By Advocate Contributors
Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2009 3:00 PM ET
The cavernous arena is electric, its walls vibrating with applause one moment, laughter the next. Yet at the end of one of its long hallways and sitting behind a closed door is a woman having an experience all her own. Just minutes earlier, she had breezed through a crowd of onlookers and backstage technicians with a conﬁdent smile and a glamorous way. At this moment, however, while waiting for a drink she’d requested of a stagehand, she seems to shiver with apprehension. “They’re making fun of me,” she tells the young man as he offers her a glass of New York City tap water. “Listen.” But he can’t follow her direction, for he is too taken aback by how her eyes are locked on his . . . how she is talking to him . . . and how she is . . . Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, even though he shook hands with the president of the United States less than an hour ago, this is the moment he will always treasure.
Moments earlier, the woman was an emotional wreck, confused and panicked when she popped her head out of her dressing room to ask him for the favor of a drink. But now she is looking to him for something altogether different. Perspective. Reassurance. Maybe even wisdom. After it’s clear that he is nearly immobilized by her presence, she drops her look of concern and smiles knowingly. After all, he’s just another one, and she knows it—another one of the millions of men who love her. One thing he doesn’t know, however, is something that might surprise him: She loves him back.
By May 19, 1962, Marilyn Monroe had whittled down her circle of close friends to a precious few—or perhaps the circumstances of her life had done it for her. Along the way, there had been many who tried to talk her through her bouts of anxiety or paranoia.
However, their efforts were almost always in vain. Marilyn was
convinced that she knew better. In a heartbreaking catch-22, those
dearest to her would throw up their hands and surrender to her need to
be right—even if what she was correct about was her own misery. Without
anyone left in her world able to lift her from her darkest periods, she
would spend the majority of her time alone . . . thinking—which was, of
course, exactly what kept her in such despair. Therefore, it would
often be in small moments like this one—time spent with a starstruck
stranger rendered speechless in her presence—that she would be reminded
of who she was, and of what was expected of her.
She pushes away from the wall she’s been leaning against and approaches
the young man. Once standing before him, she bends forward, holds his
ears between her palms, and kisses the top of his head. “Thank you,”
she says in a soft voice. “Now I need to get ready.”
he slips out of the room, he notices her moving to a large mirror,
sighing loudly. She begins laughing as he pulls the knob—and then, when
the door clicks shut: silence, again. This strange behavior leaves him
thinking what everyone else backstage that night has been: What is
going on in there? Not just in that dressing room, butinside that
beautiful head of hers.
“Marilyn had practiced so hard for that
performance,” explained her friend Susan Strasberg, “far too much if
you ask me. It was too important to her. All she had to do was sing
‘Happy Birthday.’ Most performers could have done that with their eyes
Marilyn, of course, was not “most performers.” In fact, she wasn’t
even most “people.” Rather, she was a woman waging a speciﬁ c battle
fought by many in the world on a daily basis: mental illness. Her mood
swings and unpredictable behavior were usually viewed by her public as
mere eccentricities incidental to who Marilyn Monroe was as a woman.
Yet the difﬁcult emotional tug-of-war she endured for much of her life,
ignored by almost everyone, may have been her most deﬁning
On this night, however, why would Marilyn, globally recognized as a
major celebrity, think that she was being made fun of? While she had
often wrongly believed in the past that the worst was being thought and
said about her, on this evening she happened to be right. They were
making fun of her.
By this time in her history, gallons of newspaper ink had been used to
describe to the world just who Marilyn Monroe was—that was nothing new.
However, in the weeks leading up to this performance at Madison Square
Garden in New York City, much of that ink was used to explain that she
was, above all, irresponsible. She had been chronically late or
completely absent for the making of her most recent ﬁ lm—a production
from which she would ultimately be ﬁred. The world knew about it and
didn’t care. After all, she was Marilyn Monroe. In the public’s
collective reasoning, she had carte blanche. Those who had been fans
for at least the last decade viewed her mounting unpredictability as a
necessary evil—just one of the things that made Marilyn . . . Marilyn.
However, the truth was that her increasingly troubling behavior was
much more than just a star’s idiosyncrasy, to be joked about over
cocktails. It was a sign that something was terribly wrong with her.
that night, many renowned performers were assembled to celebrate the
birthday of President John F. Kennedy. Frank Sinatra was present, as
were Diahann Carroll, Jack Benny, Henry Fonda, Leontyne Price, and many other luminaries. Each of them took to the
stage to perform after being introduced in a digniﬁed manner.
Marilyn, however, received a very different introduction.
