ‘the first underhand thing I’d ever done since my meeting with little George in the tall grass’. (Hecht’s My Story, which also purports to be based on conversations with Monroe, is notoriously unreliable, but we might still ask why on earth he would want to make up such an anecdote.)
Undercover journalism, like illicit sex, is furtive. The celebrated exposer of America’s guilty secrets initiated Monroe into the 1950s. It’s a bit of a girl thing: Steffens is also Norine’s favourite writer in Mary McCarthy’s The Group. With this crucial difference: Monroe was not a Vassar girl. Unlike Norine, she had no education. She educated – she never stopped educating – herself. ‘Of the cruelties directed at this young woman,’ Diana Trilling wrote after Monroe’s death, ‘even by the public that loved her, it seems to me that the most biting and unworthy of the supposedly enlightened people who were particularly guilty of it, was the mockery of her wish to be educated, or thought educated.’ Monroe was a reader. At the end of Fragments, we are given an array on a double-page spread of the covers of books from her collection (rather than, say, the costumes and jewellery we might have expected and which are on display at the Getty Images Gallery in London today). In one of her last letters to Ralph Greenson, her Los Angeles psychoanalyst, as well as alluding to Milton, she writes about the autobiography of Sean O’Casey and Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud. Nor, in her political life, were Abraham Lincoln and Steffens anomalies. As early as the 1940s, she supported the Henry Wallace campaign (he would eventually become Roosevelt’s vice-president), working as an usher for at least one Progressive Party rally. Her 1962 notes praise Eleanor Roosevelt for ‘her devotion to mankind’.
In a black notebook dated around 1955, Monroe tells herself to ‘know reality (or things as they are … and to have as few illusions as possible – Train my will now.’ It would not be going too far to say that Monroe surrounded herself with people who saw it as their task to rip the cover off national self-deceit. Looking back, her friend the writer Norman Rosten defined the 1950s as a time of ‘cowardice on a national scale’, when ‘strong citizens fell before the rhetoric of pygmies.’ She had her own brush with McCarthyism when Arthur Miller was summoned by HUAC and she spoke out on his behalf. According to one story he was offered a deal on condition she posed with Chairman Walter of the sub-committee (Miller refused but it is generally agreed that it was the announcement of their impending marriage which led the committee to back down). Monroe herself reported that a corporation executive said to her that either he named names or ‘I was finished … “Finished,” they said. “You’ll never be heard of.”’ Writing of what McCarthyism had done to the spirit of freedom, I.F. Stone cites these lines from Pasternak:
The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction, it’s a part of our physical body and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.
There was a ‘numbness’ in the national air, Stone wrote. ‘It’s like you scream,’ Monroe’s character, Roslyn, says in The Misfits, ‘and there’s nothing coming out of your mouth, and everybody’s going around: “Hello, how are you, what a nice day” … and you’re dying.’
Someone screams – a woman: someone else, or rather pretty much everyone else, covers their ears. Or as Monroe put it in one of the fragments of her 1951 notebook, ‘Actress must have no mouth.’ Actress must be dumb (there is an ugly social injunction concealed inside the famous epithet). So if a diagnosis is in order, it should be clear by now that Monroe is not the one whom I find it most helpful to think of in terms of being ill. Suffering – without question. One of her great gifts was to distil suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else. And just doing that is enough to throw a spanner into the cultural works. ‘You see,’ she said in the last interview she gave (to Life magazine in July 1962), ‘I was brought up differently from the average American child because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy.’ ‘Have a nice day,’ as one might say. Of course Roslyn’s words – ‘Hello, how are you, what a nice day’ – are put into Monroe’s mouth by Arthur Miller. But Monroe herself was clear that fame gave her unique access, culturally and psychically, to what much of America, many Americans, didn’t want to see: ‘When you’re famous you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way,’ she said in that same interview. ‘You’re always running into people’s unconscious.’
