Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress

In American popular culture Marilyn Monroe has evolved in stature from Hollywood sex symbol to tragic legend. Most books about Monroe stress the sensational events that surrounded her-this book is the first to deal honestly and critically with Monroe as an actress, evaluating her moves as crucial forces in the shaping of her identity. Through careful examination of her performances, from her small appearances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve to her memorable roles in Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and the The Misfits, the author traces her development from cover girl innocent to an actress devoted to her craft. Based on extensive interviews with many of Monroe's colleagues, close friends, and mentors, this comprehensive, critically balanced study describes her use of Method acting as well as her instruction with Michael Chekhov and, later, the Strasbergs. Carl Rollyson has written a refreshing analysis and appreciation of Marilyn Monroe's enduring and, until now, underestimated gifts as a creative artist.

"More than anything else in her life, Marilyn Monroe wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Rollyson had done just that in Mariilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. It will be important to both film historians and to Marilyn’s fans -- and it would have made Marilyn feel honored and worthwhile."
--Gloria Steinem

"A wonderful, highly readable book, the first biography that truly shows the actress at work."
--Ellen Burstyn


"Carl Rollyson has written a solid, in depth investigation of Marilyn's life and work, an antidote to the flood of melodrama and gossip that has dominated most writing on the subject. An intelligent, sympathetic study."--Norman Rosten, author of the highly regarded memoir, Marilyn: An Untold Story

"Rollyson takes her and her talent seriously . . .and what he has to say is enlightening and often surprising . . . no matter how many more books are written about her . . . none will provide the insights this does into the person, the persona and . . . the work of Marilyn Monroe."--Variety

" A scholar's analysis of Monroe as an actress, written engagingly enough to tempt Monroe fans. . . . His analyses of her movie roles and how she filled them are crucial to understanding Monroe, the woman and the actress. Rollyson's achievement is his dedication to examining Monroe from every conceivable angle."--The Baltimore Sun


Fragments: The Long View

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters of Marilyn Monroe (2010), and MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe (2011) have received considerable attention, but no published review—so far as I know—seems to understand what a momentous change in Monroe’s biography these books constitute. I mean a change in writing about her life. For one thing, I never expected to see these books discussed in The New York Review of Books. Larry McMurtry’s piece is not that good, but it signals a cultural shift in attitudes that has been a long time coming. Marilyn Monroe, in short, reminds me of no one so much as Virginia Woolf.

To explain I need go back to the dark days of Monroe biography, to what I am going to call the pre-Norman Mailer period. Before Marilyn (1973), she was viewed as a rather pathetic figure—a victim of Hollywood, a vulgar popular cultural figure, just a generally messed up human being. Of course, there were exceptions to this view. Diana Trilling wrote a sensitive piece about Monroe’s artistry, and other writers and artists who met Monroe were impressed with her wit. Two biographers, Maurice Zolotow and Fred Guiles, took her seriously, but still treated her mainly as a woman who all too often succumbed to the pressures of her career and rarely seemed in control of what was happening to her. Embedded in their narratives, however, was another Monroe, one far more proactive, canny—even cunning—that was overwhelmed by tales of how many takes it took for her to say, “It’s me, Sugar,” in Some Like It Hot.

Enter Norman Mailer, genuinely interested in Monroe but also weighted down with the urgent need to produce a big picture book and sensational copy that would yield significant royalties to be applied to his prodigious alimony payments. Reading Norman Mailer then was like encountering the fog of war. Feminists were on his case for his baroque depictions of a sex goddess and his penchant for working up burgeoning conspiracies about her connections with the Kennedys and the plots to murder her. After an appalling performance on 60 Minutes—edited to make Mailer look as crass as possible—few reviewers took his book seriously.

What a pity. To date, Mailer has been the only American writer ever to explore the problems of biography seriously as a genre while actually writing one. He even quotes Virginia Woolf on the subject—although, in fact, he filches the quotation from Zolotow’s book. I am reminded that both Zolotow and Guiles accused Mailer of plagiarism—not a charge either could sustain, but one that seems plausible because he did, indeed, rely heavily on their work. Such reliance was, in fact, his strength. He drew on their evidence to demonstrate that much of Monroe’s unhappiness had to do with thwarted aspirations. He did not deny her self-destructive impulses so much as show how they were like contraindicated drugs that interfered with her artistic genius.

When Mailer’s book appeared, it had so many strikes against it that no one seemed to notice that for all its failings, his work marked a fundamental shift in perceptions of Monroe, a shift than could be summed up in one word: Napoleonic—his term for her overweening ambition. For the first time, really, he displayed that side of her for everyone to see—that is, everyone who was not busy clucking over his opportunism and sexism.

