Those Who Have To Be Carefully Kept

By Christopher Zoukis

“Break easily, have sharp edges, and those who have to be carefully kept.”  These, according to the Skin Horse, are the kind of people who don’t ‘become.’

Marilyn Monroe, I decided, was probably one of those who didn’t ‘become.’  She broke easily, I think.  And she needed to be carefully kept, too.  But she wasn’t.

Her tomb lies in Westwood Memorial Cemetery, 1218 Glendon Avenue, one block south of Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles, California.  Surprisingly, Truman Capote’s tomb lies about seventy-five yards away. 

Truman had sharp edges.

Architecture of death:  Westwood Memorial Cemetery provides a curious vista, strange as a dream.  For it is quite small as cemeteries go, an oasis of silence in the middle of bedlam[1].  Vain regrets, lost causes – they hang in the air like smoke. 

Outside the cemetery’s walled perimeter:  noise tumescent with unidentifiable emotions and a sense of imminence.  A place where all – men and women – yearn and hope.  For what?  Celebrity, fame, fortune.  And they ‘do’ stuff to get it.

As one stands before the tombs, one envies the residents their detachment.  Of course, they’re dead, so it’s not hard for them to maintain that nonchalant demeanor.

Marilyn Monroe.  Even if one didn’t know who she was, still there’s something about her name.  Because of the semi-alliterative force of the liquid ms, the name conjures up visions of beauty, sexuality, and vicarious elegance.  Five syllables to her name, five syllables that roll sensuously off the tongue.  Her real name, of course, was Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Norma Jeane Baker, one or the other.  It’s a long story and really not very pertinent.  Especially since her father’s name was Martin Edward Mortenson – maybe.  Because another guy, Charles Stanley Gifford, may have been her father. 

It’s one of those domestic disasters common to the human race.

And you’d be surprised at the number of people who think her real name was simply Norma Jeane, because of the song by Elton John.

But it doesn’t really matter because whoever her father was he wasn’t around, at all, at all.  In the final analysis, though, that was the crux of the problem:  no one was around for Marilyn.

Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, didn’t want her.  Neither did Marilyn’s grandmother, Della.  So Gladys farmed Marilyn out to Albert and Ida Bolender, who lived in Hawthorne, California.  Marilyn lived with the Bolenders.  Every Saturday, Gladys would visit Marilyn.  They’d go for walks to the park, feed the pigeons popcorn or bread crumbs.  Sometimes they’d get ice cream cones, then walk side by side, their pink tongues darting here and there as the warm, California sun melted the ice cream. 

I wonder what Marilyn thought of this?  Most kids would arrive at the inevitable conclusion:  I’m not lovable.  And then they’d spend the rest of their lives trying to make themselves lovable.

I mean, I would.

Anyway, when Marilyn was seven years old, her mother, politely acknowledging the discomfiture she had caused, supposed she could deal with her own child.  So she bought a house and she and Marilyn moved in, and started playing house.

But it was a house built on sand because Gladys was wound way too tight.  Within months she went bonkers and took up residency in the State Mental Hospital. 

Marilyn found herself alone again.

She was declared a ward of the state.  Grace McKee, a friend of Gladys, became her guardian.  At least for a while, because then Grace married.  And Marilyn put a crimp in Grace’s lifestyle.  So Marilyn was dumped in the Los Angeles Orphans Home, from which focal point she sporadically emigrated to a series of foster homes.

When Marilyn turned sweet sixteen, Grace came back into Marilyn’s life.  Perhaps Grace felt guilty for abandoning the girl and needed to relieve her conscience.  Whatever the reason, she was inept.  Grace pimped Marilyn out to an arranged marriage.  Marilyn married James Dougherty, who was a merchant marine. 

While James was off sailing the seven seas, his wife was working in an airplane factory.  There, Marilyn was discovered by David Conover, a photographer.  He saw something in her, a vulnerable beauty, and wanted to record it with his camera.  He was also interested in her body, which he wanted to possess. 

