Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends

I really enjoyed this book.  Highly recommended.

Author Susan Strasberg
Publisher Warner Books
Cover Type Hardcover
Dimensions 6 x 9 inches
Publish Date 1992
ISBN 0-446-51592-2
Signed No
Number of Pages 282


Many years back I did something really stupid. While packing to move to a new apartment I had a momentary black out and decided that I could do without a lot of the Marilyn Monroe books that had collected on my shelves. When I came to, found out that I’d ended up giving away things I really wish I’d hung onto, I started in kicking myself and haven‘t stopped since. Then one night with Jill I was lamenting over my foolishness at being so damned dumb to have gotten rid of my copy of Susan Strasberg’s book. Like the true pal she is, the next morning Jill presented me with a paperback copy of the book to replace the one I‘d lost. You’ve heard about this “Marilyn Community?” That’s it in a nutshell, a fellow devotee who knows that peer pressure can sometimes lead to foolish things -- like thinning out your bookshelves by dumping Marilyn books -- and be there for you with a new copy. Some call it co-dependence. I like to think of it as friends.

 Anyway, Strasberg’s account of trying to keep balance while caught in the undertow of Marilyn’s gravitational pull is the book I want to tell you guys about this week.

 Next time you try to decide if you are really up for yet another book on Marilyn Monroe or perhaps your time could be better spent actually reading that copy of Moby Dick that you received for your eighth grade graduation, think this over: How many folks who actually knew Marilyn have sat down and written up their thoughts? Eunice Murray. Berniece Miracle. Norman Rosten. Arthur Miller should be included as well given his chapters on his marriage in Timebends. Ralph Roberts tried but no publishing house found his words as fascinating as the many people who head to his website on a regular basis to see if any new pages of his unpublished manuscript have been posted. Other than this small handful, the biographers have either been people who never met her but wish they had, (Mailer, Guiles), never met her but wish you believed that they had, (Slatzer), or those who admit they never met her but want to assure you that they know the absolute truth about her death, (just about everyone else).

 Then there’s Susan Strasberg. The subtitle of her book pretty much spells it out: Sisters, Rivals and ultimately, Friends. If you are anything like me, as much as I admire the scholarship of say Leaming or Spoto, there’s nothing like sitting down with a book that was written by someone who actually knew Marilyn. That is, someone who actually knew Marilyn and has witnesses.

 You’ve seen her in the documentaries, a fragile, pale brunette sincerely trying to explain the strong emotions that still well up within her whenever she speaks of the woman we all know as Marilyn Monroe. You know the old story -- Susan waking up one morning to find Marilyn standing nude looking out the window, the post adolescent Strasberg blurting out how she wished she were Marilyn and Marilyn’s shocked horror that anyone in their right mind would want to be in her place. If that little story gets retold so often it is because in it is the kernel of the two women’s entire relationship, a relationship that moved Strasberg to the point that it is doubtful if she ever left the shadow of the voluptuous Monroe standing nude in the window of her bedroom.

 The problem with Marilyn was that she was so big, so famous, so universally desired, that anyone standing next to her, be it a friend or a husband, found themselves in her unintentional shadow. Now imagine that you are a somewhat insecure teenage actress and your parents basically adopt the most well known actress in the world. Imagine you are born to two idiosyncratic personalities who even before Monroe entered their lives had little time or patience for their own theatrically ambitious daughter. Suddenly at an age where most girls are worrying if they should allow their date to have a kiss, imagine you find yourself having to compete with the most sought after celebrity of the century. She’s the blond ideal of Everyman’s fantasy. You’re a too thin brunette with an embarrassingly small bust. Imagine that she’s captured not only the country’s imagination but the attention of your own parents. Now imagine how hard it would be to find that you actually like this intruder. That no matter how much you want to hate her, the same charisma that has enchanted everyone from Queen Elizabeth to the Emperor of Japan starts in working on you.

 What is so surprising about Strasberg’s book is that she has the guts to not only admit her envy, admit her jealousy, admit her own bitterness at the fact that her parents seemed to have shuffled her aside so as to make room for the Hollywood sensation, she also has the guts to admit that she loved Marilyn Monroe as a friend and the sister she never had. The two unlikely friends were just that -- friends. And rivals. For all the envy of the young girl trying to make a break in theater, there was an equal envy coming from the other end of that bedroom -- Marilyn Monroe, the movie star, yearning to trade places with the young girl about to take Broadway by storm with her starring role in one of the most eagerly awaited stage productions since the end of the second World War. It took years for Strasberg to come to the realization that all those years she yearned to be just like the nude blonde at the bedroom window, Marilyn was actually telling her the truth when she said she wished she could be in Susan’s shoes. 

Strasberg does not paint the glowing portrait of the waif who wowed Hollywood. Nor does she present the drugged and tragic icon that is so much a part of the lore as presented by others. What Strasberg sets out to do is exactly what she accomplished: an even-handed portrayal of a loyal friend, a confused and emotionally distraught woman who surely had a heap of problems but also had the ability to put aside her own pressures and see a young girl being pushed to the side, of reaching out to that young girl with all the understanding and compassion she could muster.

 The book presents the world of New York 1950s through the eyes of one who was not only there but a viable part of the American Theater renaissance, literally smack dab in the center of the Actors Studio. Caught in a world populated by legendary figures, Susan Strasberg had the unique perspective of one both of that world and one step removed. She lived it and survived, thankfully, long enough to share the memories with us. From their first meeting until the day she learned of her friend and former rival’s death, Strasberg writes of it all with great emotion yet a dry and somewhat detached distance. It’s as if she were still that young girl glancing up one morning from her bed and finding the silhouetted figure of Marilyn Monroe standing before her own bedroom window. Envious and in awe all at the same time. But most of all, like the young girl who wishes to be just like her idol, a mature woman who can look back on a legend and remember a kind and wonderful friend who helped her through the rough parts and remained, always, someone she loved.

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