Laurean D. Robinson, MA
Founder, Editor, Writer of “The Student Becomes The Teacher”
I thought the people I lived with were my parents. I called them mama and dad. The woman said to me one day, “Don’t call me mama. You’re old enough to know better. I’m not related to you in any way. You just board here. Your mama’s coming to see you tomorrow. You can call her mama if you want to.
– Marilyn Monroe in opening chapter “How I Rescued A White Piano” of My Story (2007)
This begins the autobiographical account of the life of Marilyn Monroe in 1954. According to the book’s forward written by Joshua Greene (son of Ms. Monroe’s most famous friend and photographer Milton H. Greene who passed away in 1985), her memoir was the product of a collaboration between the timeless media icon and her screenwriter friend named Ben Hecht.
Being a disciple of all things OWN Network, especially the philosophy of Ms. Iyanla Vanzant in her hit show “Iyanla, Fix My Life,” I wanted to read her memoir to understand how the little girl named Norma Jean of Los Angeles became the screen stunner Marilyn Monroe of Hollywood and beyond.
With the opening paragraph, I saw a glimpse into the lonely and isolated world of this indentured child servant whose only crime was having an absent father who abandoned her mother to start a new family in Kentucky and a Columbia Pictures film cutter mother who couldn’t afford a babysitter, suffered from untreated mental illness and later self-administered suicide due to a broken heart and personal demons she could not overcome.
How could any child make peace with this “crime” without believing it was her/his fault?
And even when Norma Jean was finally able spend some quality time with her long-suffering mother, “she seldom spoke me except to say, ‘Don’t make so much noise, Norma.’ She would say this even when I was lying in bed at night and turning the pages of a book. Even the sound of a page turning made me nervous” (3-4).
Norma’s mother seemed more of a caged canary (“a pretty woman who never smiled”) than the “tiger mother” depicted in the infamous Mother Dearest. I found myself feeling so sympathetic to her strife and lack of support at a time when mental health support was archaic and hysteria was still considered a real affliction among women.
So what mechanism does Norma draw on to get her through being “a child servant, washing dishes, clothes, floors, running errands and keeping quiet” (5) that she relies on much into her teenage and adult life? The only thing that she could afford – her flourishing imagination.
“. . . I used to make up daydreams about my father. When I’d be walking home from school in the rain and feeling bad I’d pretend my father was waiting for me . . But in a daydream you jump over facts as easily as a cat jumps over a fence.”(5)
But sometimes buried and ugly truth could not ignored no matter how wonderfully magical the lies were:
As I grew older I knew I was different from other children because there were no kisses or promises in my life. I often felt lonely and wanted to die. I would try to cheer myself up with daydreams. [But] I never dreamed of anyone loving me as I saw other children loved. That was too big a stretch for my imagination. I compromised by dreaming of my attracting someone’s attention (besides God), of having people look at me and say my name (13).
That need to be acknowledged never really disappeared as young Norma Jean grew into adolescence inside the walls of Los Angeles Children’s Home Society as an orphan However, she learned how to stay “silent when the troubles came” (16) in the form of false accusation made by jealous and hateful children living with her and later molestation by an adult boarder at a group home.
Dating as a budding teenager was always complicated. Norma becoming a growing bombshell in the body of a 17-year-old and her male classmates just couldn’t get enough of her attention. Her female classmates, on the other hand, were insanely jealous and cruel like a good set of Mean Girls can be. The future Marilyn Monroe suffered in silence, disguising her pain with “painted lips and darkened brows” and embracing the male attention.
Why I was a siren, I hadn’t the faintest idea. There were no thoughts of sex in my head. I didn’t want to be kissed, and I didn’t dream of being seduced by a duke or a movie star. 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 (26).
These humble beginnings became the template for resilience and beauty in Hollywood when she transformed into the blonde siren Marilyn Monroe from a divorced nude model. She understood her power on the male species and harnessed it to secure unforgettable roles on film and musicals.
Her meteoric rise to stardom was actually gradual one. It wasn’t until she owned up to the nude pictures she did years before – against her movie company executive’s advice and publicized position – did she hone her power as a sex symbol to the masses, making her a movie star that even the industry could no longer deny.
Once Norma understood the political game of show business, she made use of her new persona in magazine interviews and cover photo shoots.
She also built her production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, so that she had more control over the roles she could play that wouldn’t reduce her to a flighty caricature of herself – Marilyn or Norma.
Joshua Greene, the son of famed photographer, Milton Greene, explains in the forward of the memoir:
[The movies] Bus Stop and Prince and the Showgirl were both produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP). MMP was the first production company where a woman was principle and had controlling interest. Marilyn had 51 percent and my father [Milton] 49 percent. (x)
Unfortunately, history forgets that fact. The masses now (and then, I think) focus on the tangible, what can seen and enjoyed: her body of work, interviews, and television footage found on reissued DVDs and YouTube fans in digital video form.
In today’s world, Marilyn Monroe is an American icon not for being a trailblazer but for being a beautiful actress who was funny and could sing a little.
Luckily, many today’s actresses can see through that facade. Prominent actresses like Viola Davis, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis, and many others (including Lindsey Lohan in her best MM makeup) participated in HBO’s latest documentary, Love, Marilyn which translated her letters, and poems through monologue intercut with intimate interviews by people Marilyn worked for, loved, and were friends with to create an intricate tapestry of her identity that her memoir taps into.
Between my reading of her memoir and the view of the latest documentary, I found one common thread that lead to her demise – lacking a stable and sustained support system.
Whether it was her series of husbands who fell in love with Marilyn but resented Norma Jean, her psychiatrists who enjoyed the celebrity of being Marilyn Monroe’s doctor but practiced unethical methods that only scarred Norma’s psyche, the movie companies who enjoyed the fruits of her labor but never paid her or publicized in the manner she deserved as the capable actress and businesswoman she became, Norma deserved a sustained and unconditional love that could protect her from the “monsters” of mental illness, self-doubt, loneliness, public slander, and insecurity.
But don’t we all deserve that too?
My film icon, Miss Dorothy Dandridge, suffered the same deficiency and died just as tragically.
I know I struggle with that every day but I know that there is that kind of love out there for me. I have seen too many wonderful examples within my family and outside of my family to be pessimistic about my chances.
But I don’t want to be saved and I don’t think Norma wanted to be either – we both just need a lighthouse to shed light in the darkest and turbulent storms of life.
As women (especially) in and out of the industry, we can learn a great deal from her tragic life of lows and triumphant highs. Her mythology rivals our internal quest for the American Dream, but more importantly, our ETERNAL quest to be loved and cared for unconditionally.