‘I could never be attracted to a man who had perfect teeth,’ Hecht reported Monroe as saying. The other type of man she told him she had never liked – this chapter of My Story is called ‘About Men’ – was ‘the sort that’s afraid of insulting you’ and who ‘always end up by insulting you worse than anybody’. In sex, as in politics, she liked things to be what they are. She disliked the double-talkers who go on about the situation in India while ‘getting up the courage to get into action’, and even more the Good Samaritan pass-makers who pretend to have a real interest in promoting your career. Most men, she thought, talked too much, not the intellectuals who are ‘full of ideas and information about life’ but the ‘boring ones who talk about themselves … Such men are a total loss.’ A man can only talk about himself to a woman after they are lovers, when he can ‘confess all his sins and tell her of all the other women he has had.’ Only stupid and weak men think that a woman’s past love affairs lessen her love for them. ‘A woman can bring a new love to each man she loves, provided’ – she added – ‘there are not too many.’ If Sarah Churchwell is right, as she surely is, that the voice of Monroe in My Story reaches us ‘filtered through an all-male coterie of writers, editors and defensively litigious ex-business partners’, let’s just say that in this chapter at least, the men do not come out of it very well.
Witty and insightful, as she surely was, this account is of course too glib. We should not confuse it with what sex was for her: the more unknown and frightening dimension of her life, both before and inside Hollywood. I count myself among those who have no interest in contesting her story that she was abused as a child. Even though it appears to have been added to the Hecht story very late, she repeated it to many people, including Lena Pepitone, so it can only be dismissed by describing her as an inveterate liar, which many, foremost among them Norman Mailer, haven’t hesitated to do. Monroe herself was explicit about the ruthless sexual exploitation that accompanied her early days in Hollywood. In fact, we don’t need the abuse to pick up the deep discomfort behind Hollywood’s sexual glorification of Monroe, which she both hated and played to. Innocence and naturalness, the two qualities most commonly ascribed to her – I lose count of the number of times – should make us suspicious. Together they offer an image of sex without complexity, depth or pain, something that hovers above the human – which is why it is such a tease and also why, as others have pointed out, her image seems to have such an intimate proximity with death. Miller was not immune to this: her sexuality came to seem, he wrote, ‘the only truthful connection with some ultimate nature, everything that is life-giving and authentic.’ ‘She was just there,’ Quentin says of Maggie, the Marilyn character in After the Fall. ‘She was just there, like a tree or a cat.’
Among other things, this is to rob sex of its history. ‘Imagine my slow disappointment,’ Steffens wrote when he’d been travelling around the world in the 1920s in search of revolution, ‘to see and hear that sex was the thing.’ Corruption has triumphed and sex has substituted for the political dream. At the end of the First World War he had floated a plan for a general amnesty but ‘the war psychology, which in America was also anti-labour, anti-radical mass psychology, was still too strong.’ With the collapse of radical politics, sex steps into the breach. On the last page of his autobiography, as if he had foreknowledge of Monroe, he predicts that cinema, ‘the blindest, most characteristic of our age of machinery’, will incorporate all other art forms. Thus the book Monroe smuggled onto the set of one of her first movies anticipated her life by several decades. She embodied both halves of his prophecy – movies and sex (I find myself wondering whether she got to that last page and what she made of it if she did). Monroe also knew and hated the fact that what was at stake was the ascendancy of the machine. ‘Once I slangily asked her how “she cranked up” to do a scene,’ Richard Meryman, who interviewed her for Life, reported. ‘“I don’t crank anything,” she replied: “I’m not a Model T … An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are.”’
