TRIGGER WARNING: Abuse, sexual assault, mental health, addiction, suicide, depression.
It is well known that Marilyn Monroe endured plenty of trauma in her upbringing and her adult life. She was neglected, abused physically and sexually, suffered from a dependency on prescription drugs and also lost two children from a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy. She suffered from anxiety, insomnia and very likely, although not officially diagnosed, depression.
These are not easy things to overcome for anybody. But even with these experiences in her life, Marilyn persevered. And she did have many happy moments in her life too. Yet, it is a common narrative that she lived life as the victim of both her past and present which was the reason for her untimely death.
This is a very long post so please, make a cup of tea, coffee… wine? And get some snacks. It’s a deep one.
Victims of abuse and both physical and mental traumas are very often associated with being fragile and also dependent on others in order to create a sense of safety. Unfortunately, it’s also very common that their trauma is repeated throughout their lifetime which furthers this image of fragility. For example, those who have been sexually abused are likely to be abused again later in life.
However, countless sufferers of exploitation, neglect and trauma can live very happy and stable lives despite these terrible events. Although many Marilyn researchers and fans would not go as far as to say she had an entirely jovial life, I believe many wouldn’t necessarily deem her, or anyone who experienced these events, as being remotely weak.
In Norma Jeane’s childhood, she lived in several foster homes, an orphanage and temporarily lived with her unstable mother, Gladys. Gladys, through no fault of her own, suffered from mental illness and her erratic behaviour caused problems for Norma Jeane growing up. She had been sexually abused by three different people including a cousin before she was a teenager and was both mentally and physically abused by foster parents. She didn’t have a relationship with her father and even after attempting to contact him, was dismissed and rejected.
Norma Jeane discovered she had a long lost half-sister, Berniece, and a half-brother named Robert, who had died when he was just 15 years old. She had also been required to grow up prematurely. The young Norma Jeane was married at the tender age of sixteen to her neighbour James (Jimmy) Dougherty, just to stay out of the orphanage. Poor Norma Jeane had barely any stability or time to grow as a person. Instead, she was passed around several different families and felt as if she didn’t belong anywhere. She would spend her free time at the movies or putting her hands and feet in the prints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. It was her escape from the real world.
Of course, years later when she became Marilyn Monroe she “belonged to the public and to the world”. Even so, this would never be a substitution for the stable family life that she so desperately craved.
Due to the lack of a secure and stable upbringing, Norma Jeane (and later, Marilyn Monroe) would grow up with the difficulty in forming healthy relationships which she depended on for stability.
“SHE HAS ALWAYS BELIEVED IN WORK.”
Despite these terrible experiences that obviously caused great distress and scarred Marilyn for life, she did not however let it hold her back from pursuing her lifelong dreams of becoming an actress. However, that’s not where her initial fame stemmed from.
In 1945, after being discovered by David Conover (army photographer) at the Radio Plane defence plant where she worked, Norma Jeane had begun working with him and photographer, Potter Hueth.
It wasn’t long before Hueth took her, as well as her photos, to the Blue Book Modelling Agency to meet Emmeline Snively. After an interview and taking down her statistics, Norma Jeane was given a makeover and lessons in modelling, posing and how to act in front of the camera. Miss Snively even taught Norma Jeane how to smile and eventually managed to convince her to have her hair straightened and bleached.
Norma Jeane worked hard with her new career as a model. Photographer, Andre De Dienes, who accompanied her on a road trip in 1945 in order to photograph the aspiring cover girl stated, “She was frail mentally and physically. As soon as she finished work she would hop in the car and fall asleep.” It would’ve been easy for the young bride to stay at home and become a housewife. But she worked and didn’t want anything getting in the way of it.
Sadly, being married to Dougherty held Marilyn back from taking part in some events such as beauty pageants as being married disqualified her. And due to Jimmy’s objections and desire for Norma Jeane to stay home as a homemaker, she divorced him and continued to make a life for herself as a model.
By 1946, Miss Snively had been working hard in order to get Norma Jeane into films as well as help her in furthering her modelling career. According to Snively, Norma Jeane was taken to Twentieth Century Fox for a colour screen test which resulted in her signing a contract and allowing her to attend various classes and studio workshops. It was at this point Ben Lyon, studio head at 20th Century-Fox, and Norma Jeane changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn chose her mother’s maiden name and Lyon chose Marilyn for her.
Although her acting career didn’t come easy to her, due to her contract being dropped on a few occasions, she continued to work hard at her craft.
