Tuesday 25 July 2017

Review: Fragments: Poems, Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe Edited by Stanley Buchtal and Bernard Comment

HarperCollins, €23.40, Hardback

No actress ever lit up the screen with a presence as luminous as that of Marilyn Monroe. Her unique allure was a combination of childlike innocence, a voluptuous body, and a flirty promise of availability.

She was not the original dumb blonde but she played the role better than anyone else. So well, in fact, that the studios tried to stop her doing anything else, and most people, even people like Norman Mailer, too often mistook the image for reality.

There was, of course, an element of truth in the image. The disjointed childhood, leading to a desperate desire to please, her mother's mental illness, the early realisation that her body was something she could use, all helped create it. But the on-screen image was a gross exaggeration of who she really was.

A window into the Marilyn behind the screen siren is contained in this fascinating new book, a collection of her writings from a succession of notebooks she kept throughout her life and which recently have come to light.

There are poems, free associations, observations about the people around her, her struggle to be seen as a serious actress, her private life, joy and desolation.

She took refuge in her notebooks, scribbling away, mainly when she was unhappy or confused, or trying to improve herself or her work. They are fragmented (hence the title) and chaotic, but they clearly show the introspective, intellectual young woman she was behind the image she had created. Even for those who realised she was never just a dumb blonde, it's still a surprise.

Also a surprise is how good a writer she was, something that emerges even though these are just jottings, scribbled down in a hurry, with words and lines crossed out and arrows pointing to inserts and afterthoughts.

Here she is describing waking up beside her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller: "My love sleeps beside me/-- in the faint light --/I see his manly jaw/give way -- and the mouth of/his boyhood returns"

This half-finished poem goes on to wonder how his eyes must have looked out from "the cave of the little boy" and whether he would look like this when he was dead.

It's all the more poignant when you learn it was written after she had read in his diary that she was an embarrassment to him, a discovery that left her unable to sleep or work.

Later in the notebooks, she writes: "Starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that's all I really have and as I see it now have ever had . . . when one wants to stay alone as my love (Arthur) indicates, the other must stay apart."

The notebooks -- plus additional material that Monroe wrote on hotel notepaper and other scraps of paper -- were inherited by Anna Strasberg, widow of Lee Strasberg, Monroe's acting guru, and they have been hidden away for years.

The format of the book puts reproductions of Monroe's original handwritten pages on one side with a typed version on the facing page, along with explanatory notes.

As well as giving us a glimpse into how she was thinking and feeling at critical points in her life, including her psychological distress and drug use, the book reveals her intense frustration at being unable to break away from her image as a sex object.

Like her life, Monroe's jottings have an overhang of sadness -- and they lurch all over the place. But the editors have done a superb job in making them comprehensible and arranging them in chronological order, with pictures to match.

There are some intriguing passages, like the one where she writes about her distrust of Peter Lawford, President John F Kennedy's brother-in-law, who was the last person she talked to on the phone before she died.

And there are some heart-warming bits, like her jottings about how her second husband, the baseball hero Joe Di Maggio, rescued her from a psychiatric ward.

The most memorable scribblings, however, are some of those in which she just writes about what she is surrounded by. Like the 175-year-old maple trees at the house in Connecticut she shared with Miller in a marriage which by then had become loveless. They seemed to mirror her despair.

That she felt so compelled to write should not be a surprise. She had over 400 books in her library, had gone back to college to make up for her inadequate schooling and was an ardent reader of literature, striving to understand and appreciate.

The famous shot of her reading Ulysses (far left) was sneered at by some at the time -- but she often chose to be photographed reading books. She was trying to tell us something.

Irish Independent

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