A Memory of Marilyn by John Gilmore
Born, breast-fed and bred by Hollywood is like being a small tentacle growing out of an omnipotent octopus. We’re sharing Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass—gazing at who we are while what is reflected has a way of commandeering the reality of our lives. Marilyn Monroe and myself, both born in L.A.’s General Hospital (Marilyn in the older unit, town down to build the Dec monolith, both of us at different times nursed on the Hollywood turf, and could’ve testified to lives lived different from any other. Here we exist in a glass dome like hothouse bulbs, the outside surface showing only what the industry wants the public to know—that which can spur sales. Inside the dome, we often find that if the mirror is tipped askew there is no reflection at all. Some say God help us. We’re an isolated breed feeding on fame and recognition, and sometimes one another. Practicality and love struggle somewhere down the ladder—second or third rung business; to be addressed tomorrow, or maybe soon as the picture’s in the can.
My late, good friend of many years, filmmaker Curtis Harrington, passed away the Spring of 2007. I spoke at his Memorial in the Mary Pickford Center, and gained the feeling that a fusion of all the positive energy in that packed theatre could possibly leak into some ethereal sense and somehow be transmitted beyond earthly reaches. I don’t know. A friend for half a century, we met on the Fox lot in 1957. We last met a week before he died, and were talking about Marilyn, remembering her. Curtis made his mark in experimental film, later was an associate to Jerry Wald, who produced Clash by Night, and another movie with Marilyn, Let’s Make Love. His next project with Marilyn would have been A Woman of Summer, based upon William Inge’s play, A Loss of Roses. Inge had written the play specifically for Marilyn. He told me in New York, “Every word the character speaks, I’ve composed as coming from Marilyn’s lips.”
Curtis, Marilyn, and I, once lunched in the Fox commissary, talking about the project. George Masters joined us, and told a joke that had Marilyn laughing—a brief reprieve from her nightmare on Something’s Got to Give. I’d played the lead in the L.A. theatrical production of A Loss of Roses, and it seemed that Marilyn and I would work together in the movie version. What this meant for me as an actor was scaling Mt. Everest. It also meant reaching a summit in my every-so-often friendship shared with Marilyn since 1953, when introduced to her by my mentor, actor John Hodiak.
I can remember her now, how she blinked her eyes, the eyelids opening and closing; such a sad cast to those side-streets in her personality, then the brightness that could come in a flash, like a rush of spontaneous enthusiasm—more than one could contain. All of her in her very own world.
The initial script of A Woman of Summer had Marilyn “bubbling with ideas and juices…” she said. (The title would change to The Stripper, after scenes she’d so bubbled over were cut, along with meaningful dramatic scenes like the stripper’s try at suicide—slitting her wrists with broken glass. Marilyn loved the intensity of that scene.
Later that day at Fox, Curtis gave me a copy of the changes, confiding, “Please do not let Marilyn see the “improvements,” as he was instructed to call them, until the “approved” version was placed into Jerry Wald’s hands. The latest version Curtis handed to me contained none of Marilyn’s suggestions which would have made a far better picture. The big shots were saying, “She doesn’t have script approval—she’s not a writer.” The head big shot told Curtis, “She’s barely a competent actress.” How bloody wrong they were. That chaotic summer was fading fast—choices made that had nothing to do with Marilyn’s choosing. In their view, like John Henry of Sixteen-Tons, she owed her soul to the company store.
I’d made no promise to Curtis that I’d keep secret from Marilyn’s anything about the Jerry Wald project. Nor did I promise my agent, Lester Salkow, or fellow clients Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, or Mr. Claude Raines, all supporting the prospect of my co-starring with Marilyn. Mr. Raines told me with a wink, “It could be a bit of alchemy, bringing you and Marilyn together romantically on the screen…”
While Fox was designing the costumes for the picture, the front office offered the co-lead—the role I was up for—to Pat Boone, who turned it down. “I’ve got a lot of teenage fans,” he said, “and they would be upset if I played a person who has an affair with an older woman. I can’t do that.”
I had no such qualms. Marilyn was gorgeous and hot as dynamite. I was an up-and-coming actor of 26, even one year younger than Boone. I was ready.
I wasn’t even off the lot when I called Marilyn and told her I had the script. That late afternoon she came to my place in West Hollywood, anxious to see the script inserts—the scenes she’d raved about. She was breathing hard from just walking up the driveway. A black scarf was over her head, under her chin and covering her throat. No makeup. Her eyebrows looked bleached. She wore something like tan army pants, two shirts and a sweater, and no socks; huaraches with her toes peeking out. He purse was on a shoulder strap, and she was carrying a big purse, along with a thermos bottle like one I’d toted in the fifth grade.
I apologized that my place was small. She said, “This is bigger than so many places I’ve lived in. I can’t even think of all of them. This is very comfortable, and you can walk to the Tail o’ the Cock and drink margaritas all afternoon. That’s where the drink was invented, you know.” She sat on the raised brick hearth of the fire place, loosening her scarf, and then rattled through the insert pages. I watched her face for the inevitable. It didn’t take long. Minutes later, with a look of one shortchanged big-time, she stared at me and said, “This is terrible! Don’t you think this is terrible?”
