Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Marilyn! New Revelations In Charles Casillo's "The Private Life of a Public Icon."

Venus rising from — the pool. Monroe's famous nude swim from "Something's Got to Give."
by Denis Ferrara

something almost Shakespearean about Marilyn Monroe’s saga in her final year.  She was the beautiful, mad, aging queen, referring to her mirror and then turning to the mighty king and his ambitious brother to make sure she was still desirable, her position safe.”

So writes Charles Casillo toward the end of his mortally moving new book on MM, “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon.”  This tale of  Marilyn’s rise and unraveling could be subtitled, “Heart of Darkness.”

Click to order “Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon.”
Casillo is an old friend.  We first met when he published an extraordinary biography about the writer John Rechy, “Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy.”  (Rechy is the author of the groundbreaking  1963 semi-autobiographical masterpiece “City of Night.”)  

We found, Mr. Casillo and I, that we shared an admiration not only for Rechy’s work, but that of the late movie star, Miss Monroe.  In time Casillo would bring forth “The Marilyn Diaries” a work of fiction, written as if the famously disorganized Monroe ever could have kept a diary, and offered a remarkable “in her voice” style that really did sound as though MM was speaking/writing/free associating.  I generally roll my eyes at this sort of thing but Casillo perfectly captured the star; the sense of her — the intelligence, humor and the madness.

We also shared the now-minority belief that Marilyn’s death was not murder, rather the result of years of mental anguish and drug addiction, a sudden wish to die — or escape her pain — or a miscalculation of her medications. 

It is this latter part of Monroe’s life that is most powerfully and sympathetically conveyed by Casillo. The cult of fandom that still surrounds Marilyn is powered by admirers who know nothing, really, of her career and press coverage when she lived. These people  devour conspiracy theories and seem to think the 1950s and early '60s were in some way comparable to today’s social media exhibitionism — and they are already complaining that Casillo has painted too grim a portrait of Marilyn’s final act. 

I spoke with the author over the weekend, and he laughed somewhat mirthlessly: “Religion, politics and Marilyn Monroe, prepare never to have a rational discussion on these subjects!”
One night, many moods -- Marilyn, 1953.  
“THE Private Life of a Public Icon” covers familiar territory — how could it not, 56 years and probably a thousand books since her death?   But Casillo charts her life, particularly as she felt her youth and career slipping away, with the precision of a great surgeon and the sympathetic expertise of a therapist who knows his patient is on the precipice, but is helpless to save her. 

The shattered nature of Monroe’s psyche — ruinously formed by her disordered and disconnected childhood (the unstable mother, absent father, foster homes, orphanages, abuse) runs through the book like a volcano-red warning sign.  But as Casillo notes over and over again — despite every single person who was close to her, knowing of her fragility — her ability to rise spectacularly, like a wounded phoenix, in both her personal and professional life, muted concern, or forced her friends to accept her as she was, and hope for the best. 
18-year-old model, Norma Jeane.
One person who knew well her during her early years in New York, after she rebelled from 20th Century Fox, and began work at the Actors Studio recalled: “I felt the wish, the wish to die ... it represented freedom, escape.  She had this great bubbly beauty, but dank underwater, like she was more submerged than we were, otherworldly, as if she was drowning.”  And this was a period in Monroe’s life during which she was ostensibly happy and hopeful! 

And she was.  But she was also these other things — the eternal orphan, the fatherless girl looking for security and approbation in a strong man, the “tough, tough tomato,” the sex symbol with a limited image and expiration date, the woman who loved gardening and poetry and wished  not to be mocked for aspiring to more, the woman who “never told anybody everything,” as her press rep Pat Newcomb famously said, the woman who led many secret lives. 
"I'm the same person...but it's a different suit."  Monroe returns to Hollywood, 1956.
It is always tempting to pluck villains from Marilyn’s life — she seemed so vulnerable. Even before her death, her public had come to sense that beneath the glittering façade there was little in her life to envy.  But with the exception of Arthur Miller — whose use of Monroe, no matter how much in love, or besotted by her image he initially was, is hard to justify — Monroe was met in life by savior after savior, people and situations in which she placed her mountain of hopes, only to be crushed by betrayal, sometimes justified, often not.  As Casillo notes, as time ran out and Monroe began to panic, her final saviors hurt her the most. 
One was therapist Ralph Greenson, who flouted all professional standards by bringing Marilyn into his home and making her a part of his family life — something he felt she desperately needed.  And then, after she was fired from “Something’s Got to Give” the doctor inserted himself into negotiating with her studio. Casillo writes, “Her desperation was so palpable that it acted on Greenson as an aphrodisiac.  That thing she brought out in everyone — I have to save her! — was now far more seductive than her reputation as a sex-symbol.” 
More destructive were her relationships with the Kennedy men, the president and his brother, Robert, the Attorney General.  So much has been written — and wildly exaggerated about these affairs.  I share Casillo’s assessment — there was no grand romance with either.