By the time Arthur Miller met her, the rift Steffens observed between political idealism and sex had become a chasm into which the hopes of radical America had all but disappeared. American culture, Miller wrote in his memoir Timebends, had ‘prised man’s sexuality from his social ideals and made one the contradiction of the other’ (he abandoned a play on the topic because he couldn’t bear the thought of the spiritual catastrophe it foretold). ‘We had come together,’ he wrote of himself and Monroe, ‘at a time when America was in yet another of her reactionary phases and social consciousness was a dying memory … As usual, America was denying its pain, and remembering was out.’ This is the frame of their marriage, the frame of her life. In this context, Hollywood escapism takes on a whole new gloss. Political hope fades and the unconscious of the nation goes into national receivership, with one woman above all others – hence, I would suggest, the frenzy she provokes – being asked to foot the bill, to make good the loss. Miller himself made no secret or apology for the redemption he sought in her (that they sought in each other). ‘For one moment,’ Quentin says to Maggie in After the Fall, ‘like the moon sees, I saw us both unblamed.’
What is being asked of Monroe? ‘Sex,’ Steffens said, ‘was the thing.’ Monroe’s desire to be educated, Trilling suggested, robbed us of a ‘prized illusion’: ‘that enough sexual possibility is enough everything’. Why should a woman with such sexual advantages want anything else? Precisely because she had been so poor, because there was a mental pain in her that no adulator could quite evade (as Trilling put it, the pain balanced out the ledger of her unique biological gift), Monroe pushed want to the very edge of wanting, to a form of wanting that seems to want nothing but itself. What thwarted dreams were poured into this woman’s body? You don’t have to be a Freudian to know that such idealisation punishes as much as it sets you free. ‘All those people I don’t know,’ she said to Norman Rosten, ‘if they love you that much without knowing you, they can also hate you the same way.’ ‘Desire is sad,’ the narrator observes in Somerset Maugham’s ‘Rain’, a story Monroe loved. Near the end of her life, she had been waiting to play the part of the unredeemed prostitute who exposes the hypocrisy of priestly virtue in a televised version and was deeply disappointed when it fell through (she had been holding out for Lee Strasberg as director and lost).
Seen in this light, Monroe’s suffering becomes the tale America does not want to tell of itself: ‘America was denying its pain, remembering was out’ (anticipating Tony Judt, Miller sees a nation’s refusal to remember and its reactionary politics as deeply linked). Only in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953) was Monroe given the chance to play a part that would expose the darker side of America, the pain it wanted to forget – for me, they are two of her best roles. Both turn on the Second World War. In the first, she is a woman driven to murderous hallucinations by the loss of her lover shot down in a plane; in the second, she is a woman who tries to pass her husband off as war-traumatised so his murder by her lover can be staged as suicide. As if in these early films, America could without inhibition offload onto a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality the violence it couldn’t reckon with in itself. At the end of Niagara, the woman is strangled by her husband, who has managed to survive the attempted murder by killing her lover. But I count no fewer than five earlier images where she is lying prone, asleep or in a faint, splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction describes her as lying in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history – the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget – owes her nation a death. America was denying its own pain. Who paid the price? This is the classic role of the femme fatale who is always made to answer for the desire that she provokes.
One of the most discouraging things I have experienced, working on Monroe, is watching Miller diagnose the problem, then fall headlong into it, then finally punish Monroe for his mistake. ‘You tell the truth, even against yourself,’ Quentin says in After the Fall, praising Maggie. ‘You’re not pretending to be innocent! Yes … suddenly there was someone who – would not club you to death with their innocence!’ Nothing worse, after the carnage of the war, even if America had been on the right side, than a nation boasting its innocence to the world: this is what Stone had hated about Eisenhower’s inauguration address, with its talk of American democratic freedom which, Stone was sure, presaged the next war; hence too the relish with which McCarthyism then went about arranging the national distribution of political guilt. Miller’s insight was to bring the McCarthy Committee’s hearings and the legacy of the war into the same dramatic space (a concentration camp watchtower shadows the stage and at key moments throughout the drama blazes into life). No false innocence. After the Fall is a plea for political and ethical accountability, of which Maggie in those first appearances is the yardstick. But by the end of the play, she has degenerated into a drunken, drug-taking wreck ‘beyond understanding’, who plays the victim like nothing else (many were appalled: James Baldwin stormed out of the theatre on the first night). The fact that some part of this damaged and damaging portrayal is clearly drawn from life shouldn’t distract us from the cruel reversal of logic at play. ‘Something in you has been setting me up for a murder,’ Quentin says to Maggie after another of her drug-induced suicidal rages, ‘you’re not my victim anymore.’ Now her pseudo-innocence – which was his own projection – is what he has to save himself from.
