ON A SUMMER DAY IN 1955, Marilyn Monroe sits on the edge of a merry-go-round in Amagansett, New York, intently reading the final pages of Ulysses. The tan hardcover creates a somber contrast to her brightly colored one-piece bathing suit — vibrant stripes echoed in the chipped blue and orange of the merry-go-round. The image is pure Marilyn: luminous sex appeal, battered innocence, and a complicated, inquisitive consciousness.
This wonderful photo is one of many in Fragments, edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, a collection of Monroe's poetry, letters, recipes, notes, and diary entries. Monroe's favorite photographs of herself were those that showed her reading, and this amazing archive includes images of Marilyn lost in the solitary pleasure of books: melting into a chair at the Hotel Bel-Air, script in hand; lying on the grass studying Walt Whitman; hidden in the corner of a bookstore, absorbed in Death of a Salesman.
While we can only wonder what Monroe thought of Molly Bloom's celebration of sensuality,Fragments reveals the actress's complicated relationship to her own body, and her attempts to overcome her troubled past and channel its emotional intensity into her work. In ledgers, notepads, address books, and on hotel stationery, Monroe recorded her struggles with romantic love, the development and motivations of her screen characters, and her battles with depression. But what is most striking is Monroe's lifelong quest for self-improvement-whether in an art history lecture at UCLA, acting classes with Lee Strasberg, or during wrenching sessions of psychoanalysis.
A raw and fascinating autobiography, Fragments also delivers the visual and tactile satisfaction of an art book. Reproductions of Monroe's original texts are paired, on the facing page, with Buchthal and Comment's printed versions. The editors have clarified illegible words, corrected the spelling, included arrows to guide the reader through Monroe's often chaotic paragraphs, and occasionally offered contextual notes. Seeing Monroe's handwriting — whether in faded script on a ledger page ("only parts of us will ever/touch parts of others"), or lines from Some Like It Hot copied out in ballpoint pen ("I'm not very bright I guess") — adds a vibrant immediacy that is alternately poignant and joyful. Grossly overused words like "legend," "icon," and "sex symbol" consistently obscure Monroe's intelligence and her dedication to acting. As she herself once said, "Some people have been unkind. If I say I want to be an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn about my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don't expect me to be serious about my work."
While much of the writing in Fragments is unpolished, it reveals Monroe's strong poetic instinct, no doubt nurtured by her reading life. The book...