Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Marilyn Monroe and Dostoevsky

I wrote this on August 5th to commemorate the death of Marilyn Monroe, but had issues publishing anything to this site that needed to be resolved. So here it is, albeit late.

On my last night in Los Angeles in March of 2018, I decided to take a self-guided tour to about a dozen locations associated with the dark side of Hollywood, basically where famous murders or deaths took place. One of the locations I visited was where Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose on August 5, 1962 at the age of 35. It was her house at the time, in Brentwood.

I visited the location because I always had a great admiration for Marilyn Monroe, and have read a lot about her, and seen pretty much all her films. One thing most people don't know about her is how she was admired as somewhat of an intellectual and voracious reader by her peers, despite the media pushing her image as a dumb blonde and sex goddess, to her dismay, and to which she responded: "Maybe I’m a sexless sex goddess."

Her intellectual pursuits can be seen from her library of 430 books, several first editions, many of them covered in her notes and scribbles. And there are photos captured of her reading various works of literature. Among the photos are those of her reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (Google "Marilyn Monroe reading" to see many more images). Of course we should not forget that her third husband was playwright Arthur Miller, and legend has it that she had a mad crush on renowned physicist Albert Einstein.

She read everywhere. When one of her directors once found her on set reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, he inquired how she chose that particular title. She replied, "On nights when I’ve got nothing else to do, I go to the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard and just open books at random—when I come to a page or a paragraph I like, I buy that book. So last night I bought this one. Is that wrong?"

She also frequently mingled with members of the literati — Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Danish author Isak Dinesen. While in London, filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1956, Monroe spent time with poet Edith Sitwell at the author’s home, the two of them sipping gin and grapefruit juice and discussing the work of Dylan Thomas. She met Vladimir Nabokov at a party in 1960. The writer, who was working on a film adaptation of his novel Lolita, reportedly found Monroe delightful, describing her to an acquaintance as “gloriously pretty, all bosom and rose.” And, of course, Truman Capote was a confidante.

She also had an unlikely friendship with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and Abraham Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg. When she was 15 years old, in her final year at Emerson Junior High in Los Angeles, she wrote a paper on Lincoln that was graded best in her class. Her insatiable interest in Lincoln she took to the grave. She read so much about him, that she became somewhat of an expert on him, which is how she met Sandburg, whose books were in her library. When asked why she loved Lincoln so much, she replied: "Most people can admire their fathers, but I never had one. I need someone to admire. My father is Abraham Lincoln…I mean I think of Lincoln as my father. He was wise and kind and good. He is my ideal, Lincoln. I love him."

When Marilyn Monroe fled Hollywood, basically on her own personal strike from the horrible material she was being offered, she disappeared for a while – and finally emerged, in New York – where she was taking classes at the Actors Studio. She wanted to develop her own projects, and so she formed a production company, a feat for a woman ahead of her time. One of the projects she wanted to do was to put Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov on the screen – with herself as Grushenka. She held a press conference announcing her plans, and the hostility of the press is kind of amazing to contemplate in this day and age. It would be hard to imagine a star of Marilyn’s magnitude being treated with such contempt and condescension now. One of the reporters asked her, “Do you even know how to spell Dostoevsky, Marilyn?” And obviously, very few if any of the reporters there had even read the book. Everyone thought she was illiterate. Marilyn said to them, sweetly (she was always sweet): “Actually, have you read the book? There’s a wonderful character in it named Grushenka, she’s a real seductress. I think it would be a good part for me.”

No wonder she found it difficult to come out of her dressing room on occasion, facing hostility like that on a regular basis. Interestingly, The Brothers Karamazov was not found in Marilyn's library, but friends do recall her reading it. The two books she did have of Dostoevsky in her library were The House Of The Dead and Crime And Punishment.

Unfortunately her dream of bringing Dostoevsky to the big screen and even playing Grushenka in the 1958 adaptation did not come to fruition due to personal troubles and her early death.