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Why Marilyn Monroe 'wasn't just a dumb blonde'

The late screen-icon played the part of a bubble-head in Terry Johnson’s play ‘Insignificance’, in which she demonstrates her understanding of the theory of relativity to “Albert Einstein”, so well that people convincingly mistook it for the truth. It is not the first time that a star has been hijacked by the women’s groups and exploited for propaganda.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

It wasn’t so long ago that Doris Day became a poster girl for second-generation feminists decades after she played a fluffy virgin attempting to escape the clutches of seducer Rock Hudson. But Marilyn is different. As depicted by Lois Banner in her new book ‘The Passion And The Paradox’ and by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, she is a woman who lacked education but possessed enough native intelligence to want to improve herself.

She associated with people who were better read than she was and amassed 400 books. As Dowd has written: “Marilyn Monroe aspired to be smarter than she was.” It is the evidence of this aspiration that marks her out. Of course, it is possible to overstate the case, to portray Marilyn as a closet intellectual, but this would be to peddle a fantasy just as vacuous as that of the dumb blonde.

“There was a whole lot of laughable revisionist history going on regarding Monroe’s intellect in the years following her tragic death. The woman may have tried to learn and expand her horizons but to suddenly pretend she was some great, deep and insightful thinker is simply ludicrous,” the Daily Express quoted one blogger as writing on a fan website.

Yet, she was an intellectual wannabe and probably imagined that by associating with intellectuals some of their “smarts” might rub off on her. If that could be achieved through sex, so be it. Edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, ‘Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters By Marilyn Monroe’, gives some insight into her literacy and state of mind.

Although she was often asked by photographers to pose with a book as if “suddenly” caught in the act of reading James Joyce or Dostoyevsky, they were more than just props. She was reading them. “We worked on a beach on Long Island,” photographer Eve Arnold wrote. “I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up… She kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time.

She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it but she found it hard going… When we stopped at a local playground to photograph, she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her,” Arnold wrote. In her diary and poems, Marilyn reveals a young woman for whom writing was the means to discover who she was and understand her turbulent emotional life.

Not that she got any credit for her intellect. Michelle Morgan, who wrote Marilyn Monroe: Private And Undisclosed, said: “She played ditzy blondes and for some reason people believed that was the person she was but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s intriguing that she seems to be one of the only actresses who people confuse with her parts. People believed she was a joke but she was always trying to better herself.”

Marilyn had an IQ of 163 and at a lunch thrown for Dinesen by novelist Carson McCullers she was described as “gay and witty in this company, easily holding her own”. She was friends with Capote and met novelist Bellow, who wrote that she “conducts herself like a philosopher. She was connected with a very powerful current but couldn’t disconnect herself from it.”

But she was also an astute businesswoman and had a production company. She bought the film rights to two plays, Bus Stop and The Sleeping Prince (later The Prince And The Showgirl). Marilyn was dyslexic and bipolar yet she was not unaware of her problems and explored psychoanalysis. But whatever demons haunted her, the spirit of intellectual enquiry never abandoned her.

“When she wasn’t an expert on a subject but wanted to be, she got hold of someone and picked their brains… She collected experts, one on the stock market, one on poetry, one on the world situation,” Susan Strasberg, daughter of her acting coach Lee Strasberg, said.

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