In 1954 Marilyn, at the height of her fame and popularity, was persuaded by friend and publicist Sidney Skolsky to publish her autobiography. They enlisted screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms) to ghostwrite, and sat down for a series of interviews which they intended to have published in a magazine, not in book form, in The Ladies Home Journal. The interviews focused mainly on her rough and tumble childhood. Hecht’s agent, without his or Marilyn’s knowledge or approval, sold it as serialized articles to the London Empire News, who ran it between between May 9 and Aug 1, 1954. In 1974, twelve years after her death, photographer and former business partner Milton Greene produced a copy of the manuscript and had it published in book form.
There has been much debate about the authenticity of the book. Some of the stories may have been embellished or streamlined by Hecht, but the overall feeling rings true to Marilyn. Marilyn was well-known for telling and retelling the stories of her life, frequently heightening the drama. She was a born actress. According to Monroe biographer Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe), “Hecht reported to his editor during the interviews that he was sometimes sure Marilyn was fabricating. He explained, ‘When I say lying, I mean she isn’t telling the truth. I don’t think so much that she is trying to deceive me as that she is a fantasizer.’”
|Norma Jean in 1946, photographed by Andre de Dienes|
Marilyn may have pumped up some of the pathos in her early life and Hecht may have cleaned up the text, but of all the books on Marilyn Monroe that I have read recently (and I have been reading a lot) this is the best. Is it the most well-written? Absolutely not. But does it come closest to capturing the woman who fifty years after her death is still an icon, a movie goddess? It actually does. So many of the other books, by authors good and not-so-good, have quoted liberally from My Story, but somehow have missed Marilyn’s voice and personality in their desire to catalog her inevitable road to death. When read in full, My Story gives a far better impression of Marilyn, how she talked, how she thought, than any picked-and-chosen snippets could.
The articles were clearly originally intended as a Cinderella story, cataloging Marilyn’s “orphan” childhood to her fame and marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. With all of the emphasis on the waifdom, a palpable sadness does comes through. After readingMy Story the reader learns that Marilyn could never forget her youth, her deprived existence as Norma Jean. “My own costume never varied. It consisted of a faded blue skirt and white waist. I had two of each, but since they were exactly alike everyone thought I wore the same outfit all the time. It was one of the things that annoyed people — my wearing the same clothes.”
It may have been intended as a publicity piece, but Marilyn and Hecht don’t hesitate to touch on the seamy underbelly of trying to get ahead in Hollywood, “I’ve never heard anything about the Hollywood I knew in those first years. No hint of it is ever in the movie fan magazines. … The Hollywood I knew was the Hollywood of failure. … We ate at drugstore counters. We sat in waiting rooms. We were the prettiest tribe of panhandlers that ever overran a town.” A story about trying to cash her last paycheck, a mere $40, after her [first] firing from Twentieth-Century Fox, points to the easy availability of drugs, “After doing my shopping, I stopped in a doctor’s office. I had a cold, and I had not slept for several nights. The doctor gave me a sleeping pill. ‘I don’t usually recommend sleeping pills,’ he said, “but you been having hysterics too long. A good sleep will not only be good for your cold but cheer you up.” She shares an amusing story of her first Hollywood feud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor, apparently as a result of husband George Sanders’s love of “pneumatic” blondes. Reading My Story gives the impression that Marilyn had a lot of Hollywood stories to tell and would have been very amusing company.
|Marilyn in 1954|
On her changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, “When I just wrote ‘This is the end of Norma Jean,’ I blushed as if I had been caught in a lie. Because this sad, bitter child who grew up too fast is hardly ever out of my heart. With success all around me, I can still feel her frightened eyes looking out of mine. She keeps saying, ‘I never lived, I was never loved,’ and often I get confused and think it’s I who am saying it.”
Marilyn may have been one of the first well-known women to talk publicly about childhood sexual abuse. She claims her first sexual encounter happened when she was nine and was molested by a man named Mr. Kimmel, who rented a room from the foster family she was living with. The incident had ramifications on her dealing with the casting couch later in Hollywood, “Maybe it was the nickel Mr. Kimmel once gave me … But men who tried to buy me with money made me sick. There were plenty of them. The mere fact that I turned down offers ran my price up.”
The only bum note in My Story is the introduction by Andrea Dworkin, “She kept trying to hold on for dear life with a man, some man, who had his feet solidly planted in achievement. Instead, they had their feet solidly planted on her neck or other exposed flesh.” Although she tries to cast Marilyn in a good light, Dworkin regurgitates lots of unsubstantiated gossip about Marilyn in her introduction, including the rumored affairs with both Kennedy’s and 20 abortions. Disappointing.
“I didn’t think of my body as having anything to do with sex. It was more like a friend who had mysteriously appeared in my life, a sort of magic friend.”
Marilyn’s own observations about her sexuality are far more interesting and revealing. Her discovery of her own beauty and voluptuousness seems to have been as much a revelation to her as to everyone around her. “Why I was a siren, I hadn’t the faintest idea. … The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves, I was as unsensual as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.” She developed early physically, but was unprepared emotionally, “My admirers all said the same thing in different ways. It was my fault, their wanting to kiss and hug me. … I always felt they were talking about someone else, not me. … I not only had no passion in me, I didn’t even know what it meant.” An early marriage at the age of 16, to neighbor Jim Dougherty, “Was a sort of friendship with sexual privileges. I found out later that marriages are often no more than that. And that husbands are chiefly good as lovers when they are betraying their wives.”
|Marilyn photographed by Philippe Halsmann|
Much of My Story is written in hindsight, with Marilyn telling what she currently thinks and feels about her past, and trying to remake her future, “[When married to Dougherty] the thought of having a baby stood my hair on end. I could only see it as myself, another Norma Jean in an orphanage. … I feel different about having a child now. It’s one of the things I dream of. She won’t be any Norma Jean now. And I know how I’ll bring her up — without lies. Nobody will tell her lies about anything. And I’ll answer all her questions. If I don’t know the answer I’ll go to an encyclopedia and look them up. I’ll tell her everything she wants to know — about love, about sex, about everything!”
As much as her youth as Norma Jean haunted Marilyn, My Story is a very hopeful read. Marilyn’s dreams and her never-ending desire to improve herself come through loud and clear. Everyone knows how her story ended, which is the focus of most books about the star. My Story is how her story started, with hints of how it might have gone differently.
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