Emmeline Snively said, “She has always believed in work, believed so much in fact that unwittingly she antagonized several of the more jealous girls who were in studio classes with her. They just couldn’t believe that any beginner was willing to work as hard as Marilyn did in order to get ahead. Marilyn did everything she was told to do at the studio. She devoured every crumb of instruction. Usually late to most functions, she was the first to attend classes and the last to leave.”
But Emmeline never took credit for getting Marilyn on the path to stardom. “Students who know that Marilyn Monroe is my prize graduate occasionally ask me if there is any possibility of their ‘getting the same breaks Marilyn Monroe got.’ My answer to that one is, ‘What breaks?’ Marilyn Monroe, I tell them, is a self-made success.”
“I JUST WANT TO BE WONDERFUL”
Not only had she worked hard taking lessons in acting, singing, dancing and speech but she had a desire to read and to be well-read.
Due to the lack of formal education, Marilyn was always insecure about her intellect. But she needn’t have worried as her vast book collection and talent for communicating with some of the world’s greatest intellectuals must have surpassed her past selfs imagination.
Marilyn would often talk about her love for work and her desire “to be wonderful.” And she was.
But for Marilyn all the fame in the world, all the books and knowledge, nothing would be able to replace what she truly wanted… A family.
Marilyn had worked non-stop during her modelling career and starlet days, hitting the big time when she played Nell in Don’t Bother to Knock, released in 1952. Although this was her first starring role, Marilyn was absolutely incredible. From then on she was the highlight in film, after film, glowing on the screen in every role she played. In 1953, she lived her childhood fantasy and was immortalised at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, with her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star, Jane Russell.
“IT’S BETTER TO BE UNHAPPY ALONE THAN UNHAPPY WITH SOMEONE”
Also in 1952, Marilyn had met baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, a quiet and shy character who stole Marilyn’s heart. After a blind date, and several that followed, Marilyn and Joe had a two year, long-distance relationship. In January 1954, they wed.
It is said Joe was controlling over Marilyn. This is a controversial topic that divides Marilyn fans. It is true that Joe behaved unfavourably towards Marilyn in terms of not supporting her role as an actress*. Marilyn once again was being told to stop her career by her husband. But she had worked so hard to get where she was, she wasn’t going to let anything get in the way. Marilyn should be commended for taking this stance in making her own decisions, no matter the opinion one has on Joe.
Marilyn, being the career woman she was chose her job over her husband. After just nine months of marriage, she divorced Joe for “mental cruelty” due to his “dark moods”.
The facts that surround any physical abuse between Joe and Marilyn are slim to none. Amy Greene, who claimed to biographer Anthony Summers that Marilyn was “black and blue”, is also seen in the documentary Love, Marilyn saying there is no proof Joe ever hit her. There are also these photos, taken the day after the alleged beatings, which show no signs of physical abuse. With no absolute proof of violence towards Marilyn, it goes without saying that no one should be accused of such actions without evidence. You can read more about their relationship here.
In 1956, when she married playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn must have felt elated that someone who many intellectuals looked up to was in love with her. And she loved him immensely. It didn’t take long, however, for her to feel insecure in the marriage. Her insecurities about Arthur and her so-called lack of intelligence had nothing on the heartbreak she felt when she had an ectopic pregnancy in 1957 and a miscarriage in 1958. The inability to carry a child must’ve felt like a huge failure for Marilyn, who was desperate to have a family of her own.
Despite being told it was going to be incredibly hard for her to conceive she wanted to keep trying. Marilyn felt nothing was going to get in the way of her having the family she so longed for.
Although Marilyn was always in touch with her step-children she didn’t feel like a mother to them. She felt more like a friend. In 1962, she told a reporter from Redbook magazine just how important Joe DiMaggio Jr, and Jane and Robert Miller were to her: “I take a lot of pride in them. Because they’re from broken homes too, and I think I can understand them. I’ve always said to them that I didn’t want to be their mother or stepmother and such….I just wanted to be their friend….I can’t explain it, but I think I love them more than I love anyone.”
In 1962, George Barris, a friend and photographer who was writing a book with Marilyn, asked what she wanted, more than anything else. She replied, “The thing I want more than anything else? I want to have children. I used to feel for every child I had, I would adopt another.” Her make up artist and friend, Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder remembered, “She loved children so much – my daughter, other people’s children – she went for them all. If she’d had one of her own to care for, to grow up with, I’m sure it would have helped her immensely.” It must have been difficult for Marilyn to want both a career as an actress and be a wife. Maybe that is why she worked herself to exhaustion in her final years in order to fill the hole that was left from not having children.
