a work of contradictions

Marilyn Monroe’s Truth Was in Her Poetry

Photo: Netflix

Andrew Dominik’s Blonde imagines that, after the premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an emotional and eager Marilyn Monroe (played by Ana de Armas) rushed to a hotel suite, expecting to meet her long-lost father. Instead, she’s greeted there by an amorous Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), who assures her he just wants to protect her “from all these jackals” in Hollywood. Blonde cuts to black as Marilyn’s voice fills the screen, reciting the words, “In you, the world is born anew as two. Before you, there was but one.” When film comes back into focus, the couple is awash in sunlight from an open window — a re-creation of a photograph taken in 1953 by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Marilyn smiles after sharing this poem with her newly betrothed, keen to hear his thoughts. “That’s it, huh? Is that the whole poem?” he asks. Her smile fades. “Yeah,” she replies. “Well, that’s good, honey,” he responds, patting her on the leg. The camera holds on her while she watches, dismayed, as he walks out of the frame.

Like Joyce Carol Oates’s book of the same name, Blonde is a fictionalized account of the life and work of Marilyn Monroe (I must add a heavy emphasis on “fictionalized”). But there are kernels of authenticity in both, including Monroe’s penchant for writing poetry. Her poetry is used here to show how her creativity was often misunderstood or outright dismissed. This sequence lasts barely a few minutes, a drop in the feature’s nearly three-hour running time, and it uses a fictional poem written for the movie. But in reality, from an early age, writing was a large part of Monroe’s life.

Published in 2012 and edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe allows a glimpse into this other facet of Monroe’s vast creative life. Starting with a personal note written in 1943 during her first marriage as a teenager, these pages showcase Monroe’s interiority in her own words, a rare and precious gift. This mixture of poems, fragmented thoughts and observations, lists relating to her craft and her homemaking, and correspondences to some of her closest confidants brings into sharp focus her multitudes.

While some of the poems and notes in the collection are short and fragmented, most of them — including her prose notes — have a more rigorous structure. Often handwritten in spiral-bound notebooks and hotel stationary, they explore the perfectionism that led to her fear of the camera, her loneliness, her thoughts on human relationships, and even her occasional suicidal ideation. But most important, they showcase her humor, her deep feelings about life, and the way she observed people and the beauty of the world around her.

In a note to herself, she remarks that one of her acting lessons requires her to “keep looking around“ and to observe “not only myself but others and everything.” This work can be seen in one of my favorite poems in the collection, which begins with the deeply sorrowful lines, “Oh damn I wish that I were dead — absolutely nonexistent,” before discussing how she might end her life. She continues by writing of her love for the Brooklyn Bridge, her enthusiasm for how beautiful everything looks from its heights and how peaceful she feels up there. She then contemplates finding an ugly bridge before concluding, “I’ve never seen an ugly bridge.” There is sadness here, sure, but there is also a deep appreciation for life and a mordant sense of humor. It’s these little perceptions that make her poetry so rich and reflect the true complexity of her emotional life.

One emotion in particular recurs throughout her notebooks and poems: fear. On one page, she scribbled the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt quote “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In another poetic list, she jots down some lines about the crippling fear she feels before shooting a scene: “Maybe I’ll make mistakes / people will either think I’m no good or laugh or belittle me or think I can’t act.”

The fear of disappointing those around her fueled a perfectionism that left her labeled “difficult” throughout her career. But she writes of “building myself back up” by reminding herself of her achievements, even if the “bad is heavier to carry around.” These moments of resilience and self-actualization are left off the screen in Blonde, in which fear mostly overwhelms the version of Monroe that de Armas was asked to play.

Blonde mostly attributes the failures of Monroe’s marriages to her search for a father figure — the film’s use of the word daddy is truly a Freudian nightmare — which led her to men who didn’t understand her. Cannavale’s DiMaggio is defined by a savior complex coupled with possessive violence, while Adrien Brody’s Arthur Miller uses Monroe’s mind for his own art rather than appreciating her unique brilliance. Yet, in her own writing, Monroe explored far more complicated concepts and fears stemming from her childhood trauma and the very idea of marriage.

In one fragment, she contemplates how we can never really know what others went through in their early years and “what they drag with them.” In another, she discusses the freedom of being onstage and how she finds assurance while performing because she will not be whipped or threatened or “not be loved.” She also alludes to feelings of shame attached to being molested when she was younger and the subsequent punishment she seemingly received for the violations inflicted on her. While Blonde continually presents its version of Monroe as a victim with little autonomy, the real one clearly worked hard to be her own woman. One fragment reads, “My body is my body / every part of it.”

In one of her most vulnerable notes, she reveals she always feared being a wife because “one cannot love another, ever, really.” Still, she believed that “to love bravely is the best.” Rather than perceive each marriage as a failure, perhaps the angle most aligned with her own beliefs would be to view them as acts of courage.

These are just a few insights gleaned from Monroe’s writing. At over 200 pages long, Fragments is a work of contradictions, like the woman herself, stabs at self-improvements and a deep desire to understand herself better through her work, the world she constructed for herself, and her relationships.

Monroe shared some of her poems with friends, but much of her writing was just for herself, scattered across abandoned notebooks and scraps of paper. After her untimely death, her papers were left to her acting teacher turned mentor and friend Lee Strasberg, who didn’t sort through them before his own death. His widow, Anna Strasberg, found them in boxes after his passing, and for the decade since the book’s initial printing, they’ve offered just a glimpse into Monroe’s mind. It’s impossible to know if she ever wanted her writing published, but it was important enough for her to keep all those years. Within them, there is perhaps the closest remainder of her own truth.

“I believe in myself, even my most delicate intangible feelings,” she wrote — the most any of us could hope for, really.

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Marilyn Monroe’s Truth Was in Her Poetry