Fifty years ago on August 5, 1962 in the early morning, housekeeper Eunice Murray discovered the lifeless body of Marilyn Monroe draped across her bed in her Brentwood home in Los Angeles. Near her was an empty bottle that had contained sleeping pills. Fourteen other bottles of medicines and tablets were on the night stand. The Los Angeles County Coroner's office listed Marilyn Monroe's death as a "probable suicide."
My personal memory of Marilyn, far afield from Eunice Murray's terrible discovery, is splendid and dates back to the mid-1950s when I was barely a teenager and lived in the Belnord, the apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Belnord, an Italian Renaissance masterpiece, features two massive, two-story grand archways that provide entrance to an inner courtyard with landscaped gardens. In the garden's midst sits a garland-festooned marble fountain.
In my youth, the Belnord was the home of numerous artists, actors, and writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Zero Mostel, and Lee Strasberg and his wife Paula, daughter Susan, and son John. At the time Marilyn was a student at the Actors Studio run by master teacher and the father of "method acting," Lee Strasberg. I knew the Strasbergs only slightly. But I was intrigued by them.
In the mid 1950s, I was star-struck and addicted to movies and movie magazines. From my second floor bedroom window, I could see the likes of Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, James Dean, Wally Cox, Shelley Winters, and yes, yes, Marilyn. All of them coming to the Belnord to pay homage to their guru, Lee Strasberg.
During this period, I often thought how lucky Susan Strasberg was to have access to Marilyn. The movie magazines reported that they were bosom buddies. I knew Susan slightly. She was older than I and did not deign (understandably) to make me a bosom buddy. Once, however, Susan did invite me into the Strasberg enclave. I remember a sea of books in a rambling apartment and Paula, sitting on the sofa, glasses on the tip of her nose, absorbed in a Modern Screen(a woman after my own heart).
Alas, I only visited the Strasbergs once. Instead, much of the time, I perched at my window. Or I hung out with Sylvester, the building's sterling doorman, who was always happy to see me, even when I made his life miserable as I careened around the courtyard on my Schwinn or slammed a Spaulding against a wall or drew a chalk hopscotch on the courtyard's precious walkway, or, even worse, scaled the large marble fountain. On one occasion, I fell into the fountain -- perhaps three feet of water -- scaring Sylvester, who, saint that he was, rescued me with his long doorman arms. The Catcher in the Belnord!
Sylvester and I had our secrets. During this period, Marilyn was likely the Strasberg's most frequent visitor. But only Sylvester and I knew who she really was. Marilyn arrived in the same outfit: Wrapped in an oversize camel-hair coat, her head swathed in a kerchief, a few sunny ringlets exposed. She wore large dark sunglasses and no makeup and was surprisingly petite. Amazingly, she wasn't exactly ordinary, but she was no goddess. As she passed us, Sylvester tipped his doorman's cap.
"Good afternoon, Miss Monroe," he whispered.
She smiled ever so slightly. This was the ritual, almost every afternoon. Marilyn Monroe was invisible, except, of course, to the cognoscenti.
Then, one balmy evening, something astonishing occurred.
"Today is going to be different," Sylvester reported.
"What's going on?"
"The Strasbergs are having a party," he answered.
At that moment, a Cadillac Eldorado convertible, its top down, rolled into the arch's driveway. Opposite the chauffeur sat Marilyn, not the Marilyn of the camel-hair coat, kerchief and sunglasses. But the Marilyn of myth and movies. Her mouth was slightly open. The breeze ruffled her pale hair and a lock suddenly fell over an eye. The Cadillac stopped and Sylvester tipped his cap and opened the car door. Marilyn stepped out of the car, shimmering in a clingy evening dress that displayed her milky white shoulders and sumptuous hips and bosom. I took a deep breath.
"Good evening, Miss Monroe," Sylvester whispered.
Then, unexpectedly, Sylvester's long arm reached for me. He wanted me to have the moment, too. I stood at his side directly in front of Marilyn. Such a doorman! Marilyn stopped, perhaps for two seconds, and looked me over. A smile that could melt icebergs. Teeth of gleaming porcelain. Then, she turned, and taking small quick steps, she bounced across the courtyard in pure MM style. She looked back at us once. Then she was gone.
When I think of that moment today, I recall the scene in Some Like It Hot when Jack Lemmon first spies Marilyn -- the singer and ukulele-playing Sugar Kane -- sashaying on a railroad platform. Bug-eyed, Lemmon marvels at the sight. "Like Jello on springs," he gushes. And so it was, too, at the Belnord that day. Like Jello on springs.
In less than a decade, she would be dead at 36. Still all is not lost. Fifty years after her death, her memory lives and her films survive. The candle in the wind burns.
Joan Marans Dim, a novelist and historian, is the co-author with artist Antonio Masi of New York's Golden Age of Bridges.
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