JFK was simply doing what came naturally to him, being unfaithful, albeit with the world’s most famous blonde. (He loved her seductive rendition of “Happy Birthday” at Madison Square Garden, although it was that very public showing off that caused him to end their little fling.)

His brother, more sensitive — which Monroe picked up on — attempted to comfort her, fell briefly into physical intimacy, and then had to back off.  Although Monroe was shaken and distressed by these “rejections” she was not so upset as to plan any great revenge or “tell all” at a press conference; this is one of the many, and perhaps the most absurd of the why-Marilyn-was-murdered theories.  

It is undeniable that some who were close to Monroe, such as her attorney, Milton Rudin, thought she was “not sane ... nobody seems to accept that fact.” 

In truth, although unstable Marilyn was still competent enough to be working hard to salvage her career, not wreck it. (And some, like ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, held out hope that her desire to continue being “Marilyn Monroe” would miraculously dissipate, and leave him with Norma Jeane. DiMaggio’s love was the most powerfully simple, straightforward and loyal that she would ever encounter.)
Casillo also explores Marilyn’s complicated relationship with press rep Pat Newcomb and Newcomb’s own complicated relations with the Kennedy family and Robert Kennedy in particular.

The book is studded with new, fascinating nuggets of information, parties not heard from previously (for instance, an actor on the set of “Some Like It Hot” who observed MM closely and was bewildered by most of the now-famous tales of her egregious “misbehavior” during the filming of that classic movie). Casillo offers his own astute assessments of matters such as Marilyn’s famous “last sitting” for photographer Bert Stern. As well as pointing out that the miraculous salvage of all the hours of Marilyn toiling on the set of the incomplete “Something’s Got to Give,” are wildly at odds with the mythology. Not only does she appear to be working well and cooperatively (albeit on those rare occasions she appeared) but it is raw footage, showing her between takes — there is no complaining diva or monster revealed; she seems more than reasonably cheerful and compliant, working on a film that she feared might actually be the nail in the coffin her career. (It is director George Cukor who seems an unpleasant, barking dark cloud.)
MM in April, 1962, testing costumes and hairstyles for the film she would never complete, "Something's Got to Give."  
But the two big “reveals” of Casillo’s book come from the memories of Leslie Caron, about her ex-lover Warren Beatty’s one encounter with Marilyn at a party (perhaps a day before her death), and a truly stunning revelation from a close friend of Elizabeth Taylor. 

Beatty was always cautious about the meeting with Monroe.  He mentioned it to Norman Mailer way back in 1973, and then refused to elaborate. He did much the same with another Monroe biographer, Donald Spoto.  He did expand somewhat to Vanity Fair two years ago, but to Caron he opened up, and she in turn talked to the author: 

Warren Beatty was "haunted" by his one encounter with Marilyn, very shortly before her death. 
Concerned about Marilyn, the world's most famous brunette called the world's most famous blonde, offering support, solidarity and money, after Monroe was fired by 20th Century Fox. 
“He had been very moved by Marilyn, and that night haunted him. She said to him, ‘I’m three and six and I’m frightened.’” Caron says Monroe unburdened herself to Beatty about her insomnia, her disorganization, her attempts to put her life back in order, all to no avail. And again and again; her age. Caron says: “It affected Warren so much ... he can get anything out of you because he is so warm and compassionate.  Actually, he was very much like Marilyn ... he was so shaken because he saw her future for himself.  Warren was very beautiful, but he was afraid of losing it one day.  He was frightened too.  He was a frightened child, like her.”