At the time, I was engaged in a study of Mailer, not Monroe, but I began to see that he was leading me to my true vocation: writing biographies and writing about writing biographies. Not until 1979, when I was offered a contract to produce a bio-bibliography of Monroe, however, did I seriously consider what I could add to the already voluminous literature about her. I spent a summer re-reading Guiles, Zolotow, Mailer, and other biographies and realized two things: 1) I was getting bored reading and summarizing what others had written about her, which is what I was supposed to be doing in a bio-bibliography, and 2) Her three best biographers knew next to nothing about acting and had missed what should be the focus of a Monroe biography. In my view, a Monroe biographer needed to address two questions: 1) Why did she turn to acting as a way of finding an identity and fulfilling herself, and 2) To what extent—on the screen—did she actually achieve her goal? These biographers had no vocabulary to describe her acting and thus were at a loss when it came to discussing the nexus between her life and her art.

I doubt that I would have realized the deficiencies of earlier biographies if I had not been a trained actor, one who at a very early age turned to acting for many of the same reasons that Monroe was attracted to the art. In brief, acting allows you to be someone even before you know who you are or what you want to become. And as an actor, you can’t just say you are so and so; that so and so has to arise from a complex arrangement of gestures, postures, and mannerisms that are developed both in the privacy of a rehearsal room and in front of fellow actors, audiences, crews, and directors. Monroe began to form a self in the absence of a “mirror,” a parent who could acknowledge and validate her. Her mother was mentally ill, and Monroe was never sure about the identity of her father, so turned to the theater as a kind of compensation—as I did after my father died while I was still a child.

Because of my own voracious reading and commitment to acting I also understood why Monroe built an impressive library of works on psychology and physiology, keeping copies of Mabel Elsworth Todd’s The Thinking Body as well as an edition of Freud’s letters on her bedside table. But what interested me as a younger man in the 1980s was Monroe’s battle with concentration. When she remained focused, she created an extraordinary range of performances, from the introvert in Bus Stopto the extrovert in The Prince and the Showgirl Watch just those two films, and you will see why I think she is a great actress. Each performance is a de novo creation of a vocabulary of gesture and movement that is inimitable. In her major roles, Marilyn Monroe did not repeat herself.

What broke Monroe’s concentration, I thought, was related to her traumatic childhood and to the factory-like process of motion picture making, the rigid schedule of Hollywood productions that she detested. In this regard, my conclusions were not much different from those of other biographers. What I failed to realize is that it was not her background or her working conditions that did her in. On the contrary, as Fragments and MM-Personalshow, it was her acute self-consciousness, her Virginia Woolf-like obsession with watching herself and scrutinizing her relations with others. She did not keep diaries as faithfully as Woolf did, and she did not have Woolf’s literary gifts, but Monroe had a sensibility like Woolf’s that ultimately pursued itself to the point of extinction. In short, it was not the traumatic childhood, not the movies, not the failed marriages—not her even her disappointed hopes—that led to her demise, but rather her unrelenting focus on herself. (This self-consciousness appeared very early, at least as early as her first marriage, which is to say years before she became a star, or even had an acting career.)

I can best illustrate my point by analyzing a six-page typewritten, undated personal note, probably written in 1943, less than a year after Marilyn married James Dougherty, her first husband, on June 19, 1942, just over two weeks after she turned sixteen (then the age of consent in California). I had no access to this letter when I wrote my biography. I relied on other biographical accounts, Monroe’s own published statements, and photographs that present a fresh, healthy, and apparently untroubled and unsophisticated young woman. When I first read the personal note in Fragments, I thought the editors had misdated it. Monroe writes part of it in the past tense, employing a ruminative tone that is startling coming from a teenager.

Before commenting on what Monroe says, though, I need to ask: Is this a personal note? That is just the title her editors supply. Was Monroe writing for herself? The piece does not read like a scrap of a diary or journal. It is retrospective, as if the marriage were over—which in a way it was, even though the couple would not divorce until September 13, 1946. Whatever you call it, this piece of writing is suffused with an intense disenchantment seemingly bearing no relationship to the cheerful, dependent creature Dougherty described in his memoir about his marriage to Monroe. Judging by her “personal note,” the man never even glimpsed the depths of the young woman he married. He was nearly six years older, but she was the mature one—or should I say the perceptive one? Dougherty always professed amazement that his Norma Jeane had metamorphosed into Marilyn Monroe. “I never knew Marilyn Monroe,” he liked to say. He did not realize, however, that he never knew Norma Jeane either.

Monroe begins her self-analysis by calling herself an “advanced child,” more comfortable during her adolescence (an in-between age) with younger children or adults than with her peers. Dougherty—a little sophisticated, with a love of classical music—seemed a mature match for her. In retrospect, however, she speculated that she may simply have made him into a sort of dream man, a projection of her own desire to feel secure. He was one of the few men she did not see as sexually repulsive, one who could fulfill her fleeting notions of romantic adventure. And she wanted to please her elders (chiefly her guardians, Ana Lower and Grace McKee) who thought the marriage a good idea. The marriage also served, she thought, as an escape from the problems of adolescence.

