I read Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography My Story after finishing Fragments, the latest collection of her letters, notes, and poems released for the rabid consumption of Monroe fans.
As I finished the last page, I realized I have no idea what to think about the book. Everyone has their understanding of who Marilyn was based on her persona, her relationships, and her characters in films. Some believe she was secretly an intellectual, others think she was merely an attractive blonde who was used and abused by a variety of different (mostly famous) men, while still others admire her self-transformation from Norma Jean to the iconic platinum blonde sex symbol.
Of course, part of what makes Marilyn an interesting person to study is the ambiguity of her life and her death. As anyone who studies history might know, it is the women who died mysteriously, committed suicide or led interesting sexual lives who are most remembered (think Plath, Sexton, Cleopatra). It’s unfortunate that Marilyn and these other greats are not first and foremost remembered for their work.
Reading her autobiography, My Story, was illuminating, though I felt I had to take everything I read with a grain of salt. Marilyn historians have debated whether or not her autobiography, which was published for the first time over 10 years after her death, was edited or tampered with before publication. I assume this is because of the repeated self-reference of being “the type of girl you’d find dead in a hallway with an empty bottle of sleeping pills.” (What a haunting image.) Or is it because people didn’t think Marilyn was bright enough to write such an honest autobiography?
Since I wasn’t about to read the entire book guessing what might have edited and what might be Marilyn’s own words, I took everything at face value–I assumed that all of the words were indeed Marilyn’s own. If I were to go entirely on that assumption, she certainly sounds like a quite ordinary girl in terms of intellect (often lamenting her “stupidity” because of her lack of a higher education, though she knew deep down that she was more intelligent than many of the individuals who surrounded her). But she was certainly a girl with a childhood that haunted her throughout her life. Her mother and grandmother were admitted as inpatients at a psychiatric hospital, and she feared the same fate. She didn’t know who her father was. She was constantly in and out of foster homes. She married at 16 to avoid being thrown onto the streets. She survived without food on a regular basis as she struggled to land an acting job. She was insecure about her talent and spent any extra money on acting lessons. She cried. She often felt alone and abandoned. Her relationships were often masochistic. But she was strong-willed. She wrestled with the attention men gave her, but she refused to be taken advantage of by the Hollywood types who were only interested in “making deals under sheets.” She refused to work for one company when an executive hit on her. Especially for her time, she was a woman who stood her ground. I couldn’t help but respect her for that.
Marilyn also wrote about how men objectified her, though she often seemed puzzled by their reactions to her appearance. When she was 13, she borrowed a friend’s sweater (which was slightly too small) to cover her ripped blouse, and she couldn’t believe the attention boys at school gave her, especially those who had never before given her even a passing glance. She received the same attention while at the beach. Marilyn seemed to both love and loathe this attention. Although she wanted to be considered beautiful and attractive to men, she didn’t want them to disrespect her based on her appearance. She didn’t want sex (at least during her early years and through her first marriage). She wanted to be left alone, yet she wanted fame. She went to Hollywood parties to boost her popularity, but felt everyone was a drone or a fake. She seemed lost, not really knowing what she wanted from men or from her fame. All she really seemed certain of was that she wanted to be taken seriously for her acting, and she wasn’t sure how to go about that when her appearance, which provided her with roles, often prevented her from landing serious parts or lines.
During times when she didn’t try to be sexy, men told her she gave off a “vibration,” which offended and infuriated women and enticed men. She believed they were projecting their own “vulgarities” onto her because she presented them with an easy target. She wrote:
“People had a habit of looking at me as if I were some kind of a mirror instead of a person. They didn’t see me, they saw their own lewd thoughts. Then they white-masked themselves by calling me the lewd one.”
Whatever this “vibration” was, sexual or otherwise, it followed her everywhere, from the poor neighborhoods where she spent her teens, to the Hollywood studios, to a stage in Japan, to the pages of every biography.
If taken at face value, this book provides surprising insight into her world. I think it’s always important to hear the genuine voice of famous women like Marilyn Monroe, especially because these are the ones whom biographers most often tend to exploit.