But perhaps the most striking and surprising revelation of “The Private Life of a Public Icon” concerns Elizabeth Taylor. 

When Monroe had finished up her nude swim scene in “Something’s Got to Give” she laughingly said, “I’ll be glad to see all those covers with me on them, and not Liz!”  A sentiment almost any working actress of the time might have made, considering the mountain of notoriety stemming from Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton on the set of “Cleopatra” (La Liz’s second husband-snatching scandal.)  But from Monroe’s casual remark, has been built a mountain of jealousy and “rivalry” between the actresses — absurd, as the two could not have been more different in type or personality. (Indeed they had met only once sitting at a table in Las Vegas, a year before, watching Frank Sinatra.  MM would exclaim to Louella Parsons excitedly “how nice” Elizabeth and Eddie Fisher were!)

At the time of Monroe’s firing by Fox, Taylor, by then an independent agent, was starring in that studio’s trouble-plagued “Cleopatra” which had been delayed because of Taylor’s near-fatal bout with pneumonia and all other manner of miscalculation and absurd over-spending. Taylor, her morals and her million-dollar salary were being blamed.  But “Cleo” was far too expensive to be shut down or its star fired.  So the nearly bankrupt studio canned Monroe, who had been absent more often than present on the set of her own film. 

It can now be told that Taylor, upon hearing of Marilyn’s firing called her.  Taylor told a friend, “I could only imagine how humiliating it was for her.  I got her on the phone.  I said ‘What’s happening to you now has been happening to me for a long time with ‘Cleopatra.’ The financial problems of the studio are not the fault of either one of us — but they need to blame somebody.”  Taylor then offered to lend Monroe money if she needed it, and even more stunningly said she had Fox over a barrel (key “Cleo” scenes were still needed)  and would stage a walkout in solidarity with Monroe, “I’ll go to the press ... they are trying to put the blame on you, the same way they’ve tried to blame me.” 
Marilyn was “flabbergasted and moved” but told Taylor she didn’t need any money (which was not true) and she’d try to see the situation through on her own. “Don’t walk out.  Neither of us should damage our career any more than the studio has.” 

Taylor ended the call with a word of advice. “No matter what they write about me, I never deny it.  I never confirm it.  I keep smiling and I walk.  I just walk forward.  You do the same.”

Taylor’s friend, who revealed this, says, “I’ve often recalled that discussion” and further stated that it was no surprise, “I frequently saw her privately, without fanfare or publicity, stand up for a lot of people.” 

So much for the great “feud.” 
Monroe, Taylor and Eddie Fisher share a table in Las Vegas, 1961.
“I LOOKED at the most famous and loneliest person I ever saw in my life ... she was a beautiful shell.”  That’s what Albie Pearson, the former Angels centerfield baseball player told Casillo of his one encounter with Monroe, at a Dodgers Stadium charity event on June 1st, 1962, Marilyn’s 36th birthday and — though she did not know it — her last day of shooting “Something’s Got to Give.”  Pearson said he was shocked by her ability to transform from grim and apparently depressed to dazzling radiance, and back, within minutes.

MM at a Frank Sinatra concert, Cal Neva Lodge, 1960.
Buddy Greco, the singer, saw Monroe (and her on-and-off-lover Frank Sinatra) at the Cal-Neva Lodge about a week before her death.  Impressed at first by her beauty, Greco was stunned by her quickly emerging fragility, “the porcelain doll had smashed.”  (Sinatra would keep a photo of Marilyn from that weekend — looking thin and ill — at his home. Sinatra told a friend, “Every time I look at it, I want to cry.  She was a beautiful, beautiful woman.  But she was weak, she was so goddamn weak.”  It was known among intimates that although Ava Gardner was the great love/obsession of Sinatra’s life, Monroe brought out his most tender side.)

“Rather than being tired of living, she was tired of dying.”  That’s what author Casillo writes as the events of Marilyn’s life converge, miscommunicate and end inevitably with her death on the night of August 4th.

