BOOK REVIEW BY DAVID MARSHALL
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pages of his unpublished manuscript have been posted.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