The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe
By Anthony Summers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1985 Anthony Summers
All rights reserved.
The hour before midnight, Saturday, August 4, 1962, in Los Angeles. In the auditorium of the Hollywood Bowl, under a sickle moon, the crowd was listening to the bittersweet strains of the Henry Mancini orchestra.
Abruptly, unnoticed by most of the concertgoers, there was a minor disturbance. An attendant, whispering apologetically, passed an urgent message to a man seated in one of the higher-priced seats. The man rose, walked to a telephone, and listened. Then he spoke a few terse sentences, summoned his wife, and hurried to his car.
In the night hours that followed, as Los Angeles slept, there would be other little incidents, more comings and goings. Telephones would jangle at bedsides around the city, rousing doctors, a prominent lawyer, leading figures in show business, and private detectives. A famous actor, brother-in-law of the President of the United States, would place a call to Washington. Some of the actor's neighbors, in their fine houses on the beach, would be roused from sleep by the clatter of a helicopter. An ambulance would be summoned to an unpretentious house in the suburbs, on a mission the driver says he cannot recall.
The public would learn nothing of these nocturnal events, nor, so far as we know, were they recorded by any official body. Yet the event that triggered them was the news story of the year, one that received more coverage than even the Missile Crisis, the near-nuclear war that followed a few weeks later. Marilyn Monroe was dead.
Exactly twenty years later, in 1982, the Los Angeles District Attorney reopened inquiries into a case that had never ceased to be the subject of rumor and controversy. His brief was limited. Was there sufficient evidence to open a criminal investigation? Could Monroe have been murdered? After four months the DA was advised that the evidence 'fails to support any theory of criminal conduct.' This, though, had been only a 'threshold investigation.' It was indeed; the investigators did not even interview the detective who attended the scene of the death.
The 1982 report acknowledged that 'factual discrepancies' and 'unanswered questions' had surfaced during the Monroe inquiry. Privately, officials today make it clear that they felt they had stumbled into a morass of untruth and obfuscation. Marilyn Monroe may, they surmise, have died by her own hand. Yet they feel something was indeed covered up in 1962.
That something involved Monroe's relations with President John Kennedy and his brother Robert—and, in particular, Robert Kennedy's activities at the time Monroe died.
The DA's men shrug ruefully when they discuss the Kennedy angle. 'We were not asked,' says one, 'to investigate a political cover-up.' With far less excuse, the press at the time preferred the easy wallow in pathos to serious reporting. Afterward, for all the profusion of writing about Marilyn Monroe, no qualified writer attempted a professional inquiry into the last days of the woman most firmly enthroned as the goddess of her century. Norman Mailer, who caused a stir with his book hinting at murder, came to regret 'not giving it my best effort.'
Who was the woman who turned herself into 'Marilyn Monroe'? She had a body, in truth, not so unlike other female bodies. How did she make us notice her more than any other woman, in her time and on into the end of the century? How much of this alchemy was achieved by talent, how much in the carefully chosen embraces of powerful males? What was at the hidden center of the phenomenon that was Marilyn Monroe?
Behind the hyperbole and the hysteria there was a child who grew to be a woman, who was a symbol of love yet essentially lonely, who died famously but in folly at the age of thirty-six. She postured as the world's mistress, yet yearned for monogamy and motherhood. The profile was crude while the pursuit was for culture. The brilliance of the actress masked a seriously disturbed psyche. The private person read philosophy and planned gardens, yet drowned in drugs and alcohol. Marilyn Monroe anticipated a decade that trumpeted fulfillment and achieved only confusion.
She told her last interviewer: 'When you're famous you kind of run into human nature in a raw kind of way ... People you run into feel that, well, who is she—who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? It's nice to be included in people's fantasies but you also like to be accepted for your own sake.'
With another reporter, a few months earlier, she had mused, 'I wonder how I'll feel when I'm fifty?' Then, her mind turning to birthdays, she mentioned that she was born under the sign of Gemini.
'What kind of people are Geminis?' the reporter asked.
'Jekyll and Hyde. Two in one,' came the reply.
'And that's you?'
'More than two. I'm so many people. They shock me sometimes. I wish I was just me! I used to think I was going crazy, until I discovered some people I admired were like that, too.'
Marilyn—and we may call her Marilyn because that is how she is known from Connecticut to the Congo—never saw her fortieth birthday, let alone her half-century. Were she alive today—hard to believe—she would be in her late eighties. Yet her life long remained as unreliably reported as her death had been.