By the time we get to Timebends, this logic seems to be set in stone. ‘The play,’ Miller says of After the Fall, ‘was about how we – nations and individuals – destroy ourselves by denying that this is precisely what we are doing.’ Defending himself against the charge that the play was about Monroe, which it clearly is, he severed his own insight from his own final, crushing diagnosis of her: ‘All that was left was for her to go on defending her innocence, in which, at the bottom of her heart, she did not believe.’ Innocence, as he puts it, kills. It is also – he acknowledged – a myth, and one that they shared. He is blaming her for the end of the marriage, for the end of her life (which is not to ignore his sorrow). Punishing her for his own insight, he has turned her into the disease – of peoples and nations – that he, like the rest of America, had set her up to cure.
‘Talent,’ Monroe said to Meryman in the last interview, ‘is developed in privacy’ (she is citing Goethe). ‘Fame,’ she insisted, ‘is not where I live.’ To read Monroe’s fragments, letters, journals and poems is to realise that, however tormented, she had another life. It is to be struck by the unrelenting mental energy with which she confronted herself. ‘It’s hard,’ she wrote as early as 1943 (she was 17 and well into her first failed marriage), ‘not to try and rationalise and protect your own feelings, but eventually that makes the acceptance of truth more difficult.’ Long before she entered psychoanalysis, long before she started reading Freud, she had clearly made the injunction to ‘know yourself’ her own. For Monroe, mental life, like acting, was a type of work. ‘I can and will help myself and work on things analytically no matter how painful – if I forget things (the unconscious wants to forget – I will only try to remember),’ she wrote in a notebook of 1955 (although it has the whiff of analytic instruction). Then she added: ‘Discipline – Concentration. My body is my body every part of it.’ She was claiming herself, body and soul (on this, she was way in advance of the feminism she wouldn’t live to see). ‘I’ve always had a pride,’ she said in that last interview, ‘that I was my own.’ Work was a form of freedom: ‘In my work – I don’t want to obey her any longer and I can do my work as fully as I wish.’ She is referring to one of a number of childhood figures who made her deeply ashamed of herself. Her shame of her sexuality, explicit in these notes, and her investment in her image – however much she hated it, because she hated it – are clearly reverse sides of the same coin (the fact that she took a knife to photos she couldn’t stand signals to me not some impossible vanity but that such an investment is already, can only ever be, turned against itself). ‘Working (doing my tasks that I have set for myself). On the stage I will not be punished for it.’
She was a fierce disciplinarian to the end, which is why the idea of her just losing it does her scant justice. She never believed that any of her performances were good enough. In fact the discipline and the inner torment are also sides of the same coin. She spent a great deal of her time in a state of fear: fear of failure (by the end of her life, every production was a torment; Henry Weinstein, the producer of her final, unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give, talked of ‘sheer, primal terror’); but also fear of something radically unknown:
I love the river – never unmoored
it’s quiet now
And the silence is alone
except for the thunderous rumbling of things unknown
distant drums very present
but for the piercing of screams
and the whispers of things
sharp sounds and then suddenly hushed
to moans beyond sadness – terror beyond fear
Many of these fragments are spattered over the page, endless revisions, corrections, bits of text overlapping, or barely adjoining, which can only be read by rotating the page. This is a mind at work, at once creative and in pieces, a mind rumbling inside itself, and then reaching for the light, giving the lie to its own image. That intimation of ‘things unknown’ is important – it should at least give pause to all those who have rushed to offer the definitive diagnosis. Monroe knew that the psyche is a shape changer. ‘I am both of your directions … I am many stories.’ ‘Nothing,’ she said to Weatherby, ‘is ever repeated in the same way.’