A year after being told she would not be able to have children, Marilyn began filming The Misfits. It is said Marilyn and Arthur were struggling to hold their marriage together, after her affair with her Let’s Make Love co-star Yves Montand. It is clear that the struggles, at least on Marilyn’s part, were there before they began filming. In order for her to have an affair (and not just a one night stand) displays the lack of security and affection, she felt for Arthur. Marilyn therefore may have felt the need to take some control, to feel something again. So, there started an affair. Although obviously devastating to Arthur, he remained with Marilyn. They filmed The Misfits in Nevada with the cast and crew commenting on the tense atmosphere between the two.
Magnum photographer Eve Arnold who was present throughout filming, and who knew Marilyn since 1955, said, “She treated Miller very badly on the film. They shared a flat then he moved out. She was very unhappy during that period. It was very sad to watch her during this time.”
Marilyn treating Arthur this way and being tricky onset may have been her way of getting at Arthur for writing The Misfits. This film after all was to be a Valentine for her but she didn’t see it that way. Marilyn commented about how, “He could have written me, anything, and he comes up with this. If that’s what he thinks of me, well, I’m not for him and he’s not for me.” Although it’s a pretty harsh assessment at first, there are many parallels between her character, Roslyn, and Marilyn that she may have deemed to be demeaning and cruel to her and her life. So, once the film was completed, they divorced. Although they didn’t communicate after their divorce Arthur did speak of Marilyn with a fondness when she had passed and even kept her bike in his garage. He is scrutinised for his play After the Fall which is deemed as a personal critique of his relationship with Marilyn thus continuing the narrative of the victimisation of his dead ex-wife.**
*It should be noted Joe started therapy and taking steps in order to better himself after the divorce. Marilyn called him in 1961 when in Payne Whitney and he demanded her release. They continued their friendship up until her death. Also, I want to make a personal note here. Although it is incredibly common for those who have been abused to return to their abuser, I don’t think this is the case with Marilyn and Joe. I used to think differently, however now I am of the firm belief his friendship is exactly what she needed. It was probably the healthiest relationship she had at that time. He didn’t attempt to control her in any way. I feel he was keen to have Marilyn back in his life and didn’t want to lose her again, Whether it was just a friendly relationship or romantic, we won’t ever fully know. She stated she was enjoying “playing the field” and that she didn’t intend to marry again for a while.
**Despite this huge professional blunder and some other faux pas Arthur made throughout his marriage to Marilyn, I don’t necessarily see Arthur as the enemy. He must’ve endured a lot with his relationship with Marilyn and I feel for him. Marilyn’s husbands were people too and everyone makes mistakes and deals with things in their own way. Although this is no excuse for certain behaviours, I think in the case of Marilyn’s husbands they have every right to be “heard” and considered. All too often Marilyn is put on the pedestal and made out to be faultless, but I don’t believe this for a moment. I believe she played as much of a part in the downfall of her relationship with Arthur as he did, if not more.
A FANTASY MOTHER
Rewind to 1955… Despite her rapid fame after more than half a decade of tirelessly working, Marilyn still felt she was in the need of reassurance that she was a talented actress. Enter Lee and Paula Strasberg.
Lee Strasberg ran The Actor’s Studio in New York and alongside his wife, Paula. It was here they taught an acting technique called the Method. The Method encouraged actors to delve into their subconscious and act as if they “were” their character. It requires actors to perform sincere and expressive performances through identifying with, understanding, and experiencing a character’s inner motivation and emotions. Some members of the studio have described this acting style as rigorous and emotionally draining.
Lee mentioned, “At the studio, we do not sit around and feed each other’s egos. People are shocked how severe we are on each other.” The Actors Studio was usually by audition with more than a thousand actors auditioning each year and the directors usually conferring membership on only five or six each year. In 1955, Marilyn was accepted. From then on Marilyn developed a friendship with Lee and Paula and was even seen as a surrogate family member.
As of 1955, Paula was with Marilyn on set giving her guidance. Marilyn turned to Paula instead of the Director for reassurance and comfort. It seemed that Paula was more than a mentor. Marilyn’s ex-husband Arthur Miller would say, “She was a fantasy mother who could confirm anything Marilyn wanted to hear.”
Due to Marilyn’s desire to be a part of the family she was an ever-present figure in the household. Susan Strasberg, Lee and Paula’s daughter said that she “was convinced there was no love or energy left for me.” Susan and Marilyn were sisterly and had a good relationship. Which was exactly what Marilyn needed.