I thought it time to grant this goddess a measure of reality. Who do we think she was?
In 1983, unrecognized by passers-by, an elderly woman wearing a bucket hat regularly sallied forth into the streets of Gainesville, Florida, riding a tricycle with a red danger flag on the handle bars. The woman was a surprising survivor—Marilyn's octogenarian mother, living out her life in virtual anonymity.
Gladys Monroe—for Monroe was the name of Marilyn's maternal grandmother—was born in 1902, in Mexico, of American parents. By the age of twenty-four she had been married twice and borne two children, who were raised by relatives of her first husband. The second husband did not last long. He was gone by the time Marilyn was born on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles General Hospital.
We do not know for sure who Marilyn's father was. Her birth certificate identifies him as 'Edward Mortenson,' and her mother was married to a Martin E. Mortensen two years before Marilyn's birth. It appears he was a Norwegian immigrant, a baker who died in a motorcycle accident in 1929, but even that is disputed. At all events, although she used his name on official documents throughout her life, Marilyn later denied that Mortenson was her father.
Marilyn told one interviewer that her real father 'used to live in the same apartment building where my mother lived—he walked out and left her while I was getting born.' That scenario sits best with a man called Stanley Gifford. He worked for Consolidated Film Industries, where Marilyn's mother worked as a film cutter, and Gifford was apparently Gladys's lover about the time her marriage to Mortenson collapsed.
The infant Marilyn had to make do with an imagined father. Once her mother pointed to a photograph and said, 'That's your father.' She remembered the face of a man in a slouch hat—'there was a lively smile in his eyes, and he had a thin moustache like Clark Gable.'
It was the beginning of a lifelong fantasy. As a child, Marilyn would recall, she told gullible friends that Clark Gable actually had been her father. In her last months, after she had acted with Gable in The Misfits, she fell back on the old fantasy. The widow of Marilyn's psychiatrist, Hildi Greenson, says, 'Marilyn had seen that photograph, and it looked like Gable, so sometimes she let herself believe her father was Gable.'
In 1962, the year of her death, Marilyn had to fill out an entry for 'Father's Name' on an official form. She wrote simply—and in her secretary's opinion, savagely—'Unknown.'
If mystery surrounds Marilyn's father, the facts about her mother's side of the family are painfully well documented. Knowing what she knew of that history, Marilyn feared she was genetically prone to insanity. The fear was understandable.
Her maternal great-grandfather, Tilford Hogan, hanged himself at the age of eighty-two. Suicide among the aged is not uncommon. It is certainly not necessarily a sign of madness, but mental illness did run in the family.
The maternal grandfather, Otis Monroe, died in an institution of general paresis, according to the death certificate. Paresis, and specifically paretic dementia, is recognized as a form of insanity provoked by syphilis in its final stage.
Marilyn ran no risk of inheriting syphilis, but her maternal grandmother, Delia, also died in an asylum, at age fifty-one, a year after Marilyn's birth. She had been something of a religious zealot. The cause of her death was given as heart disease, with 'manic-depressive psychosis' as a contributory factor.
The adult Marilyn would claim that she remembered her grandmother trying to smother her shortly before she was sent to the mental hospital. Since Marilyn was only thirteen months old at the time, it is highly unlikely she really remembered any such thing. Her little horror story almost certainly belongs in the ragbag of fantasies with which Marilyn embroidered her youth.
Family life was virtually nonexistent. After Marilyn's birth, apparently feeling unable to cope with full-time motherhood, Gladys went back to her work as a film cutter. She provided for her baby, but left her most of the time in the care of foster parents. Gladys' older children had long since been taken away by relatives of her first husband.
Catastrophe came when Marilyn was seven and living with her mother for a while. Gladys suffered a period of deep depression, then an explosion of rage and frustration. Some reports say she attacked a friend with a knife. She was promptly committed to the very hospital in which her own mother had died.
Except for brief periods, Gladys would remain confined until after Marilyn's death. Inez Melson, Marilyn's former business manager, was eventually appointed Gladys' guardian. She spent more time with her than anyone else, and considered her disturbed rather than insane.
'Marilyn's mother was overly taken up with her religion, Christian Science, and with evil,' Melson said. 'That was her area of disturbance. She figured she had done something wrong in her life, and was being punished for it.'
In that obsession Gladys was following the pattern set by her own mother. Religious fixation, and the notion of atoning for unspecified sin, is a feature found both in manic disorders and schizophrenia.
