xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #25: MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, by Lois Banner
I have been researching Marilyn Monroe for a project I am working on, so have been immersing myself in the iconic Hollywood star’s life via a lot of different books. MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe presents the contents of two file cabinets that were left after Marilyn died in June 1962 as a peek into the star’s private and professional life. Author Lois Banner and photographer Mark Anderson have reverently presented everything from letters, memos, and telegrams to jewelry that may have belonged to Marilyn, and even items of clothing. Some of the items are photographed placed on rose petals, which is admittedly kind of corny; but page after page of piles of saved receipts, although mundane items, still serve as a touching reminder of Marilyn’s brief but compelling life.
There is a bit of a mystery behind how these files and the book came to be. When Marilyn was married to Joe DiMaggio he helped her find a new business manager, Inez Melson, to help take care of her mother, Gladys Baker Eley, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life. Inez not only managed Gladys but also Marilyn’s burgeoning career, helping her with her financial affairs. When the marriage with DiMaggio went bust and Marilyn left California for New York, she soon also severed ties with Inez, apart from her continuing custodianship of Marilyn’s mother. But Inez didn’t want to lose Marilyn and managed to stay connected through the years.
When Marilyn died Inez was called, and there is some dispute over whether she may have tampered with evidence in the apartment, as far as removing prescription medicine bottles in an effort to protect Marilyn. She did help plan the funeral with Joe DiMaggio. She managed to immediately secure one of Marilyn’s two file cabinets, and then bought the other at auction, using her nephew’s name for the purchase, even though they both rightfully belonged to Lee Strasberg, the major beneficiary in Marilyn’s will.
What Inez did was clearly fraud, but if she hadn’t maneuvered getting hold of Marilyn’s belongings the contents of the file cabinets would have certainly been tossed or scattered by now. Instead, readers get to flip through these intact, daily records of Marilyn’s life. At times it’s admittedly a little creepy, like going through her drawers, shuffling through her papers. Drugstore receipts for enemas and colonics tell the tale of quick weight loss methods, common to Hollywood actresses, but did we really need to know that? Marilyn surely wouldn’t have wanted to tarnish any mystique she may have had with her public. Some of the items are frankly boring or indecipherable. But some, mostly letters, are interesting, and shed a light on Marilyn’s personality, as well as her more familiar Hollywood persona.
- Marilyn wanted Frank Sinatra, not Tony Curtis as her co-star in Some Like it Hot (a terrible idea, as Sinatra just wouldn’t have worked and we would have lost the Curtos/Lemmon dream team). She had an affair with Sinatra much later, shortly before her death, after she broke up with husband Arthur Miller.
- In a typewritten (probably by a secretary) note to magazine illustrator Jon Whitcomb, who did an illustration of the actress that appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitanin March 1959, Marilyn’s distinctive voice and humor comes through, as she apologizes for the hold-up in their getting together:
“Please forgive the long delay in answering, but I have been up to my derrière in preparation for two movies for the near future… I would love to have the picture from you and I repeat ‘at last to be a Whitcomb girl!’ .… I am looking forward to meeting with you and I want you to meet Arthur [husband Arthur Miller].”
Her sense of humor also shines through in letters to Miller’s son and daughter, which she wrote as if from their dog or cat.
- In a telegram to director George Cukor after she was fired from Something’s Got to Give, she blames herself and offers to make it up to him, by cleaning his house, “I can dust.”
- The are some intriguing fan letters that she chose to keep, including the offering up of a newborn baby girl for adoption. It makes one wonder if she was seriously tempted to accept the baby.
- One of the more interesting letters is an apology from public relations man Joe Wolhandler in reaction to her anger at a magazine article quoting Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Billy Wilder about how difficult she was to work with during Some Like It Hot.
“As you know, TIME Magazine is, of all the ghoulish press, in a class by itself for unmitigated nastiness and inaccuracy. It has been a “middle-class confidential” for a long period. I don’t believe they are quoting Wilder and Curtis accurately. We have asked for a retraction…”
- More poignant is a letter from April 1952 that she taped to her stomach before an appendectomy, begging, “Dear Doctor no ovaries removed – please again do whatever you can to prevent large scars. Thanking you with all my heart, Marilyn Monroe”
- Some of the receipts do tell heartbreaking stories — gifts of roses and a bed jacket from a maternity store from Arthur Miller, given right before two separate miscarriages.
So much has been written about how difficult Marilyn was to work with, with the focus in most biographies on her addictions, men in her life, and instability, but the more and more I learn and read about her this behavior seems to also speak of her quest for power. If she wasn’t considered such a valuable commodity to the studio, she would have been fired and replaced, and that would have been that. She used her frequent illnesses and perpetual lateness to protest scripts she didn’t like, or too-controlling studio executives. Marilyn used many different methods to have more control of her career and her life, not an easy thing for a woman of her time.
History professor Banner frames the bits and pieces of Marilyn’s life in biographical sections. Her text jumps around chronologically and at times is a bit repetitive, as the reader is told in at least three separate sections about her infamous stroll from one end of the studio to the other in a see-through negligee. Apparently that exhibition of her sexual power made quite an impression on the author. She even repeats the anecdote in another book she wrote on the star, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. There are no major revelations here in the oft-told story of Marilyn’s tragically short but eventful life, but some of the items photographed by Anderson and selected by Banner do help frame her life in a more easily relatable and approachable context.
MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe is by no means a definitive text on the star, but it is an interesting glimpse into the actress’s life, and it makes one wonder how our own lives might be pieced together by the detritus of our daily lives.
You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e