Tuesday, October 02, 2012

marilyn, joe, and the seven year itch

Here's another essay from the longer-format piece I'm working on about Marilyn Monroe.

In The Seven Year Itch Marilyn Monroe played The Girl, the object of fantasy for Tom Ewell. A character with no known (to the audience or Ewell) name. It didn't matter. A tad ironic, considering how her name, her many names, played such an important part in who she became.

Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Norma Jean Baker as she was also known, is frequently presented as if she was a completely different person from Marilyn Monroe — as Marilyn's alter ego. But Marilyn never really changed from the girl she was before she became a movie star. She was born with an identity crisis. Who was her father? Her mother Gladys Baker wasn't even sure, or at least she never said so definitively. She was separated from her second husband, Martin Mortensen, but soon changed Norma Jeane's surname to that of her first husband, Baker. Gladys was having an affair with fellow Consolidated Film Industries employee Charles Stanley Gifford, who is thought to be Marilyn's biological father. Gladys chose, probably for legitimacy's sake, to use her current husband's name on Marilyn's birth certificate. Except she spelled the last name wrong — Mortenson instead of Mortensen. How could her daughter not be confused about her murky origins.

Norma Jeane spent her childhood with practically nothing of her own, being shuttled through a series of foster homes from babyhood. A child who had trouble being noticed, one of many in a household of foster children, she grew up wanting to be adored, like the movie stars she idolized: Jean Harlow, Alice Faye, and Katherine Hepburn. She spent hours at the movies, the films acting as a sort of babysitter, while her guardians worked. From early childhood, inspired by her mother's job as a negative film cutter at Consolidated Film Industries and her family friend Grace McKee, who became her legal guardian when Gladys was institutionalized, Norma Jeane was encouraged to become not just an actress, but a star. Grace had some unrealized fantasies of stardom of her own, and endlessly promoted the young girl's dreams of becoming a movie star.

Norma Jeane Dougherty, 1945
Norma Jeane had an unfortunate youth, but she didn't want to escape it by getting married. But when Grace remarried and was preparing to move from California to Virginia, she tried to solve the "problem" of what to do with Norma Jeane, how to keep her from going back to the orphanage, by marrying her off at the age of 16 to a local neighbor, Jim Dougherty. The marriage was doomed from the start, with a reluctant groom who was always away in the Merchant Marine, and a bored Norma Jeane with major abandonment issues. While Jim was away, Norma Jeane worked at the Radioplane Munitions factory in Van Nuys, where she was soon discovered by U.S. Army photographer David Conover, who had been assigned to take some morale-boosting photographs for the Army's magazine, Yank. He urged her to pursue modeling. The young girl wasted no time in following his advice, seeing modeling as a road to acting, and more importantly, as an escape from the humdrum life of a teenage housewife. Norma Jeane was never cut out to be a housewife.

The marriage was dissolved and Norma Jeane began to model full-time, sometimes using the name Jean Norman. When she finally got a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox she was urged to changed her name from Norma Jeane Dougherty. Her grandmother's maiden name was Monroe, and something alliterative was suggested— she became Marilyn. But The Girl wasn't done changing. She had already lightened her hair color, as blondes got more modeling work than brunettes, but she was told to alter her hairline, raising it a bit. And then to make some slight improvements to her chin and nose. She was willing to do whatever it took. She knew that starlets were a dime a dozen and could be dropped at any moment. And Marilyn wanted, needed, to become a star.
"I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful"
Nothing ever came easily to Marilyn. Her road to stardom started, then stalled, and at times seemed in reverse. She was hired by Twentieth Century-Fox, only appearing in bit parts, and then dropped. She then was hired by Columbia, who dropped her when her six-moth contract was up. After a walk-on role in the Marx Brothers' Love Happy she caught the attention of Hollywood agent Johnny Hyde, who helped get her into two great movies, The Asphalt Jungle, where she impressively played the very young girlfriend of  Louis Calhern; and as starlet-on-the-rise Miss Casswell, a "student of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art," in All About Eve. Hyde was able to persuade Fox to not only rehire her but sign her to a seven-year contract.