Although many Marilyn fans (as well as friends of Marilyn) feel the professional line between Marilyn and the Strasberg’s was crossed, they really did provide Marilyn with the stability she needed. Some feel that Marilyn was taken advantage of and exploited by them in order to provide publicity for The Actor’s Studio. However, Paula was being paid to work with Marilyn. It was her job to be there with her. It became obvious to the cast and crew that maybe Paula was a hindrance rather than a help. But it was also mentioned that maybe Paula was what kept Marilyn going. John Huston, Director of The Misfits, said “I think we’re doing Paula a disservice. For all we know, she’s holding the picture together.”
Pat Newcomb, Marilyn’s publicist and friend, said “Paula was among the most loyal and helpful… She never tried to own Marilyn, or cut others out of Marilyn’s life.”
It can therefore be assumed that perhaps Marilyn was the one using the Strasberg’s if anything. Not in any malicious way but in order to provide emotional security for herself.
In 1961, Marilyn had returned to LA, distancing her closeness with the Strasberg’s, although Paula did work with Marilyn on her last, unfinished movie, Something’s Got To Give.
“DOCTORS SHOULD BE EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED IN THEIR PATIENT’S LIFE IF THEY WANTED TO ESTABLISH A TRUSTWORTHY THERAPEUTIC RELATIONSHIP.”
– Dr Ralph Greenson
Lee Strasberg had offered Marilyn private tutoring in The Method, as long as she took up psychoanalysis to deal with her repressed history and tap into her subconscious. Marilyn had seen Dr Marianne Kris in New York for these sessions, delving into her past abuse and trauma. When Marilyn had returned to LA in 1960, she began seeing Romeo Greenschpoon, known professionally as Ralph Greenson at his Beverly Hills office every day of the week.
Marilyn’s friend, Ralph Roberts, said to biographer Donald Spoto, “At first she adored Greenson, but it did not seem to any of us that it was good for her. He began to exert more and more control over her life, dictating who she should have as friends, whom she might visit and so forth. But she felt it was necessary to obey.”
By the end of 1961, after her divorce from Arthur Miller and being wrongly institutionalised by Marianne Kris, Marilyn was dining with the Greenson family at least three times a week. Another surrogate family but this time in Los Angeles.
Greenson would further his control by hiring his friend Eunice Murray to be Marilyn’s housekeeper, told her to get back to work after only a short break from making pictures and had Murray find a home for Marilyn. This home was similarly designed to Greenson’s. Marilyn bought it.
Due to the pressure of working on Something’s Got To Give, Marilyn was seeing Greenson twice a day. It was during this time Marilyn had apparently begun to tell friends that she was worried about her dependency on Greenson and his trying to cut her off from people. Arthur Miller wrote, “She was at this point incapable of condemning or even of judging people who had damaged her, and to be with her was to be accepted… She had no means of preventing the complete unravelling of her belief in a person once a single thread was broken, and if her childhood made this understandable, it didn’t make it easier for her or anyone around her to bear.”
Greenson was in close contact with her general doctor, Dr Hyman Engleberg who would prescribe Marilyn her prescriptions. In her last few months, alive Engleberg had prescribed over 700 pills including Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate, the drugs that ultimately killed her.
Many biographers state that towards the end of Marilyn’s life, she was planning on ending her sessions with Greenson and firing Eunice Murray. It is this that has made theorists believe that Murray and Greenson had some part to play in her death, beyond the fact that he may have been the one to cause her dependency on drugs alongside Engleberg. This realisation that she didn’t need these toxic relationships showed how Marilyn was attempting to grow, go at it alone and gain some independence. It could be her last sessions with Greenson that pushed Marilyn over the edge. He may have convinced her that she would never be able to go on without his help. Thus causing her to feel helpless. Again, who knows? You can read some more about Marilyn’s death here.
“SHE SHOULD’VE BEEN MADE OF IRON OR STEEL BUT SHE WAS ONLY MADE OF FLESH AND BLOOD”
– The Kinks, Celluloid Heroes
Marilyn’s 1962 photos (such as her Bert Stern sitting) are often remarked upon as showing a delicate Marilyn Monroe. A woman who is clearly in need of saving, who was ageing and is clearly mentally frail.
There are many factors to consider, especially when examining photos from her last year alive. Firstly, in 1962 many photographers were able to produce much higher quality photos, showing more details than before.