A lifetime of battling her demons and poor judgment — by Marilyn and those who supposedly cared for her — stepped up to her small home in Brentwood, and snuffed out the dazzling life force who had become “one of the most famous stars in Hollywood’s history” as her New York Times obituary would declare. 

Marilyn’s career hung in the balance on the night of her death, but she had secured a tenuous triumph.  The studio would rehire her, she would receive more money, the script — and the director — she preferred would be used.  Various personal issues swirled — Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, the brothers Kennedy, her apparently insoluble physical and emotional issues, which led to barbiturate and alcohol abuse. 
Wistful Marilyn at an Actors Studio benefit in early 1961, shortly after her release from several hospitals, for "nervous exhaustion."   
But when had it been otherwise?  No one who knew Marilyn intimately would have ever said, at any time. “She’s such a happy girl” — although she was capable of summoning up an infectious, joyful façade. It was her own disapproval of herself, her self-loathing that drove her to excel and reach ever up and beyond. (She could call on Isak Dinesen, Truman Capote and Carl Sandburg as friends.) Her struggle was heroic, and her accomplishments are ill-served when placed in the mode of inevitable failure and victimization. (As Casillo notes, she was used, but she used as well, and her rages, when she felt betrayed, were towering.)

In her last interview, to Life magazine Monroe said, “That moment, between me and the camera.  I want it to be perfect.  As perfect as I can make it, anyway.”  She had not despaired of her great career high — though she hardly expected it to be “Something’s Got To Give.” 
On the set of "Let's Make Love."  1960.
She also said, in those final weeks, “Fame has its compensations.  It does.  But it also has its drawbacks.  And I’ve experienced both.  It’s like caviar.  It’s good to have caviar, but not when you have it every damn day.  Too much caviar!”  And her summation of what she’d worked for?  “Fame may go by.  And, so what?  I’ve had fame.  It’s something I’ve experienced.  But it’s not where I live.”

Had she lived, the white hot of fame would have passed by, but in a cooler climate, might she not have found all she desired?  We would not talk of her as we do now, as an almost mythological figure, a repository of endless fantasy and speculation.  She would speak for herself.
Marilyn Monroe’s death was an accidental blip, one wretched night she couldn’t escape.  Had she risen above it, been saved, thought it over, she would have survived.  She might have been ... Mrs. Robinson! (Could Mike Nichols have resisted casting her in “The Graduate”?)  The legendary “correctness” of her passing — the right place, the right year, the right age — works for historians, conspiracy buffs and fans.  The woman herself would have wanted more time, despite her weariness.  I have often thought Fate was kind, taking her when it did, still young and lovely. Could she really have survived middle age and the inevitable image transition?  Probably not. But Marilyn had battled Fate all her life — perhaps it underestimated her?

In 1955, the year of her great rebellion against Hollywood Marilyn said: “I’m trying to find myself as a person.  Sometimes that’s not easy to do. Millions of people live their entire lives without finding themselves.  But it is something I must do.  The best way for me to find myself as a person is to prove to myself that I am an actress.”
Weeks before she died, during an interview with Redbook magazine she referred back to her 1955 declaration of finding herself: “There has been an alteration with time. I used to think if I could find myself as an actress, I would fulfill myself as a person.  Now I feel if I fulfill myself as a person, I’ll find myself as an actress.  The thing is, it seems like I have a superstructure with no foundation.  But I’m working on the foundation!”

I reminded Charles Casillo of these positive words and we agreed that she was too magnificently fractured to be assessed with certainty by any biographer.  Whatever one thinks about Marilyn’s death or imagines what her “real” life or “real” feelings were, the best of her is onscreen, and in the thousands of magnificent photos  for which she joyfully posed. 
So, go watch “Niagara,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Bus Stop,” “The Prince and Showgirl” or “Some Like it Hot.”  Hell, there are wonders to be found even in “River of No Return” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Let’s Make Love” and “The Misfits.” 

Charles Casillo ends his book with Life magazine’s plangent cry, from its commemorative issue, August of 1962:  “Her death has diminished the loveliness of the world in which we live.”

True, but the work she left behind — that which she suffered and struggled over — can never be diminished.
The elegant final image — MM by Bert Stern, July, 1962. 
Contact Denis here.