Marilyn finally began to get steady work, appearing in mostly comedies until her breakthrough role in the noir-ish Niagara, costarring Joseph Cotten. It was around this time, in 1952, that she was also introduced to one of the most famous men in America, retired Yankee Joe DiMaggio, who had asked to meet her after seeing a publicity photo of her trying to hit a baseball.
"I was surprised to be so crazy about Joe. I expected a flashy New York sports type, and instead I met this reserved guy who didn't make a pass at me right away! He treated me like something special. Joe is a very decent man, and he makes other people feel decent, too."
They were soon an item. Marilyn and Joe's romance was documented by photographers in ways that would make modern paparazzi blush. They were the original "It" couple. There are many who still romanticize their "perfect" union. The truth, and their relationship, was of course much more complicated. They may have been great as lovers, even friends, together, but marriage was something neither of them were well-suited for. But their attraction for one another was instantaneous.

Joe and Marilyn with Cary Grant, Marilyn's costar in Monkey Business, 1952
In Canada during the filming of River of No Return
Marilyn was not a sports fan and may have not known who Yankee Joe DiMaggio was before they met, but clearly Joe really didn't know who she was, either. How else to explain how he might have ever entertained the fantasy that she would settle down to become the perfect housewife. Their pairing may still fascinate many today because it is so puzzling. Joe met her in 1952 and dated her for two years before they married. Marilyn was at the height of her career, with films Niagara, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and How to Marry A Millionaire propelling her to the forefront of Hollywood. She agreed to marry him in 1954.
Newly married Norma Jeane DiMaggio's passport
The Girl, the number one female star in the world, may have been on top of the world, but she was still in the throes of an identity crisis. Once she was married to Joe (and gained yet another name, Norma Jeane DiMaggio), she had to contend with his fantasy of the sort of wife he wanted her to be. How could the Yankee slugger who had resisted retirement convinced himself that Marilyn would give up her Hollywood life to become a hausfrau in his preferred city of San Francisco at the pinnacle of her fame? After years of struggling to get small parts, Marilyn was finally a favorite of the bigwigs at the studio, and most importantly, the public. Joe wanted her to walk away from that? Not on her life. The real Marilyn was neither The Girl the world fantasized about, nor the wife Joe DiMaggio thought she should be. She was a complicated woman who wanted more from her career and her life.

The "It" couple of the mid-1950s
Joe and Marilyn on the town
Joe became increasingly uncomfortable with Hollywood and Marilyn's part in it. He was disgusted by the revealing outfits she wore to premieres, the endless publicity cheesecake shots she was always willing to do. The couple struggled from the start of their marriage, but the crowning blow came during the infamous night shoot of The Seven Year Itch, where The Girl stands over a subway grate on a hot New York City night with costar Tom Ewell and the breeze from the underground train lifts her skirt skyward. Director Billy Wilder's publicity stunt of filming the scene on the street at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue (the scene that was ultimately used in the movie was filmed on a soundstage) sent Joe round the bend. The public display may have enraged DiMaggio, but probably what was hardest for the Yankee Clipper to take was that Marilyn didn't belong only to him. She belonged to her public, and she loved that. That night in 1954 Joe had a rude awakening.

There are some (unsubstantiated) reports that he dealt with his frustrations by batting her around. Marilyn may have endured that, but what she couldn't and didn't tolerate was his insistence that she give up her career. Joe didn't realize what Marilyn had gone through to become Marilyn.
Marilyn, "I didn't want to give up my career, and that's what Joe wanted me to do most of all." 
Joe, "It’s no fun being married to an electric light."
When the New York location shooting of The Seven Year Itch was over, so, for the most part, was the nine month-long marriage. Joe didn't like failure, so their break-up must have been especially hard for him to take. Joe and Marilyn may have failed as a married couple, but their bond was strong, and they stayed close through the years. Joe was always someone Marilyn could rely on. He wasn't a hanger-on. He was one of the few people in her life that didn't want to suck off of her star persona. He went into therapy (possibly influenced by Marilyn) and seemed to mellow in many of his views. One of the most well-known stories of their post-divorce relationship was when Joe rescued Marilyn from the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. Marilyn, distraught after the filming of The Misfits and the dissolution of her third marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, thought she was going into the hospital for a rest cure. But her psychiatrist, Dr. Marianne Kris had her committed to the psychiatric ward. Marilyn reached out to Lee Strasberg to no avail. It was Joe who responded to her call for help.
Marilyn joined Joe in Florida for some much-needed R&R
Would Marilyn and Joe have gotten back together, even married? There are many who claim that they were planning to do just that, but Joe never said so and we will never know. It probably would have been foolish for them to remarry, but they did seem to need to be in each other's lives. After Marilyn died, Joe arranged for a dozen red roses to be sent regularly to her grave. Joe DiMaggio never remarried. The Girl was gone.

Joe sent Marilyn a birthday telegram on June1, 1962
An unfinished letter from Marilyn to Joe, found in her house after her death

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