Marilyn had been working consistently especially in the final years of her life. She had endured the loss of two babies since 1957, her third marriage to Arthur Miller ended and she had been wrongly institutionalised in 1961. She needed rest, no doubt. But she was made to continue to work. Of course, she is bound to look tired. And Marilyn was older. In 1961 she said, “I want to grow old without facelifts. They take the life out of the face. I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I’ve made.” Marilyn was critical about the way she looked in photos, and if she didn’t like them she would cross them out. But Marilyn kept some untouched. She was happy with them. With that, fans who comment negatively on her ’62 photos should try and be happy with them too without the morbid rendering to surround it.
“SHE COULD CERTAINLY BE A BITCH.”
It’s very true Marilyn kept notes of her despair (as seen in Fragments) and had joked about being “generally miserable”. And with a past like hers, who could blame her? But Marilyn didn’t keep a diary as such, she made notes and scribbles of her thoughts. And like many people, we tend to write down things when we are particularly angry or sad rather than when we are happy. Despite what she had gone through in her life, it is likely Marilyn had many good days as well as bad.
Marilyn decided to work extra hard in order to be taken seriously. She was taking private lessons and started the process of therapy and The Method acting classes in order to be a better actress and to work on her art. Nevertheless, the constant reliving of her past horrors did nothing for Marilyn. In order to be stronger, she was forced to be the victim over and over.
Marilyn was open about her trauma and was honest about her life. She tried to own what had happened to her and wasn’t willing to let it beat her. But she was a human being.
She also wasn’t perfect. Who knows what she was really like to live with? It’s a common story that she could be incredibly rude. According to W.J Weatherby who wrote Conversations with Marilyn, “She could certainly be a bitch. A lady with a bad temper.”
Marilyn was likely hard work offset and in her relationships. Although we don’t know the full story of every moment in her life, what we do know is Marilyn was a person with feelings. And it’s likely that she was a “bitch.” Sometimes feelings can become an outpour of emotion causing friction, anger and unreasonable behaviour.
We, as fans, want to portray Marilyn as some beautiful angel who was treated disgustingly by the world and preach that she was treated poorly, especially by Hollywood. But it was only part of it. Marilyn was not a victim of every situation she was in. Sometimes, she put herself there. Although she wasn’t perfect, we love her for her humanity. She was kind, sensitive, hard-working and determined. She had her strengths and weaknesses, her faults and her graces.
To pin the victim label on Marilyn is a disservice. Marilyn went through SO MUCH awfulness in her life and it’s amazing she got to where she did in both her life and career. She really did achieve so much. It’s an absolute tragedy that she wasn’t treated like a regular human being and someone who needed guidance, rather than just drugs and unhealthy therapeutic habits in order to grow and function.
“I’M JUST GETTING STARTED”
– Marilyn to George Barris, 1962
Marilyn may have died due to her dependence on her pills, but it is imperative to remember that she was working on becoming less so. Marilyn had always worked and fought for what she wanted and she wanted to be happy. A fresh start. This can be seen in her wardrobe (consisting of colourful Pucci dresses and blouses), a new hairdo and buying a new home*
Marilyn may have had some time where she needed someone else to take the reigns in order to guide her, support her… but she really demonstrated that only she had the power to make her destiny. Marilyn had done it so far. It was only after becoming so desperately tired from years of carrying that weight that she needed to rely on others. A personal opinion of mine is the people she looked to for those things let her down. She received a certain level of support but in the way she truly needed.
But Marilyn DID have many happy times. It should never be forgotten that she did have joyful moments. And 1962 would’ve been her year if she had lived. If you read her 1962 interviews and read her book with George Barris it was obvious she was excited about the future. Maybe if she had taken action sooner she would have had a successful one.
Heartbreakingly, Marilyn was a victim of many horrible situations in her life. But she was a survivor, a fighter who endured so much and fought through it. Sadly the dependence on Ralph Greenson and thus her medication made this harder. She did fight, she really tried. She was a success and survived for so long. And that’s how I see all victims of abuse. Surviours.
*Joe DiMaggio loaned Marilyn $5,000 for the deposit which was paid back to him out of Marilyn’s estate when she died.
Sources (you can find them in the shop)- Before Marilyn The Blue Book Modelling Days by Michelle Morgan, The Marilyn Monroe Encyclopedia by Adam Victor, Conversations with Marilyn by W.J Weatherby, Marilyn: Her Life In Her Own Words by George Barris, Icon: The Life, Film and Times of Marilyn Monroe by Gary Vitacco-Robles