Norma Jeane’s understanding of mixed motivations and the complex of factors that governed her early marriage is, as the editors of Fragments observe, impressive. It is fascinating to see how she describes a “nervous tension” derived from her playful fantasies of becoming a model. I thought immediately of how quickly and decisively she left Dougherty behind when photographer David Conover showed up at the airplane factory where Marilyn worked, telling her she was “natural.” I had written in my 1986 biography that then and there Norma Jeane settled on a career, but I had no idea of how ready she already was for the appearance of someone like Conover. I had presumed her decision was spontaneous and took her by surprise. But it is apparent now that his entrance into her biography provided not only an opportunity, but was also a release for her pent-up energy.

She describes herself in the first year of marriage as an “intense introvert” with very little connection to others, except for a very few people who had some understanding of her desire to withdraw. She mentions reading as one of her solitary pleasures. Although some of her syntax is hard to follow, the overall impression she conveys is that of a profoundly alienated young woman easily depressed by even “slightly foreboding” circumstances.

One of those circumstances is her “bitchy withdrawn” reaction to her husband’s interest in another woman. Norma Jeane seems more upset about what she is feeling than about the woman in question—or even about her husband. Her “romantic esthetical soul,” she suggests, is responsible for making him out to be “some great lover,” when, in reality, this is just a situation she has allowed herself to be drawn into. In other words, the entire episode is a projection.

Now at this point, she addresses not herself but “a person who remembers growing up” and who can appreciate how difficult it is for her to establish an “objective, analitical view” without seeming “to pompass” about her “relatively simple thoughts.” The misspellings, like her shaky syntax, suggest the tenuous but tenacious dynamic of her effort to understand herself. But what a sense of self she manifests, trying to imagine  another person trying to figure out her life. Pardon me, but I feel like she is speaking to her biographer. How many people, even those who become icons, are already notating themselves at seventeen? Does this young woman strike you as the naïve Monroe of most accounts? She is tentative about her self-examination—suggesting that it is not worth much and should be thrown into the wastebasket—but that attitude reminds me of the mature star, who always doubted she had understood her roles and given her best performance.

Characteristically, Norma Jeane is then “sidetracked” by a comment on the perceptiveness of children, an attribute they lose touch with while growing up. This digression is, of course, nothing of the kind, but rather an extrapolation from her own experience. As is so often the case with the woman who would become Marilyn Monroe, I sense her utter aloneness. No one is at hand to take up the connections she is trying to make between herself and the way the world works. Later, her fame would in countless ways prevent her from fully engaging with others.

In her own case, Monroe suggests, marriage to Dougherty cut her off from those insights that develop in childhood. Or, as she puts it: “My first impulse was one of complete subjection humiliation, alonement to the male counterpart.” She began to tremble as she wrote these words, but then stepped back—almost like a psychologist or perhaps a poet—remarking: “I just want to keep pouring it out until this great pot in the mind is, though not emptied, relieved.” She is still worried that what she is writing is “crap,” but that concern surely is the sign of intelligence, of the doubt that physicist Richard Feynman thought the hallmark of the modern mind.

Of course, Fragments does not reveal a great thinker or poet, but the book does show Monroe’s affinity for both types, an affinity which, I believe, is what drove her to acting. Right now I’m writing a biography of the actor Dana Andrews. For some time, he kept his own “Fragments,” a diary-journal in which he tried to articulate his view of himself and the world. Ultimately, he realized he did not have the kind of concentrated literary power that would make him a writer, but he used that same power in a series of extraordinary performances over a ten-year period, 1944 to 1954. Monroe did much the same thing between 1952 and 1962. One of the attractions of the acting profession for personalities like Andrews and Monroe is that their roles can, at least temporarily, express through the words of others a conception of self and world that is otherwise not within their reach.

Norma Jeane returns to the theme of a husband who has betrayed her, and she is enraged not so much by his infidelity per se, but because it struck a blow to her “unsteady ego.” She needs to feel loved, she confesses, and perhaps this desire to be wanted is the only kind of love she feels for Dougherty. But she seems prepared to do without even that much love if it means playing “second fiddle” to another woman.

For a time she thought her husband was honest with her, but then she interjects: “Its hard not to try and rationalize and protect your own feelings but eventually that makes the acceptance of truth more difficult.” I think about her mentally ill mother, the various working class families that took care of her, the influence of one of her Christian Science guardians, and none of them came close to speaking this kind of language, or showed this kind of sensibility. Norma Jeane was in her world a nonpareil, although I doubt that anyone noticed as much.

No one has ever offered a better diagnosis of Norma Jeane/​Marilyn Monroe than she does in her concluding paragraph: “Its not to much fun to know yourself to well or think you do – everyone needs a little conciet to carry them through & past the falls.” Most of us carry with us some kind of illusion about who we are and what we can accomplish. Certainly this is true in my case. I can think of many writing projects that I would not have completed if I had known, from the start, how much trouble they would entail. So imagine the life of a young woman who did anticipate trouble, who could not help but observe herself, and who chose a profession in which she was on display all the time. Her self-consciousness could be paralyzing and was relieved only by moments of acting when she could embody another being. What a relief it would be to act unconsciously and ultimately, to be unconscious, no longer obliged to carry the burden of self, a burden already shouldered by Norma Jeane when she was still three years away from her first appearance in a motion picture. To carry that same burden as Marilyn Monroe was all the more deadly.