MAY 10, 2011
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’s supplemental section includes a collection of gorgeous midcentury dust jackets from the actress’s enormous library — books by Hemingway and Flaubert, Camus and Kerouac. Moving chronologically, it begins with a letter written in 1943, when the future Marilyn Monroe was a recently married seventeen-year-old named Norma Jeane Dougherty. The letter reveals her early disillusionment with love and her talent for self-analysis: “Finding myself stood up, snubbed, my first feeling was not of anger — but the numb pain of rejection & hurt at the destruction of some sort of idealistic image of true love.”
This disenchantment resurfaces when a thirty-year-old Monroe is married to playwright Arthur Miller. In 1956, the couple traveled to England, where Marilyn was co-starring in The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. During this stay at the Parkside, Monroe made a shattering discovery in Miller’s diary, confirming her deepest insecurities about her ability to love and be loved. Miller wrote that he felt disappointed in his wife, and that she sometimes embarrassed him in the company of friends. This discovery ultimately poisoned the marriage. Monroe’s poetic reflections on it (on Parkside stationery) are marked by insomnia and sorrow, her sense of isolation palpable. Yet despite the poems’ emotional rawness, her word choice, punctuation, and line breaks demonstrate consideration and intent:
on the screen of pitch blackness
comes/reappears the shapes of monsters
my most steadfast companions
and the world is sleeping
ah, peace I need you — even a
A more pointed reference to her faltering marriage with Miller is evident in this six-line fragment:
I guess I have always been
deeply terrified to really be someone’s
since I know from life
one cannot love another
Images of trees recur throughout Monroe’s writing, including this little stanza tucked away in the corner of stationery from the Waldorf Astoria:
Sad, sweet trees —
I wish for you — rest
but you must be wakeful
Especially affecting are pages from a red “Live Wire” brand notebook. One is blank except for this line from Some Like It Hot, which, unmoored from the script, becomes strangely provocative:
“you know I’m going to be
twenty five in June.”
Likewise, page 16 of a 1955 record book holds the single line “having a sense of myself.” The silence of the page is nearly audible.
Coinciding with her work in therapy, Monroe’s quest for authenticity as an actress meant reviving the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, and struggling to free herself from intense shame:
working (doing my tasks that I
have set for myself)
on the stage — I will
not be punished for it
or be whipped
or be threatened
or not be loved
or sent to hell to burn with bad people
feeling that I am also bad
or be afraid of my genitals being
exposed known and seen
A mid-1950s note reveals the disciplined concentration Monroe used to manage her turbulent emotions and access the reservoir of memory crucial to her work:
I am restless…nervous and scattered
and jumpy…on the set — but … I couldn’t afford to let
out anything I really felt…I wouldn’t dare because I wouldn’t stop at that maybe…I’m searching
for a way to play this part I am depressed with my whole life since I first remember —
How can I be such a gay young
hopeful girl — What I am using is that
one sunday when I was fourteen for I was
all these things that day but — Why can’t I
use it more consistently my concentration
wavers most of the time — something
is racing in me in the opposite direction
Fragments also shows a playful, affectionate side. In letters to friends, Monroe gives herself silly nicknames like “Noodle” and “Sam.” In “Kitchen Notes,” her recipes and dinner party preparations include a glamorous shopping list: “wine glasses from Bloomingdales,” “prime rib,” “caviar,” and humble necessities: “Ivory. Flakes or snow. Rinso Blue or detergent.” These 1955 notes show how far Monroe had evolved domestically since the late 1940s, when she shared an apartment with actress Shelley Winters. In her own autobiography, Winters claimed to have discovered her roommate preparing a salad by immersing lettuce leaves in a tub of soapy water and vigorously scrubbing each one clean. Yet Winters did not mistake naiveté for stupidity. She understood the source of Monroe’s vulnerability. “If she’d been dumber,” Winters said, “she would have been happier.”
Despite how much she has been dissected, analyzed, and worshipped, something about Marilyn Monroe remains forever elusive. Nearly fifty years after her death, this magnetism is often mapped out in a series of ironic juxtapositions: she was a fragile child and a sex goddess arousing both maternal love and intense desire; she was universally adored and felt entirely alone. But it is far better to lose oneself in the mystery of Marilyn than to try to define her.
Monroe has only a small part in John Huston’s classic noir The Asphalt Jungle. She stars as Angela Phinlay, the mistress of a shady lawyer named Alonzo Emmerich, played by Louis Calhern. However briefly Marilyn appears in the film, there is something otherworldly about her in those scenes with Calhern.
Early in the movie, Emmerich discovers Angela sleeping on the sofa. He watches, transfixed as she slowly awakes. After Emmerich gently chastises her for calling him “Uncle Lon,” Angela informs her aging paramour that she’s ordered him salt mackerel from the market: “I know how you like it for breakfast,” she explains.
In the space of this simple line, Monroe becomes an emotional shape shifter — her head tilted, her eyes wide, then narrow, her lips twitching, impossibly full, then stretched thin as she says “breakfast.” Utterly enchanted, Emmerich stares at Angela. Slowly, he marvels, “Some sweet kid.” The hard-boiled sentimentality is charming and hilariously understated, like calling Athena “real smart,” or Aphrodite “cute as a button.”
Angela softly, passionately kisses her benefactor good night. As he watches her disappear down the hall, pausing for one last glance before closing the bedroom door, Emmerich, still spellbound, can only repeat his declaration of wonder: “Some sweet kid.”
Moments later, Emmerich picks up the phone and, while arranging some criminal business, clutches one of Angela’s heels in his hand, turning and examining it, as if the shoe is evidence that the creature who has just left the room was not an ethereal dream, but a real flesh-and-blood woman.