I said as much the other day to an Englishman who was filming a retrospective documentary about Hollywood's ultimate Love Goddess, and instantly felt sorry I had spoken. He assumed I was gossiping. In fact, I was making one of those jokes that subvert a difficult emotion. Yet I was also telling the truth. We were in her suite at—but I'm getting ahead of my story.
Back in 1955, Marilyn had reached a crisis in her life and career. The movie moguls saw her as a prime piece of salable meat. Marilyn fiercely insisted that she was an actress and demanded a chance to act. To reviewers it seemed inconceivable that a bird of such glitzy feather could have anything more than a bird brain, and when she said she wanted to play Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov, Hollywood horse-laughed. One film critic declared he would prefer to experience a nuclear holocaust.
During this period I was TIME magazine's movie reviewer, and when my editors asked me to write a cover story about Marilyn I told a friend, with a somewhat disingenuous sigh of condescension, that I really didn't look forward to letting the air out of a bubble head. At the same time, however, I caught myself wondering if I should go out and buy a new outfit to wear to the interview I had set up.
I got a healthy shock the first time I saw Marilyn. I walked unannounced onto the set of Bus Stop, the movie she was shooting, and watched her deliver a three-minute monologue that startled me with its fire and sensitivity.
Twenty minutes later, when we were introduced in her dressing room, I got a second shock. Stripped of makeup, Marilyn had dwindled to a sallow vestige of the luminous being I had seen in performance. Her hair was dry and coarse, her skin large-pored and lifeless, her eyes bulging and blank. What's more, the famous anatomic bomb was swaddled in a baggy blouse and floppy tan culottes. Only her forearms were exposed, and they were covered with thick blond hair. Standing there in my sexy new suit, I heard fantasies exploding in my head like little pink balloons.
We started our interview in the parlor of Marilyn's suite at the Château Marmont. She had changed into a pair of snug slacks that revealed what the culottes had concealed. I have rarely seen a woman so disturbingly endowed. "Brad," Marilyn said all at once, looking me straight in the eye, "do you mind if we go into the bedroom?" My heart lurched! But in the next split second, Marilyn casually set me straight. "I'm completely exhausted," she said in a flat, matter-of-fact voice. "It would help if I could talk lying down." In a flat, matter-of-fact voice I said: "Absolutely."
She lay with her head at one end of the bed, I lay with my head at the other, and for the next 10 hours we talked. I must have asked her a thousand questions, and she answered them with eloquence, taste, flickers of irony, flashes of passion and a subtle feminine intelligence that again and again made me feel blunt and clumsy. I came away half in love with her.
A week later we had another 10-hour marathon. I telephoned from New York to tell her I now knew that she had lied when she said her mother had died and left her to be raised by an aunt. I said I knew that her mother was still alive, that she was confined in a mental institution and that Marilyn had been raised in foster homes. Terrified that her mother would be found and badgered by interviewers, Marilyn said that if I would withhold the name of the institution she herself would tell me the true story of her childhood. I agreed.
Out it came for the first time, the whole hideous mess: the foster homes, the religious sadists who threatened her with hellfire, the child molester who raped her when she was 6. Simply to remember was agony for Marilyn. Sometimes she was racked with sobs; sometimes she choked on anger and disgust. Sometimes tears filled my eyes too. When at last we said good-bye, I told her I hoped she would be happy. I wish I could believe she ever really was.
I once spent 10 hours in bed with Marilyn Monroe.