Marilyn Monroe Got What She Wanted

Marilyn, photographed by Richard Avedon

Let me explain something to you: No one owes any of us anything other than respect, some courtesy, and the amount of time they deem necessary to hear our story, see our dance, judge our gifts. That is all. I operated for many years under the common delusion that artists are sensitive creatures who require husbanding, cossetting, extreme care to function in the brutal world. This is utter bullshit: all human beings thrust into the act of living require the same amounts of love and kindness and patience, and I came to see that when I adopted the pose of the walking wounded, when I referred to myself as an open scab walking the mean streets, I was asking for forgiveness for the multitude of sins for which I was guilty: ugliness, laziness, a lack of discipline, the inability to make the words and the women that came to me work fully. 

I was asking for a break I did not deserve at all. You either are a good person or a good writer or a good actor or you are not. You cannot then apply a collage of sickness and neuroses to your person and ask for exemptions. It is unfair; it is dishonest.

It was epitomized by Marilyn Monroe, and her necrosis, along with that of so many others, had the Actors Studio as its hothouse, where these behaviors, these evasions, these myths were not only honored but encouraged.

Make this decision today: Will you be a good and honest writer, or would you rather be famous, loved, noticed? Tell me, because there are different paths for these two divergent goals. The decision to be a true artist is lonelier and slower, but it will lead to better work and, I think, a better life. Very rarely you will be a good and honest writer and also know a little comfort and some attention and the well wishes of a crowd.

This is very rare.

If you would like to be famous, then you must become a construct or a myth or a device, and Marilyn, surrounded by people hungry only for attention, decided to exploit her sad childhood, her inability to love or be loved, the prison of her creamy beauty, and it worked. We never did and we never will look at her and admire her acting--we will admire her bust and her butt and her giggling stupidity. Marilyn always was and always will be that stale angel food cake Truman wrote about; meringue in which a razor blade is hidden, ready to destroy its fluff or the person who dips into it. We stop and notice her now because of the tragedy and the suicide and the conspiracies--by studios and by reporters and by gurus and by coaches and by Kennedys--to exploit and abuse and destroy her.

It is not now nor ever has it been about her work. Tell me what you want to be known for.

People praised Marilyn because she read books, because, I think, we couldn't conceive that an ambulatory bowl of rich vanilla ice cream needed to think or to grow a mind. Marilyn sought and developed her identity as a sex symbol; she wiggled and cooed for the camera, but, incapable of satisfaction or understanding, she fought this image, so she would read Joyce and Schopenhauer and Woolf and Jung. Of course she understood none of it, because there was no fertile ground in which any of this could take hold: You can throw a multitude of seeds into the desert sands, but there will never be fruitage. Marilyn's mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.

Marilyn was an example of the weak children who seek a guru. Having no balance in her life, having no family, having no understanding of the give-and-take that is daily life, she was drawn toward Mary Baker Eddy, Buddha, Jung, Freud, and finally, the gnomish Lee Strasberg, who specialized in adopting sexually confused, physically abused women and becoming the seemingly gentle father figure they desired. Strasberg lied to her and told her she was the new Duse; he told her she should play Nina; he told her to investigate O'Neill and Shakespeare. This was all folly, because Marilyn had no talent and no understanding, and it was folly because Strasberg only wanted access to and withdrawal privileges from fame.

Only Strasberg got what he wanted.

In that awful church in the West 40s, Marilyn sat, face upturned, checkbook open, heart confused, and believed that she might become the great actress Strasberg told her she could and should be. It was an evil, extended con game, and there were many witnesses. You will, no doubt, speak to some of them. It was during Marilyn's tenure at the Studio, and particularly after her death, that the exodus of the talented began from the Studio. The emperor had always been naked, but some of his adherents had finally invested in some spectacles and could see his puny endowments and the intentions he had for them.

I wanted to love Marilyn: I fall for myths, too. She was fragile and she was beautiful and she was silly. She was the lost kitten in the rain, or the kittens who were born on Carson McCullers' bed in Nantucket--you wonder who will take care of them, because you know that you cannot, and you cry like the child you were who saw the dog run over and the town move on, uncaring and serious about getting their needs attended.

Marilyn was also annoying and cloying and demanding. She knew her power and she abused it, but in the demonstration of it she degraded herself and she knew this, so the spiral of destruction deepened and intensified. Do not think for a moment that I do not see this in my own behavior and that of others: I am only offering a sobering lesson.

When we can't imagine understanding or loving a God or some other myth of support, we attach ourselves to artistic symbols: the lost soul; the waif; the abused artist. This is all utter nonsense. Get to work. Work hard and well. Your troubles are no one's business but your own. Don't be a Pharisee extolling yourself on the street--take it inside; use it; share it; overcome it.

Monroe and Miller, photographed by Richard Avedon

I spoke to Arthur only once about Marilyn, and it was during his exhumation of her [After the Fall, in 1964]. I wondered if he was satisfied; I wondered if he had exorcised himself of her spirit and her toxins, and I wondered if he had expiated his own sins. He told me he thought he could help her,yes, but he wanted to buck the odds and be the homely, skinny, cerebral Jew who got the beauty queen; he wanted to be the bookish, pedantic, shy boy who introduced the beautiful and simple girl to books and plays and ideas and the act of thinking things out beyond the crotch and the nipples and the people with the cameras. Arthur wanted to be her savior, but he also wanted to be envied; he wanted attention; he wanted to be noticed; he wanted to expand his audience.

I think Arthur Miller got what he wanted.

It's fine to cry for Marilyn Monroe. I did, and I still do. She was tragic, but she was also lucky. There are beautiful, sad, dumb girls all over the world who endure worse than she did, but they never get to live on the screen or bathe in perfume or populate the dreams of people who love beauty or who love pain or who wonder what it must be like to possess such sexual power.

Let her go. Look at the beauty, but move on. There is nothing else there. A pretty visage with a sad story. Marilyn always said she wanted to be noticed, she wanted to be loved, and she wanted to be left alone and feel safe.

I think Marilyn Monroe got what she wanted. 



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