There are many famous names that I look up to. I’m inspired every day by Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Carrie Fisher, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Plath and many other brilliant people who have in some way touched me with their lives and with their art. But the person who has inspired me above all others is Marilyn Monroe. Anyone who knows me will know how passionate I am about Marilyn; I’ve watched all of her films countless times, my room is littered with her memorabilia, I’ve spent a large amount of time reading books on her life and watching documentaries about her, and I own original film strips from two of her films – my most prized possession (thank you Rachel!).
Most people see Marilyn as the blonde bombshell, a sex symbol who remains as relevant today as she was in her own time as the classic example of the glamorous 50’s. This Marilyn is beautiful, there’s no denying it, but the Marilyn that I feel has touched my life in such a dramatic way is the woman often disregarded or hidden away from the public’s perception of her. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Marilyn saved me. The first film of hers I saw was Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), and I instantly fell in love with her fragility, her charm and her beauty. Of course, this is the Marilyn the world sees, the Marilyn whose dress flew up over the subway grate, the Marilyn who sang happy birthday to JFK. While I love this Marilyn dearly, it’s the side not exposed to the public eye that makes her such a special person for me.
Marilyn photographed in New York, 1955
Marilyn herself saw a separation between the ‘Marilyn’ displayed to the public and the true ‘Marilyn’. During her time in New York, she was walking down Fifth Avenue when she turned to her friend and asked “Do you want me to be her?”. Marilyn removed her headscarf, opened her raincoat and began to walk with the signature sashay that can be seen in many of her films. Instantly she went from being unrecognisable, just another woman walking through busy New York, to being surrounded by a mob of fans, suddenly transformed into Marilyn the movie star. This story displays the clear separation in Marilyn’s own mind between the woman she truly was and the woman she was expected to be.
It’s no secret that Marilyn was a tortured soul. Her mother was mentally unwell and she never knew her father, meaning that her early life was spent in foster care, during which time she was physically, mentally and sexually abused. In her later life, she had multiple miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies, which contributed to her already strained marriages. From my own research, I have determined 8 unsuccessful suicide attempts throughout Marilyn’s lifetime (not including her death which I do not consider to be suicide), which sadly come as no surprise when you consider all the hardships she went through, all while living with depression and anxiety. (She also showed signs of borderline personality disorder, although this was undiagnosed).
There is a popular concept nowadays that mental illness is beautiful. It’s been romanticised by stories such as “Vincent Van Gogh drank yellow paint because yellow is a happy colour and he wanted to be happy.” No, he drank paint because he wanted to poison himself. There is not beauty in these self destructive behaviours. They are dark and painful. However, there is a beauty in fragility and there is a beauty in the resilience it takes to not only carry on living when you’re hurting so much, but to carry on living a life that creates art. This is the beauty of Marilyn for me.
Her personal diaries contain a multitude of insights into Marilyn’s self, a mix of notes from her acting lessons, recipes for thanksgiving stuffing, first impressions of people she’d met throughout the day and fragmented poetry. One of these poems reads
Oh damn I wish that I were
dead — absolutely nonexistent —
gone away from here — from
everywhere but how would I do it
There is always bridges — the Brooklyn
bridge — no not the Brooklyn Bridge
because But I love that bridge (everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems
peaceful there even with all those
cars going crazy underneath. So
it would have to be some other bridge
an ugly one and with no view — except
I particularly like in particular all bridges — there’s some-
thing about them and besides these I’ve
never seen an ugly bridge
I see this poetry as a reflection of Marilyn herself, not only in the words but in its very form. It is fragmented, broken, not fully formed, and yet this does not detract from its honesty and beauty.
Not only was Marilyn in tune with her own self, she was also incredibly aware of the version of herself being portrayed to the public, and she was not happy about it. Marilyn craved to be taken seriously as an actor, bidding for roles that played against her trademark ditzy blonde characters. She spent time at The Actor’s Studio in New York with the intention of improving her talent and learning more about herself via techniques such as The Method, all in order to give a better performance and prove that she could be taken as seriously as other actresses of the time. Sadly, the general opinion is that she was not a talented actress, but I sincerely beg to differ. The fact is that she was such a talented actress that she had everyone fooled; she is famed for her notoriety as the dumb blonde, when in actual fact she was an avid reader with a vast personal library and a high IQ. She is sexualised and seen as a flirt, when she was in fact incredibly insecure and self-critical. I adore her performances in all her pictures, but her greatest act has to be the constant projection of this image to the public, a performance so effectively done that it is taken as a true impression of who Marilyn was.
Marilyn photographed by Milton Greene in 1953
Rumors of Marilyn’s promiscuity were rampant both during and after her life, but there is simply no truth to this image. Again displaying her intelligence, she was well aware that she was someone that others could take advantage of or use for their own gain, and she rejected any possibility of this happening.
“I was determined, no one was going to use me or my body—even if he could help my career. I’ve never gone out with a man I didn’t want to. No one, not even the studio, could force me to date someone. The one thing I hate more than anything else is being used. I’ve always worked hard for the sake of someday becoming a talented actress. I knew I would make it someday if I only kept at it and worked hard without lowering my principles and pride in myself.” (Marilyn quoted by George Barris in Marilyn: Her Life In Her Own Words)
Not only did Marilyn refuse to be used by men for sex, she also refused to be taken advantage of by film studios. In late 1954, she left 20th Century Fox and founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. This was a groundbreaking move, not only in Marilyn’s career but also in how Hollywood worked as a whole; the establishment of Marilyn Monroe Productions has often been credited to bringing about the collapse of the Studio System, and was a landmark in the fact that it was the first female owned production company in Hollywood history. Marilyn made this move to escape the dumb blonde roles she’d grown so tired of and to try her hand at more dramatic roles; something she did particularly successfully in Bus Stop (Joshua Logan, 1956) the first film made with Marilyn Monroe Productions.
Marilyn was incredibly courageous. She not only stood up for herself in a multitude of ways, she also stood up for others, using her notoriety to defend causes she felt passionately about. Ella Fitzgerald stated that
“I owe Marilyn a real debt. It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo [who had refused to book Fitzgerald because she was black], and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard… After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
This was not the only way that Marilyn was ‘ahead of her times’. Her views on homosexuality were incredibly open, especially considering that it is still viewed by some as an issue even today. When talking about her The Misfits (John Huston, 1961) co-star Mongomery Clift, Marilyn said
“People who aren’t fit to open the door for him sneer at his homosexuality. What do they know about it? Labels – people love putting labels on each other. Then they feel safe. People tried making me into a lesbian. I laughed. No sex is wrong if there’s love in it”.
She truly believed in unity of all people – “What I really want to say: That what the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers.” – and fought for it throughout her life, even during an age of segregation and close-minded views.
Marilyn photographed in 1946
Here I have barely scraped the surface of just why Marilyn means so much to me. She was endlessly courageous, worked incredibly hard for her craft and was a true beauty inside and out, despite the multitude of hardships life threw at her. The odds were constantly stacked against her and yet she created her own success, ignoring those who sought to tear her down. Sadly, the popular view of Marilyn tends to focus on the sensationalism, the unfounded rumors of Presidential affairs and FBI murders that paint a very different Marilyn from the reality. Of course Marilyn had her faults – she was human. But in those faults I see beauty, fragility.
I see the Marilyn that still inspires me every single day.