Marilyn had religious zeal thrust at her during childhood by Gladys and by one of the women who cared for her, and she remained a wobbly adherent of Christian Science into adulthood. With her, however, it was not a fixation. Marilyn would one day convert to the Jewish faith to marry the playwright, Arthur Miller; but she later cheerfully described herself as an 'atheist Jew.'
Marilyn was not definitely doomed to psychiatric illness, but she was born at serious risk. Psychiatrists consulted for this book point out that—as heavily documented in manuals used as guidelines by American doctors and the World Health Organization—manic and schizophrenic disorders frequently run in families.
This book will be an investigation of Marilyn's adult life, not of her childhood—that desolate, dislocated period has been well charted by earlier biographers. It was a time that the grown woman would never forget nor allow her public to ignore—ten foster homes, two years in the Los Angeles Orphans' Home, another foster home, and finally four years with the guardian appointed by county authorities after her mother's departure to an asylum.
This saga of deprivation made a classic launching pad for future psychiatric disorder. Dr Valérie Shikhverg, consultant psychiatrist at several New York hospitals, told the author Marilyn was a prime candidate for what is today called a 'borderline' personality—someone who hovers 'on the border between psychotic and neurotic, with frequent fluctuations between the two.'
'The problems of such a person,' said Dr Shikhverg, 'originate very early in life. "Borderlines" tend to have had a mother who could not cope, or who suffered from overt psychosis. Their family histories typically feature separation or divorce, or the total absence of one or both parents during early childhood. Marilyn's background was tailor-made to make her "borderline."&'
The 'borderline' person is likely to be emotionally unstable, excessively impulsive, and to show the world a mood that appears expansive and active. He or she is likely to be histrionic or seductive or overly concerned with good looks. A 'borderline' depends on constant external approval, loves applause, cannot bear to be alone, and suffers 'depressive, crashlike reactions' to rejection by others. A 'borderline' tends to abuse alcohol and drugs, and to make suicide threats as gestures to obtain help.
This personality profile, made on the basis of studies covering thousands of case histories, is chillingly recognizable in Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn's life was to be remorselessly faithful to the blueprint of her background, a scenario for brilliance and tragedy.
'My arrival in school, with painted lips and darkened brows, started everybody buzzing. Why I was a siren, I hadn't the faintest idea. I didn't want to be kissed, and I didn't dream of being seduced by a duke or a movie star. The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves I was as unresponsive as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.'
So spoke Marilyn Monroe in 1954, looking back on her teenage years. Thus at any rate, were her memories recorded by the writer Ben Hecht, to whom the newly successful star, at twenty-eight, told her 'life story' that year.
Hecht hoped to ghost the young Marilyn's autobiography, which had been commissioned by a major New York publisher. It is an important record, for Marilyn gave no other interviews of comparable scope. It is also controversial.
After a long series of talks with Hecht, Marilyn got him to read her the entire 160 pages of manuscript out loud. Then, according to Hecht's widow, she 'laughed and cried and expressed herself as "thrilled." She said she never imagined so wonderful a story could be written about her, and that Benny had captured every phase of her life.'
Marilyn even helped correct the manuscript, but then relations soured. Marilyn's husband at the time, Joe DiMaggio, reportedly objected to publication, and she backed out of the deal. When the material appeared anyway, in the British Empire News, Marilyn threatened to sue, alleging misquotation.
If the ghostwriter erred, so did Marilyn, for the truths in her story were highly selective. Hecht reported to his editor during the interviews that he was sometimes sure Marilyn was fabricating. He explained, 'When I say lying, I mean she isn't telling the truth. I don't think so much that she is trying to deceive me as that she is a fantasizer.' Hecht found himself struggling to interpret Marilyn's 'odd little physical body language, to read when she was going into something fictional or when she was leveling.'
Many of Marilyn's statements on her early life, as reproduced in the Hecht manuscript, will be quoted in these pages. Where possible, they will be buttressed or countered by independent witnesses. We must treat what she tells us with informed skepticism, and that is no disadvantage. Marilyn, an international fantasy figure, constructed her image, both public and private, from a blend of fact and self-serving fantasy. She exercised to excess a common human license. Fantasy was part of this creature, and part of the challenge is to discover the woman who sheltered behind it.
What Marilyn did tell Ben Hecht was sad, strong stuff for the 1950s. What she did not tell might have finished her as an actress. At the time, indeed, it was nobody else's business. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Goddess by Anthony Summers. Copyright © 1985 Anthony Summers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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