Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe - primary sources

UPDATE: my play about Marilyn Monroe will be performed in Manhattan February 20 - 26, 2017.

I was concerned the just-released Lifetime Channel's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe would beat me to the punch by using Monroe's own letters as source material for the scenes associated with her stay at the Payne Whitney, but to my relief they did not. Which shouldn't have surprised me, the various portrayals of Monroe seem to be typically poorly-sourced, just as the majority of her biographies are.

At least Secret Life doesn't suggest Monroe was murdered or deliberately committed suicide. She's portrayed as accidentally taking an overdose of sleeping pills on top of alcohol.

The most conscientious of Monroe's biographers, Donald Spoto, suggests her death was due to malpractice - thanks to miscommunication she was given a double dose of barbiturates delivered orally and via enema.

But the entire miniseries is built on a falsehood - it portrays Monroe as having an ongoing relationship with her institutionalized mother, when in fact she appears to never have seen her mother after 1952. According to Spoto:
 (Monroe) refused to visit her... nor it seems (as of 1952) would she ever contact her mother in any way... She helped her but from a distance - by writing checks, making arrangements for her care and, eventually, by providing for her a trust fund... "I knew there was really nothing between us," she said of her mother defensively a few years later. "And I knew there was so little I could do for her. We were strangers. Our time in Los Angeles was very difficult, and even she realized that we didn't know each other." And she concluded  - one of her rare discussions of her mother - with the telling words: "I just want to forget about all the unhappiness, all the misery she had in her life and I had in mine. I can't forget but I'd like to try. When I am Marilyn Monroe and don't think about Norma Jeane, then sometimes it works."
But worse than the misrepresentation of the relationship between Monroe and her mother was the way Monroe was portrayed during the Payne Whitney incident. To my knowledge there are two documents written by Monroe herself that discuss the incident:

(Other letters by and to and about Monroe, some more significant than others can be read here. )

This is how the incident is portrayed in The Secret Life:

We see Monroe telling a psychiatrist she's just met that Dr. Kris put her in the Clinic.

Then we see a shot of Monroe struggling with two hospital orderlies dragging her down a hallway, screaming "I don't belong here."

Next shot we see Monroe looking through the porthole-like window of her cell while a radio voice-over:
Film star Marilyn Monroe was taken by ambulance from her New York City hotel and was admitted to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. The actress who has a history of drug and alcohol use, is being confined to the maximum security wing of the clinic for her own protection. Neither Fox Studios nor Miss Monroe's representatives could be reached for comment.
Then there's a scene of Monroe's mother cutting her wrists with a razor blade.

Then we see the inside of Monroes' empty padded cell and Monroe is barefoot, wearing black pants and in a straightjacket. We hear distant yelling voices.

An orderly enters.
It's alright. 
Do you know who I am? 
Take it easy. 
I have to get out. 
The doctor will be here in a minute.
I need you to make a phone call. 
I can't. 
   (Monroe approaches the orderly, he holds her off with one hand.) 
I don't belong here. I'll do whatever you want.   
It's against regulations.
   (Holds a Dixie cup out to her.) 
It's time to take your medication Miss Monroe. 
   (He holds it for her to drink, which she does.) 
(She moves towards him walking on her knees. Whispers.) 
Hey - come here come here come here. I still need you to make a phone call. Please.
(He looks at her and then backs away. He exits and locks the door behind him. Monroe spits out her medication onto the floor of the cell. Ominous music swells.)  
Joe DiMaggio shows up, tells the nurse at the desk he wants her released.
Marilyn and DiMaggio are shown leaving the clinic together to a throng of fans and photographers.
And that's it. I'm not sure if we're supposed to assume the guy made the phone call for her or what.

The reality was much more interesting then that - Monroe took the initiative. She didn't ask anyone to make a phone call for her - she wanted to make the phone call herself, and they refused to let her. Here's how it went down:

The first day I did "mingle" with a patient. She asked me why I looked so sad and suggested I could call a friend and perhaps not be so lonely. I told her that they had told me that there wasn't a phone on that floor. Speaking of floors, they are all locked -- no one could go in and no one could go out. She looked shocked and shaken and said "I'll take you to the phone" -- while I waited in line for my turn for the use of the phone I observed a guard (since he had on a grey knit uniform) as I approached the phone he straight-armed the phone and said very sternly: "You can't use the phone"... 
...After the girl spoke with me and told me about what she had done to herself I went back into my room knowing they had lied to me about the telephone and I sat on the bed trying to figure if I was given this situation in an acting improvisation what would I do. So I figured, it's a squeaky wheel that gets the grease. I admit it was a loud squeak but I got the idea from a movie I made once called "Don't Bother to Knock". I picked up a light-weight chair and slammed it, and it was hard to do because I had never broken anything in my life -- against the glass intentionally. It took a lot of banging to get even a small piece of glass - so I went over with the glass concealed in my hand and sat quietly on the bed waiting for them to come in. They did, and I said to them "If you are going to treat me like a nut I'll act like a nut". I admit the next thing is corny but I really did it in the movie except it was with a razor blade. I indicated if they didn't let me out I would harm myself -- the furthest thing from my mind at that moment since you know Dr. Greenson I'm an actress and would never intentionally mark or mar myself.
So Monroe found herself in a very bad situation and then came up with a plan to help herself. The Secret Life depicts her as completely helpless, except with the bit about the pill, but it isn't clear at all how spitting out the pill helped her in any way. And please note she wasn't planning to actually cut herself - she was bluffing. And it worked.

Also it's clear that the room Monroe was in wasn't quite so barren, she at least had a chair. And it's doubtful she was ever in a straightjacket. And she wasn't taken from her hotel to the clinic - she signed herself in to what she thought was a standard hospital. It came as a shock to her that she was committed to a mental hospital. And certainly the media didn't know about the incident until she was out of there - there were no radio announcements.

And the screenwriters have no excuse for making shit up - Monroe's letters are available online.

Oh well, better for me and my play. The letter to Greenson jumps all over the place and the timeline of events is not clear so I will definitely have to use my artistic judgement, but I try not to differ from real life if I can help it.

Here's Monroe after her appendectomy.