Bombshell bombshell: Marilyn Monroe was a serious audodidact
Don’t you love it when a peek behind an iconic public image reveals a contrary reality? Marilyn Monroe it turns out was a voracious reader who liked a literary challenge. What’s next — Elvis as a devotee of French cuisine? John Lennon worshiped Lawrence Welk? JFK was on drugs?
Oh, wait. That last one is already public knowledge, soooo — back to Marilyn. Since her death in 1962 at the age of 36 –accidental overdose? suicide? FBI murder? — Marilyn Monroe has been subjected to endless scrutiny. Scores of biographies have uncovered her uncertain upbringing as a foster child, her brief marriage at 16, her attraction to strong and indifferent men (Joe Dimaggio, Arthur Miller–Jack Kennedy? Bobby Kennedy?).
Along the way we’ve learned that the blond bombshell persona was almost entirely a construct created by a gifted actress and comedian who studied at the Actor’s Studio with Lee Strasberg and who longed to be taken seriously. Writers from Norman Mailer (Marilyn) to Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde: A Novel) to celebrity biographer Donald Spoto (Marilyn Monroe: The Biography), have been entranced by Norma Jean Baker’s enduring glamour.
Now for the first time, however, we have Marilyn’s own words in the recently published volume, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, and it reveals a woman more sensitive, intelligent and intellectually questing than we might have imagined or even hoped.
As Richard Schickel writes in the Los Angeles Times, Marilyn’s “formal education was brief and catch-as-catch-can, but she became a devoted reader of serious literature — everything from Joyce’s Ulysses to Heinrich Heine’s poetry.” She was “fascinated” by Walt Whitman, according to the London Independent, and “admired” Samuel Beckett.
Impressed yet? Me, too. This is not light reading. Given Marilyn’s persona as a giggling sex pot, it’s surprising enough that she read at all. That she read Becket and Joyce–by choice, for her own pleasure and edification — is downright stunning.
“She had a vast library, which included works by George Bernard S haw, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, F Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, as well as Joyce, which she took with her whenever she moved house, something she did many times over her short lifetime,” reports the Independent.
Marilyn went so far as to enroll in evening courses on art appreciation and literature at UCLA, although she elected to drop out after the presence of a movie star proved “too distracting to the other students.”
Perhaps the most interesting essay I’ve found on Marilyn and the new book is by Lisa Rosman at the LA Weekly. Marilyn’s sexuality, Rosman notes shrewdly, “rarely seemed to truly connect with men,” adding that “so much is projected upon her that that any actual sexual or emotional bond is precluded.”
Not an original observation, but well put. More intriguing, Rosman finds, “at the heart of the Marilyn Monroe legend,” a Gatsby-esque “quest for self-transformation that starts (and too often ends) with nothing.”
Writes Rosman: “The world’s most famous sex object was also, it seems, a shrewd and compassionate subject, if one bombarded by her impressions. ‘For life, it is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed,’ [Marilyn] wrote in 1954. ‘For work, the truth can only be recalled, not invented.'”
The image of Marilyn Monroe as a lifelong reader is one I find deeply touching. Literature was not able to save her from a sad fate, but I have no doubt that it enriched her life, her thought, her feelings and gave her joy along the way. We cannot ask more of any art than that.
I’ve already seen, in lazy news items on this book, snarky comments exalting Marilyn and her reading habits above contemporary troubled sex objects the likes of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton. But this is to entirely miss the point, which is, of course: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Doubtless Marilyn contemporaries like Lawrence Olivier, who treated her contemptuously while filming The Prince and the Showgirl, would have scoffed at the notion she had any inner life at all. Yes, it seems likely Lindsay reads little more than Tweets on her smartphone, but we don’t know that for certain.