Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, eds.
To be honest, I had never noticed how prominently books feature in Marilyn Monroe iconography, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to miss.
Apparently, this was no accident, for as Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment ask in their introduction to this volume, do we know of any other actresses from the period who “sometimes took pains to be photographed reading or holding a book?” And this wasn’t merely a ploy to counter a fast-crystalizing reputation as an airhead, a dumb blonde, a beautiful face with nothing substantial behind it. As Buchtal and Comment note, Monroe was “passionately fond of literature.”
And what did she read? Oh, just Ulysses. Swann’s Way. Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. The personal library she left behind included titles by Milton, Flaubert, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Beckett. Never graduating from high school and embarrassed of the fact, as a blossoming starlet she began taking night classes at UCLA in literature and art history (attested to in detailed notes on Italian Renaissance art included in this volume). She cultivated friendships with Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, to say nothing of her famous marriage to one of America’s foremost playwrights which would certainly have exposed her to the mid-century intelligentsia and literati.
In the decades since her death, it has become widely accepted to think of “Marilyn Monroe” in terms of a binary: Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker. The luscious blonde sex goddess/the emotionally and mentally fragile woman behind the glamour and wide smile and come-hither gaze. But with this collection, bringing together a recently unearthed assortment of journals, notes and letters, upsets that binary. Certainly not the Marilyn of the silver screen, not quite the tragic, victimized off-screen Norma Jeane, a complex woman instead emerges: one who certainly was beautiful, glamorous, and sexy, one who was also emotionally scarred from a traumatic childhood, but one who was also curious and creative and introspective and literary. A woman who actively pursued a creative and artistic life. A woman who was by no means “just a dumb blonde.”
It’s not that I read every line of this book; in fact, after a while I read very little, instead opting to look at the carefully reproduced pages, studying the erratic handwriting, scattershot layout and curious spelling mistakes (Marilyn probably had some form of dyslexia). It’s not that the poetry is good, and is probably of interest mostly to those willing to dutifully scour it for clues to her psyche and psychological makeup (I am definitely not one of those people). To be honest, most of this is the type of scrawling that should be read by nobody but its creator; coming from different circumstances, this is not stuff that would be fit to publish. But, of course, legends and icons are a different situation altogether.
Because really the quality, even the content itself is beside the point: this is Marilyn/Norma Jeane in her own words, speaking for herself. And it’s been a long time coming.