August 5 marks the 44th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. As always, there is talk of how she died. Did she really commit suicide? Was it accidental? What about the mafia? Who really killed Marilyn Monroe?
It was the East Coast. Nothing so illustrates the clash of Southern California with the other side of America as the meeting of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy men of Massachusetts.
Born in 1926, Marilyn Monroe was a classic California girl. Her mother toiled in the studio system until she went crazy and her father was a mirage. She was shaped by the landscape of her birth – open, receptive, without guile, bursting with passion, as hungry as the ocean and as fluid as the desert, with a spirit that could not be contained, desiring only to be of service, any time of the day or night, paper or plastic, may I help you?
“Yes,” replied the Kennedy men. “We’ll take paper and plastic, and whatever else you’re offering.” Complete products of the East Coast, the sons of Joe Kennedy were trained to live, work, marry, and hook up well. This was the European style of doing, achieving, making, having: The New World is your oyster; go pry it open and take the pearl - if you don’t, someone else will.
It was 1960. Jack arrived first. Marilyn was at her most vulnerable, with marriages to Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio having recently failed. To the world, she was the beautiful ex-wife of famous men. To herself, she was Norma Jean, the name her mother had given her, a little girl who never knew her father.
What happened at JFK’s first meeting with Marilyn Monroe? Perhaps this: Marilyn reclined at home on a chaise lounge, naked (she was not a fan of clothing) and rereading the Gettysburg Address (she admired Abraham Lincoln). JFK knocked.
“Who is it?” came the breathless call.
“It’s, uh, me…the, uh, President,” replied the President in his distinctive patter.
Southern California took a minute to dress. Fettered and ready to receive the East Coast, she opened the door.
“Hi, there,” Marilyn whispered in a tone that was familiar to JFK, for his wife Jacqueline used it as well.
“Won’t you come in?” she said.
JFK entered and she closed the door.
“I was just rereading Lincoln,” said Southern California. “May I get you a drink?”
“A, uh, martini will, uh, be fine,” said New England.
“I hear you’re going to continue the emancipation of the slaves,” Marilyn said as she poured and served.
“That’s, uh, a good one, I, uh, like that,” JFK said, not realizing that Marilyn was not joking, was eager to share her passion for American history with the commander-in-chief. The light in her eyes went out for a second, but he didn’t notice. She rallied, put Abe aside, and turned on some music. It was Frank Sinatra, singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The next day, JFK announced the space program. When things got too hot for JFK, he sent Bobby to deal with the mess, to try to do what the East Coast always does when it’s overwhelmed: control things. But Southern California has never been easy to tame.
“Uh, Marilyn, are you, uh, there?”
She knew right away it was Bobby; he had left several messages. “The only Kennedy I’m talking to is Jack,” Marilyn said.
“You, uh, know that can’t happen again.”
“Marilyn, please, let me in.” Marilyn relented, and got dressed, then opened the door. She was wearing a bathrobe and high heels. Her hair had not been brushed in some time and she looked tired. Bobby, a little taken aback by her appearance, entered.
“I was just rereading Carl Sandburg,” she said.
“I love Carl Sandburg,” Bobby said.
“’The fog comes on little cat feet,’” she began.
He finished the poem. Marilyn fell in love with the Attorney General. She brushed her hair. He visited her often until one day when he stopped. The private phone number Marilyn had for him no longer worked. She called him at the Justice Department. He would not call back.
A few months later, Marilyn was found dead in her bedroom, the victim of a drug overdose. Her crypt is behind a movie theatre, a few blocks from the 405 Freeway, amid a rowhouse of crypts in a pocket cemetery, down the path from her friend Truman Capote, and in time, alas, next to Hugh Hefner (he bought the space for himself). Recently I visited America’s brightest star and thought about how she had come a short distance but a long way from her beginnings as the offspring of studio fieldhands. Or had she? In the endless marketing of Marilyn (MM lingerie, MM perfume), the system that took her mother’s mind had also laid claim to Marilyn’s body. But it was the East Coast that took her spirit. Of course such thefts are only temporary and here’s how I plan to celebrate the ultimate California girl: I’ll kick back naked, have a glass of champagne, and read the Gettysburg Address. If I feel like it, I’ll brush my hair. “It’s me!” Marilyn once said. “Don’t you remember? The tomato from upstairs?”
Deanne Stillman adapted this piece for Native Intelligence from a column she wrote in the late Buzz magazine. Her play, "Inside the White House," imagines JFK and Marilyn in the afterlife and has won theater festival prizes around the country. This is her first contribution to LA Observed.