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Personal letters reveal Marilyn Monroe's inner turmoil
An upcoming documentary reveals all — from Monroe's desire to learn to cook for Joe DiMaggio to her upbeat attitude shortly before her death
By SARA STEWART
Last Updated: 4:27 PM, June 13, 2013
Posted: 11:55 PM, June 12, 2013
Marilyn Monroe wrote letters, kept journals and constantly jotted down her creative ideas. They provide an intimate, complex portrait of the sex symbol, and are the basis of this HBO documentary.
It's hard to imagine that absolutely everything hasn’t already been said about Marilyn Monroe. But for all the books and movies and tributes and myth-making, the iconic blonde has never had much of a chance to speak for herself.
The HBO documentary “Love, Marilyn,” which airs Monday, aims to change that, enlisting a cast of well-known actresses to read selections from a newly discovered trove of letters and journals penned by the woman who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson.
The readings, by actors including Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood and Glenn Close, are augmented by biographical input from Norman Mailer, Billy Wilder and others — and with several interviews with those who knew her.
But the writings are the film’s reason for existing, and they are fascinating. Ranging from hastily scribbled jottings to lengthy letters to her acting coach Lee Strasberg, the handwritten notes add a refreshing complexity to a persona that’s been simplified over time into a two-dimensional, if ever-enduring, sex symbol.
“I am ‘M.M.’ I am not permitted problems, nervousness, humanness, blunders, mistakes . . . and my own thoughts,” she writes in one journal entry. In another, “Maybe I’ll never be able to do what I hope . . . but at least I have hope.”
Director Liz Garbus says she tried to focus on aspects of the late actress’ life that “haven’t been regurgitated a thousand times.” She became interested in the project in 2010, after she heard from a friend that he was editing a book on the newly discovered writings. Anna Strasberg, Lee’s widow, inherited Monroe’s estate from him when he died in 1982, and found Monroe’s letters and journals many years later, when sorting through his papers.
“What I found in them was a very modern human being, somebody who I felt I related to and could probably have spent a lot of time talking to about the conflicts she faced between love and work, and about her insecurities as an artist,” the director says. “I think all of us women working in this business face some of the same challenges.”
Garbus hones in on Monroe’s deliberate creation of her persona, her constant quest to better herself and her frustration — once cemented in the popular culture — with being seen as just a dumb blonde, both by the public and by her own husbands, first baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and then playwright Arthur Miller.
“She wasn’t dumb at all,” says actress Ellen Burstyn, one of the film’s readers. “She was smart — and very well-read. She read all the time, trying to educate herself. But she was fragile. She didn’t have the strength that someone gets if they have a loving mother and father. She was knocked around in foster homes, and she just didn’t have any psychological solidity.”
Still, says Burstyn, “she was smart enough to create the character of Marilyn Monroe.”
Amy Greene, widow of Monroe’s favorite photographer, Milton Greene, says Monroe was a lot more clever than she got credit for. “She knew everybody loved her as a dumb blonde, and the minute she got off the set she wasn’t that way,” she says. “She was playing a character.”
Monroe, who lived with the Greenes for four years at their house in Connecticut, was known to jot down notes to herself constantly. “She wrote everything down,” says Greene. “She was like a musician that way. You’re sitting down to dinner, and all of a sudden they’ll run out of the room to write something down. She liked those black-and-white composition books for schoolchildren.”
One of her favorite topics, in notes to herself, was self-
improvement: “Must make sure to do the following: take care of my instrument, personally and bodily. Try to find someone to take dancing from. Body work. Creative. If possible, take at least one class at university in literature.”
Actress Uma Thurman “really responded to the Marilyn notes about acting, and about her internal dialogue, talking herself through the hard times,” says Garbus. “One thing we used is Uma reading a list Marilyn made, which is very funny but also very poignant: ‘Note to self, go to dance class. Go to this lecture, study this.’ Uma really related to that desire to constantly improve oneself.”
Also appearing in “Love, Marilyn,” which had a brief theatrical run at Film Forum last year, is Lindsay Lohan, who has posed as Marilyn in a magazine shoot in the past and shares a certain knowledge of personal and career turbulence with Monroe.
“There are those people who discovered Marilyn through this project, and there were those who knew her deeply and came to the shoot armed with lots of ideas about her. [Lindsay] is somebody who has always studied her,” Garbus says. “She named her production company  after Marilyn’s birthday. She understands, you know, Marilyn’s approach toward her body and to glamour, and I think she is very aware of her history and legacy.”
Lohan’s troubles with substance abuse and the law have, at times, also evoked speculation that she would follow in the tragic icon’s footsteps; Monroe was found dead at age 36 due to an overdose of pills, a presumed suicide.
Shortly before her death, she sent a surprisingly upbeat letter to Strasberg. “My attorneys and I are planning to set up an independent production company,” Monroe wrote, just a few days before her death. “As far as I’m concerned, the happiest time of my life is now. There is a future and I can’t wait to get to it.”
Burstyn says she was touched by the earnest emotion in the letter. “She’s laying out her plans for her production company, and describing how excited she was for her future. It was sad, because it was very close to the time that she died, and she must have been going back and forth from a state of depression to a state of elation.”
But others insist her death was not intentional at all. “Total accident,” says Greene. “She forgot she’d taken pills two hours before she took the next ones. Milton thought so too.”
As Greene points out, things were looking up for Monroe at that point. “For the first time, for the next film, she was being given a million-dollar salary,” she says; Monroe had struggled against the studio system to raise her pay rate for years.
Then there are the more commonplace scribblings, the ones that add a sense of reality to the star’s image — like the journal excerpt read by Lili Taylor that details Monroe’s desire to become a better cook, after marrying DiMaggio. In it, she somewhat disjointedly lays out the ingredients for a pot roast and how to cook it: “Sew up or clamp bird. Put chicken or turkey in 350 oven. Cooks 30 min to one pound. Let cook in own juice. Potatoes. Mushrooms: button. Peas: fresh.”
“There was something I liked about that recipe, because it was like this mundane detail,” says Taylor. “I think with Marilyn, who didn’t seem human, those little things humanize her.”
Collectively, allowing Monroe’s own writings to take center stage sweeps away some of the broad legends that have previously
kept Monroe sealed in a Barbie-doll box.
“Usually when you scratch behind those stories,” says Garbus, “there’s a human being who emerges.”firstname.lastname@example.org