It doesn’t take too much imagination to believe that Marilyn decided to up the ante:  she resolved to pimp herself, rather than having others do it for her.  If she was beautiful, then she would use her beauty to get ahead in life. 

She modeled for The Blue Book agency, where Ben Lyon, a talent pimp for 20th Century Fox noticed her.  Despite Ben’s interest, her career remained in a void until she met Johnny Hyde, one of Hollywoood’s top pimps.  Slowly, her career ascended the staircase of fame, then, in a rush, it caught an express elevator to the top.  Billed as the quintessential dumb blonde/sex kitten, she never really looked back.  Yet Marilyn wanted to be accepted as a true artist, a serious actress, not just a universal sex symbol. 

Somewhere in there she married Joe DiMaggio, whom, tellingly, she addressed as ‘my Dad’ in letters.  There is some evidence that she might actually have loved Joe, that is, as much as she could love anyone. 

Next up, Arthur Miller, whom she married in 1956.  To all intents and purposes, Miller was looking for a meal ticket, a Sugar Mama, as his career was, at that time, sinking like the Titanic.

The American Film Institute, in 1999, ranked Marilyn as the sixth greatest female star of all time.  However, in the realm of pure fame she is rivaled only by Elvis and JFK; together, they form The Big Three.

Marilyn’s housekeeper discovered her body.

I read somewhere that Marilyn’s skin, while she was alive, was so white it was translucent.  I would have liked to see such skin.  I did, though, see a picture of her asleep.  She was filming the movie The Misfits when the photo was taken.  Marilyn is asleep, lying on a couch, wearing a grayish-silver Frau dress.  I gasped when I first saw it.  She’s so beautiful, so child-like as she sleeps.  I wanted to protect her.

She had it all:  money, fame, success.  I guess having it all isn’t enough; in fact, in Marilyn’s case it looks like it was less than zero.  But think about it.  Money, fame and success are all inventions – ideas invented by humans, who like to compare and measure things, a kind of cultural econometrics.  But they’re ahistorical; money, fame and success have no history attached to them, because you can’t analyze them or explain them.  Not really.  They are quantitative designations established in specific cultural contexts.

Marilyn had a house in Los Angeles, furnished like a Best Western Motel in New Mexico.  She copulated with presidents, moguls – the beautiful people.  But love was fugitive.  And in the end, there was no family member, no relative, to bury her.  Her only living relative was her mother, who was crazy, literally living in bedlam, an asylum.

Marilyn was without history, because she was unable to ‘become’ a human being.  No sense of place or belonging.  Unreal.  A harrowing situation.

And when she found herself ahistorical, i.e., without any history, she elected to end her life.  I wonder if like the Velveteen Rabbit, Marilyn sighed, too.

“The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

The only Real left to Marilyn was the reality of death, which is the ultimate, permanent historicity.  While alive, she was living an image, the existence of a simulacrum, an image that had been foisted upon her.  But inside, in rare moments of lucidity, she knew that wasn’t her.  And the pain of ‘becoming’ would be so uncomfortable, to quote the Velveteen Rabbit, that she couldn’t do it.  So she mixed drugs with alcohol to become outside ahistory.  For in death there is freedom from the Unreal. 

Only the invention of Marilyn continues:  fame, success, even mystique to the point of legend.

Marilyn disappeared.

On crypt #24 at the Corridor of Memories, at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, it says Marilyn Monroe.  But it’s not.  It’s Norma Jeane Mortenson.  She had to die to become who she really was.

“Death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich, though, subscribed to ‘cross theology,’ wherein God exists, but He has abandoned mankind to its own devices, to its own efforts, its own kind of grace, which is nothing more than a rude affability, a kind of impolite corruption.  Bonhoeffer lacked perspective.  But he was right about one thing:  in death, there is a certain kind of freedom.

_____

[1] Bedlam is an interesting word.  It has its provenance in Bethlehem, a religious house in London which was converted into a mental hospital.