She is trawling her unconscious, in the process brilliantly exposing the façade of the mental institutions of the time. In 1961, she was admitted to the notorious Payne Whitney Hospital on the advice of her New York analyst, Marianne Kris. In the secure wing on the sixth floor all the doors were locked and no one could use a phone. When the staff boasted of the facilities as ‘home-like’ – wall to wall carpeting and modern furniture – Monroe retorted: ‘Well, that any interior decorator could provide – but since they are dealing with human beings, why couldn’t they perceive even the interior of a human being?’ To get herself out, she reprised her own role as the mad woman in Don’t Bother to Knock, slammed a chair against a cabinet, and sat on the bed with a shard of glass threatening to harm herself unless they let her out: ‘If you are going to treat me like a nut I’ll act like a nut.’ Earlier she had tried to explain to them that if, as they wanted her to, she were to ‘sew or play checkers, even cards and maybe knit … the day I did that they would have a nut on their hands.’ (All this from a long letter she wrote three weeks later to Ralph Greenson.) This is surely The Bell Jar several years before its time – an analogy I try for the most part to avoid simply because when it’s made, as it so often is, the reference is to Monroe’s death, never to her ear for the inner life, to the ‘rumbling of things unknown’, and certainly never, but never to her wit. Monroe was tapping into things that mostly go untold. In these writings, we can watch her stretching the link between public and private persona, between perfectibility and human misery almost to breaking point. ‘I was brought up differently from the average American child because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy.’
She was a brilliant comedienne. ‘We need her desperately,’ Sybil Thorndike is reported to have announced on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl when she was driving everyone mad by being late: ‘She’s the only one of us who really knows how to act in front of a camera.’ Even Billy Wilder, likewise maddened, had to concede: ‘She was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue … Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.’ She couldn’t see it. She didn’t realise that the audience were laughing, not because she was ridiculous but because of the genius with which she played her part. It was in fact her unique talent to play nearly every part she played as if it were a mockery of itself. But it was not what she wanted. ‘I had to get out, I just had to,’ she said about the huge commercial success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, ‘The danger was, I began to believe this was all I could do – all I was – all any woman was.’ Women could do better. It was because Laurence Olivier had insulted her by telling her just to look sexy, that – by her own account – she started to be late: ‘If you don’t respect your artists, they can’t work well. Respect is what you have to fight for.’ (According to Miller, Olivier was simply jealous and spent most of the time competing with her like a coquette.)
Above all she wanted to be a serious actress. ‘I’d like to be a fine actress,’ she is reported as having said to the photographer George Barris at the end of her life: ‘I wanted to be an artist, not an erotic freak.’ ‘Please don’t make me a joke,’ she said to Meryman: ‘End the interview with what I believe. I don’t mind making jokes but I don’t want to look like one. I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.’ This was not mere pretension. According to Lee Strasberg, she read the part of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Actors Studio more powerfully than any actress he had ever heard. The role would have allowed her to bring home to male-dominated America a few home truths. Like the character she wanted to play in ‘Rain’, Anna Christie has been a prostitute. When she returns to her Swedish father, Chris Christopherson, who lives on a barge on the Boston waterfront, she falls in love with a sailor, Mat Burke, who she and her father together have rescued from drowning. Burke falls for her as a ‘rale, dacent woman’, unlike the whores he has frequented from port to port. On the point of marrying him against the wishes of her father, she turns on them both as they quarrel about her future: ‘You was going on’s if one of you had got to own me. But nobody owns me, see? – cepting myself. I’ll do what I please, and no man, I don’t give a hoot who he is, can tell me what to do! I aint asking either of you for a living … Decent? Who told you I was?’ When she then tells them both the truth about her past, Burke threatens to kill her – there is no woman in the world, he says, with the rottenness in her that she has. He will change his mind. Convincing him that she is no longer that woman, she gets to rewrite her role in life (she also points out that he has been as guilty of rottenness as the whores he so hates). It is an extraordinary play, in which the woman defends her own right to freedom and in the same breath makes the man take back his projections (innocence and guilt tracking back in the opposite direction from everything we have seen in relation to Monroe). Garbo – an actress she loved ‘for her artistic creativity, her personal courage and integrity’ – had played the screen version in 1931. I think it is significant that the prostitute in ‘Rain’ and the lead in Anna Christie are the two roles to which she was drawn near the end of her life. She wanted to play the part of a woman who told the world, who told men, the truth.
