She belongs to the world in many ways but Marilyn Monroe (nee Norma Jeane Mortenson) was always an L.A. girl. She was born here, lived here, and died here 50 years ago on August 5, but it’s more than that. She’s of L.A., a striver, a creature of reinvention, a fucked-up shattered beauty descended from a mother and grandmother, equally gorgeous and tragic. It all played out here, in the early Los Angeles, the growing urban sprawl full of factories and farms, amid Abbot Kinney’s carnival-like Venice, and in the Hollywood Hills just starting to be colonized by developers. It’s tempting to think of Marilyn arriving in the city at the full glory of her beauty, like Venus on the half shell but draped in red velvet. Yet from Sawtelle Boulevard to Hawthorne to Emerson Junior High, young Norma Jeane began life as a regular working class L.A. kid.
She bounced around this city, a child cast away from her earliest years, living in one foster home after another all around the city. Marilyn was baptized by Aimee Semple McPherson, that dark goddess of the early evangelical movement, as Norma Jeane Baker. Her mother married early and poorly once, then again, meanwhile working as film cutter in the those early darkly lit studios, in rooms thick with chemicals, piecing together someone else’s dreams while wearing white cotton gloves. The film cutting girls had their own freedoms, they were rumored to be flappers. Like Marilyn, her mother seemed to straddle that good girl/bad girl line with ruinous results.
In her new book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, professor Lois Banner shows the bits of brightness in Marilyn’s rough beginnings– an early visit to Catalina, another to Gay’s lion farm in El Monte where old movie lions lived out their days. Her early days also included plenty of trips to Hollywood Boulevard to Sid Grauman’s theaters, both Egyptian and Chinese, to see movies. She was a curly-haired teenaged girl in a car, making out in the dark on Mulholland Drive; then a young bride, working on an aircraft line in Burbank. Later there were photo trips in the Mohave Desert, photo shoots on Zuma Beach. And of course she hung out at Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset, the waiting room of so many careers.
After her star ascended she camped out in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, forced by her celebrity to retreat from the city that created her. She fled to New York City for a time but Hollywood beckoned time and time again. Before her death she resolved to be bicoastal, purchasing at last, a home of her own, a red-roofed Mediterranean home on Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood. As her pill use and erratic behavior spiraled out of control, she was also the woman who wanted to be normal, who was refurbishing her house and spending time at a nursery choosing plants for her garden. She is interred in a Westwood cemetery where, the Huffington Post recently reported, the one remaining crypt left in her row is available for around $250,500.
Monroe’s belongings still have a habit of surfacing in Los Angeles. Some piece of Marilyn ephemera seems to be auctioned off at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills just about every year. These bits of her life, the books she read, her prescriptions, clothing, old documents and personal photos fall into new hands. What would merely old things, perhaps thrown away or forgotten, take on a magical quality simply by having been owned by her. The home in Brentwood where she died has passed from owner to owner, gaining value with each transaction. Each time it hits the market real estate watchers and movie buffs sigh over the listing pictures, imagining what was, and what might have been. The rest of the world can claim her in souvenirs, in posters, on film, but the essence of the woman, the Marilyn of flesh and blood, remains forever in Los Angeles.
Deidre Woollard grew up on Cape Cod and carried on a long distance on and off love affair with Los Angeles since her teen years. She finally committed to the city, eight years ago and never looked back. She worked on a series of now-defunct blogs for AOL including Luxist and Slashfood. She has a Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University and her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. She loves Eagle Rock taco trucks, the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood, and petting every stray cat that crosses her path.