I said, “It isn’t exactly what Mr. Inge had in mind—“
“It isn’t exactly like anything!” she said, and in a swift, defiant gesture, she tore the pages in half and threw them into the fireplace. She nodded to herself. “You can use it to heat this little house and make it very cheerful.”
Her hands were shaking. She asked for water, so I rinsed and filled a glass as she dug in that big purse. Out came a pill box full of capsules. She said she had a headache behind her eyes—reading too much. I asked if she wanted an Aspirin. She shook her head. “I’m on medication,” she said and drank the water, chasing two capsules. “My vision gets irritated and it’s very troublesome…” She stood up, stretching to one side. “I’ve pulled a muscle—twisted the wrong way rehearsing a number. Ralph says I damaged a ligament. You know Ralph Roberts?” I said I’d met him. “He always helps me,” she said. “I don’t know if I can get through all this without help. These jerks won’t help me. You’ve helped me—showing me the changes that weren’t there. That was the only reason I wanted to do the picture. I don’t see how I can do it…I know it’s anxiety because I’m not well…”
She needed to eat. She said she’d had nothing that day. “I want bacon and asparagus,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it all day, even seeing it on a plate—in my mind.” I had neither bacon nor asparagus, but suggested Ernie’s Restaurant on LaCienega.
She used my cramped bathroom and I don’t recall how long she was in there. I listened to the water going on and off, and heard her repeatedly place the glass on the sink counter. When she came out, the black scarf was covering your hair, and big dark sunglasses hid her eyes. She asked, “Do I look all right?”
We drove to Ernie’s, and even half-hidden, the waiter sensed who she was. His hands shook as he set the plates on the table. Canadian bacon and asparagus stalks Marilyn then smothered with pepper.
She set the shaker down, and showed me a blister on her thumb. “I just sprinkled pepper on my sore,” she said. “I got this from planting an astonishing bromeliad…” I said she’d once told me bromeliads were her favorite flower. She asked, “When did I say that?” I said in New York, at John Stix’s dinner party. “He had a book on bromeliads—a big Spanish publication—”
“Yes!” she said. “A wonderful book. So many flowers—so exotic. So enriching for one’s spirit. They can be found in the renderings of ancient Mayan civilizations. You cannot water some as you would other plants. You must put the water into them like you are feeding thirsty little mouths…”
She cut the bacon, speared each with a hunk of asparagus and drank only water. For desert she swallowed another capsule, saying, “These are actually vitamin C’s.”
I nodded, then asked, “Are we going to do the movie?”
She sighed. She tapped her fingertips against her upper lip. “Who the fuck knows?”
We drove back to my place and she said she wanted to read two scenes from the first version of the script. “This is why I wanted to do the picture,” she said. “The sad love scene between Lila and the boy, and then when she tries to end her life. God, I don’t know what they’ve done to this script, it’s so awful. I don’t understand why they can’t leave it alone…why they have to get their greedy hands into everything!” She almost cried. I gave her a wad of Kleenex. “Why won’t they even pretend to have an adventurous spirit? Or at least some kind of meaningful intelligence?” She blew her nose. She wanted to do the picture the way it had been presented, “the way it was orchestrated—written by this wonderful author.”
I said, “The original concept with solely you—Marilyn—in his mind. That’s what he told me in New York. He said every word out of Lila’s mouth, he was thinking of you–seeing you saying everything he was thinking.”
She stared at me—that same odd sort of recognition we’d experienced before. Then, sort of erratically, using a match from the box on the fireplace, she lit the rest of the so-called revised script on fire and we watched it burn. I said, “We should toast the barbeque. I’ve got some vodka?”
She had to confess there were only the remains of a margarita in her thermos. She removed the lid and peered down into the mirrored interior. “I’ve had this for two days or I don’t know how long it has been, but the salt will preserve it—don’t you think?”
We mixed what was left in her thermos into the vodka. I took a taste and said, “You’re right. The salt’s preserved the margarita.” She slumped back on the Hollywood studio bed, saying my phonograph was like the one she’d had before, and asked what I was listening to. I turned it on, let the arm lower to the red LP record, and we sat, listening to the music and the voice. Moments later she said she knew what it was. I said, “It’s Amelia Rodriguez. Fado—the Portuguese word means fate.”
“It’s about tragedy,” she said.
“Not only tragedy,” I said. “Also about joy and love and all that.”
“But it ends in tragedy,” she said. “Emotional and stirring but always ends in tragedy.” She hadn’t said that in a disturbed way, simply as a matter of fact. I agreed, but asked if it made her sad.
“No,” she said.
I told her the record was given to me as a birthday present in New York. “Almost two years ago.”
“A girl friend?” she asked. I laughed and said no. She asked, “Why do you laugh?”
I didn’t know. “People laugh,” I said.
She said, “Don’t you have a girl friend?” I said yeah, maybe I did. I just wasn’t thinking about it.