That is why so much hung finally on The Misfits. Miller wrote the screenplay to give her the chance she longed for. He genuinely believed that, drawing on her as he saw her, he had created her first serious role. He didn’t reckon with the problem that this was his vision, not hers (although there was some collaboration, she complained to Norman Rosten that the heroine was too passive). Or with the effect on her of so dangerously crossing the border between life and fiction (of turning her definitively into a piece of her own art). This could not have been further from the method of acting in which she believed, and for which she strove: ‘You find out what she’s like,’ she said to Weatherby, ‘the person you’re playing. I mean what she means to you. How you’re like her and not like her.’ She wanted to act, not herself, but beyond herself: she wanted to become somebody else.
In The Misfits, Roslyn, the character played by Monroe, speaks the truth (although ‘speaks’ isn’t quite the right word) in a brute world of mustang hunters, lost men – the misfits of postwar America. Only she can see that their violence is not the antidote to the nation’s poison, but its restaging in the desert to which they wrongly believe they have escaped. She offers them two hundred dollars to set the mustangs free, and when Gay asks her to give him a reason to stop what he has been doing, she is enraged: ‘A reason! You! Sensitive fella? So full of feelings? So sad about your wife, and crying to me about the bombs you dropped and the people you killed … You could blow up the whole world, and all you’d ever feel is sorry for yourself!’ Then as they are tying up the trapped mustangs, she runs off and shouts at them from a distance:
Man! Big man! You’re only living when you can watch something die! Kill everything, that’s all you want! Why don’t you just kill yourselves and be happy?
In the screenplay she screams these lines from forty yards away (Miller’s directions are precise), then runs back towards them and speaks directly into Gay’s face:
You. With your god’s country. Freedom! I hate you! You know everything except what it feels like to be alive. You’re three dear, sweet dead men.
Going against the screenplay, Houston does not bring her back into close-up for these words, but keeps her writhing and screaming at a distance, so when Gay says ‘She’s crazy,’ the camera tells him he is right.
She was furious. ‘I convince them by throwing a fit,’ she said to Pepitone, ‘not by explaining why it’s wrong. I guess they thought I was too dumb to explain anything. So I have a fit. A screaming, crazy fit.’ She couldn’t bear that her character was not allowed to be mentally equal to the ethical task she is allowed, only screaming, to perform. Like Anna Christie, she wanted to get her point across. It could have been one of the most radical moments in her film career, the occasion where she offers up her diagnosis, explains what’s wrong with America, the dangers beneath the illusion of innocence and perfection: men who only feel alive when killing, guilty men home from the war who would blow up the whole world and feel sorry only for themselves. This is freedom, this is God’s country.
I think this left her with nowhere to go. ‘He was supposed to be writing this for me,’ she said to Pepitone, ‘He could have written me anything and he comes up with this. If that’s what he thinks of me, well, then I’m not for him and he’s not for me.’ I do not think it is a coincidence that this was her last completed film.
But Monroe’s art is far from exhausted by this moment. Take just one – for me brilliant – example, the number ‘After You Get What You Want’ from There’s No Business Like Show Business, where, to an audience of gawking, mainly male spectators, she lays out the illusion of desire: ‘After you get what you want you don’t want it.’ You have to watch it – which you easily can on YouTube – to see how her performance pushes the message of Irving Berlin’s song right over the top.