“Mr. President, Marilyn Monroe,” the distinguished British actor Peter Lawford intoned numerous times throughout the evening.
the “gag” of these many introductions was that when her arrival was
announced, the spotlight would swing to the side of the stage and
then—nothing. She wouldn’t appear. Everyone would laugh, of course.
After all, it had become a not-so-inside joke that Marilyn Monroe was a
woman upon whom nobody could depend.
Funny? Not particularly, especially if one took the time to examine just why she had become so unreliable.
had been in on the joke that night, of course, and had even seemed
tickled that her eventual appearance would be teased throughout the
four-hour-long event. Indeed, as had often been the case in Marilyn’s
life, she knew that the public’s expectations of her revolved around
what they thought she lacked, not what she possessed. “Most people
didn’t think of talent when they thought of Marilyn,” Dean Martin once
observed. “They saw this creature who happened to be blessed with the
beauty of a goddess and the brain of a peacock.” However, Marilyn was
no dumb blonde; she was much more intelligent than most people
realized. For years she had used her intellectual abilities to conceal
her most private struggles.
Once again, every ounce of willpower would be brought to bear this
evening in order that the mere mortal could transform herself into the
goddess the world had come to know and love. When Marilyn ﬁ nally took
the stage, the theater erupted into thunderous applause. She was
charismatic, empowered, and, of course, spectacularly beautiful. Peter
Lawford watched her wriggle toward him, her steps restricted to tiny
strides due to her sheer gown’s tightly tailored hem. After delivering
a ﬁnal punch line to the running joke of the evening—“Mr. President,
the late . . . Marilyn Monroe”—he reached toward the star’s ample bosom
and took from her an ermine fur. There she stood, looking almost naked,
wrapped only in her ethereal beauty, shimmering in sequins, beads, and
now, she waited for the crowd’s reaction to wane before she could start
to sing. It didn’t for quite some time. The applause became less
apparent, though, as a low-pitched throng of gasps and cheers came
forth, mostly from the men in attendance. In fact, there was a full
thirty seconds between the moment her outﬁt was revealed and the time
she was able to begin singing. During that time, the audience’s
reaction changed from hoots and hollers to audible mumbles and, ﬁnally,
to smatterings of laughter. She heldher hands at her brow in order to
shield her eyes from the spotlight, maybe hoping to see more clearly
the man of honor—a man she had hoped might one day be more to her than
just her commander in chief. Then, after a particularly loud guffaw
from a man in oneof the ﬁrst few rows, Marilyn’s shoulders dropped and
she sighed audibly. Eventually, deciding not to wait for silence, she
started to sing while the masses continued expressing their reaction.
“Happy birthday . . . to you,” she cooed, her voice a sexy—and maybe
just a tad off-key—whisper. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday . .
. Mr. Pre-si-dent. Happy birthday to you.” The room continued its rowdy
response as she did her best to give her public what it wanted—an
unmistakable and very speciﬁc memory of Marilyn Monroe. Finishing the
ﬁrst chorus, she motioned for the audience to join in—“Everybody! Happy
birthday . . .” The crowd responded to her invitation by taking up the
song and trying to follow her somewhat erratic, arm-waving conducting.
After she ﬁnished her performance, a man approached Marilyn from
behind. While the cameras cut to a birthday cake being wheeled in, she
was escorted from the stage and away from a moment in which she had
wanted to participate: President John F. Kennedy climbing the stairs to
the stage to say a few words of appreciation. Marilyn had wanted to
simply give him a quick peck and then shufﬂe back offstage. Yet there
were many who felt that she was too unpredictable that night, too
erratic. “Yes, there was some anxiety surrounding her appearance,”
recalled Diahann Carroll. “I can’t say that I knew why, or what was
going on. But I do remember a certain level of . . . tension. Some
people were quite . . . edgy.”
backstage, Marilyn heard the president express his gratitude for her
performance. “Now I can retire from politics,” he said, “after having
‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet and wholesome way.” A
couple of months prior, she had told JFK how her ex-husband, Joe
DiMaggio, wanted her to retire from show business to be his wife. Now,
hearing his words, a look of astonishment crossed her face. Later, she
would ask his sister, Pat Kennedy Lawford, if he had made the statement
for her beneﬁt. The reasonable response to her question was most
certainly no. However, at that point, Marilyn’s supply of reason had
been dwindling for quite some time. She had begun living her life in
clearly deﬁned segments of clarity and confusion. For years Marilyn
Monroe had been able to use her craft to perpetuate an illusion.
Indeed, the star that people saw toward the end of her life was but a
shell game—a well-crafted presentation of someone who had disappeared
years ago . . . that is, if she ever really existed.