“People are hard to think about,” she said as we listened to the record. “Especially people who are telling you how you should be thinking.”
I was slumped in the canvas desk chair, my feet up on the coffee table, watching her as she removed the huaraches and was flexing her toes. She asked if I knew the Chinese method of massaging feet. I said that was something I did not know. She raised her leg, stretched it towards me and put her bare foot against the sole of my shoe. She said, “Your feet are small for someone as tall as you—”then quickly got her purse from the floor. She dug into it and came up with the pillbox. Arching her back for a moment, she put another pill in her mouth and chased it with the drink. After she carefully lifted two more pills from the box, she reached across to me saying, “These are good for you if you need to relax. It makes me so relaxed, I can just close my eyes and I start dreaming…”
I took the pills but worried what they were until I excused myself and got rid of them in the bathroom.
Walking her to her car, I thought she looked frail. It wasn’t cold but even with those two shirts and the sweater she appeared to be shivering. I wasn’t sure what to do. Now, it seems like yesterday, her sitting behind the wheel, of her car, turning the key, the engine starting. The headlights went on. I remember bending down and saying, “Good night, Marilyn… you sure you’re all right?”
Her eyes were half lit in the yellow glow of the dash lights. She nodded, then raised her hand and gave a little backward wave. “Ciao…” she said, and drove away from the curb. Her red brake lights brightened at the corner, and then she turned west and disappeared into the night.
She could tell no one how ill she was, though I’d know later how ill she’d been, treading a tightrope between that miserable life at her back to one ahead she couldn’t be sure would prove less miserable than where she’d been. She was being drawn and quartered by a relentless commerce. Two weeks earlier, Curtis Harrington told me, “They’re eating poor Marilyn alive. She’s trying to hide, but she can’t find a place to hide.”
Almost every hand she reached for was turning her down. She wanted trust—someone you could trust who would not prove traitorous. There was really no one, was there?
They failed to acknowledge her priorities, and worse, her health, bent only on her luminous career being terminated. As a result, she was fired—the idiots having set her up to take the fall for their own unrelated extravaganzas. “You are through,” they said.” “All washed up. She’ll never work again in this town. Marilyn Monroe will be forgotten…”
Wrong and wrong again. She showed them what guts was all about. That front office was a speck on a beach compared to Marilyn’s popularity; compared to the unflinching commitment and admiration world-wide, how fast the scales tipped, and mouths so full of dictatorial admonitions turned to Cheshire smiles as they welcomed her back.
But our movie, which Mr. Claude Raines had prophesized as an act of alchemy, rolled sadly without ether Marilyn or myself. Joanne Woodward took Marilyn’s place, and told me, “I did it as homage to Marilyn. I even recorded the song Something’s Gotta Give. I did it all for Marilyn.”
Jerry Wald suffered a fatal heart attack during production. He was only 51. Curtis Harrington took up the production reins, harried, stressed; doing the best he could under the circumstances. Less than a month after Wald’s exit from the world, Marilyn followed, just a breeze past her 36th birthday.
Decades have passed. Half a century since that night I walked Marilyn to her car, yet it could have been yesterday.
I never saw her again. Too late the truth hit that I had failed to honor the little parcel of trust she bestowed—that small, shining jewel, too brief, too fast; all events roaring with an immediacy that stunned, and then she was gone.
I hid my sadness behind a hundred guises—something I could never talk about except to those touched by her. I locked a door to a space in my life that stayed nailed shut. Was it fate? Was it written all over her face and I failed to see it because I would’ve had to ask myself, “What can I possibly do?” This is Hollywood, isn’t it?
In dreams I begged her forgiveness for my having failed at being more than another hand turning her down. I fought against accepting that as a fact, and as unreasonable as it seems to alter what was, I did feel sorry—but all the clowns that could be have never erased the regret I’ve carried for when I saw her falling, and like everyone else, I stepped aside. Hollywood, right?
I’ve cherished each moment of her company, infrequent as it may have seemed, each single second I caught her eye. These are holy relics housed inside my soul. So yes, Ciao, dear Marilyn.
This 50th Memorial at Westwood will equate to my having lived more than two her lifetimes, the second one empty of that person—a sad, frail Marilyn, gone, but now everywhere—a whole other world of her and more and more worlds of people touched, made joyous, made enriched by the iconic, continuing Goddess life of Marilyn that will never be gone. .
Fans rejoice that her beaming spirit so divinely captured through the magic screen has filled the years immeasurably. The wonder of her sparkling achievements lives with us, the Marilyn the world knows and loves, and carries in their hearts; not as a lost soul careening in the constellations, but like the spirit of Mozart seizing us through his music, or Van Gogh pulling us into his dazzling, pulsing paint, right to the other side of the mirror. No magician on earth can weave a more spectacular spell than what Marilyn bestowed of her radiance, her gentleness, and a profound, vibrant humanity. She never has to hide again. She is everywhere in the world.
Beyond all shadow and haze and uncertainty, she is an angel that walked upon the earth, and that angel is yet with us; and will live eternally, everlastingly, through all time and into infinity.