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BWW Reviews: FRAGMENTS Tantalizes


"June 1, 1926: Birth of Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles, third child of Gladys Pearl Baker, born Monroe, of unknown father. The baby was immediately placed in a foster home, first of all with the Bolenders and then with various other families. Sometimes Grace Goddard, one of her mother's friends, looked after her."--First entry in the "Chronology" of Fragments.

"On the screen of pitch blackness comes/reappears the shapes of the monsters"--Marilyn Monroe

The basic premise of Fragments--a collection of Marilyn Monroe's writings that ranges from bits of poetry and thoughts on psychoanalysis to rehearsed answers for upcoming interviews and favorite recipes (all complete with cross outs and noodlings)--is that the "mind of Marilyn" was, by definition, an interesting place to be.

Granting that Marilyn's mind, like anyone's, was more interesting on some occasions than others, this premise proves more entertaining in its execution than one might have a right to expect.

Having taken a journey through her tormented life that consists entirely of her own take on it (with occasional explanatory notes from the editors to keep readers oriented as to just where she was in that journey), I can say she was not terribly interested in what the world was/is interested in, which is: "Why is she a source of such eternal fascination?"

That fascination may not be universal but it's something close to it, and it's a phenomenon that can't be entirely explained by her considerable talents as actress, dancer, singer or even by her unworldly genius for still photography (a field in which, as this volume both notes and proves, she has no near rival).

It can't even be explained by the mysterious nature of her death, or the possibility that her final act of genius--entirely perverse, entirely speculative and entirely likely--was to introduce the world to a notion of celebrity suicide (an idea so shocking in its time that it also made "mystery death" a thriving cottage industry) that has become a constant cultural touchstone in the dreary decades since.

So the best question to ask about a book like this one may not be whether it shines any new light on her fragile psyche (on that score, I think we've probably long since peered as deeply into the shadows as we're ever likely to do), but whether she had some awareness of the hold she would have on the future.

All I can say to that, is, if she did have such awareness, she didn't see fit to write it down.

Which is maybe not unusual or unexpected, given that this collection convincingly demonstrates she clearly lived in the moment. Yes, there are contemplative elements, especially in the correspondence with her various shrinks and her long time acting coach, Lee Strasberg. But what this volume soon makes clear is that when a woman is dealing with demons so omnipresent they hover over something as simple and mundane as copying out a recipe, it's not likely she'll have time for anything but the present.

So what finally pulls this odd collection along, and gives it an unlikely coherence, is the sense that something might be hiding between the lines--that if we just stare at those shadows long enough, the mystery of her fundamental unhappiness (the kind of unhappiness that allows fame and fortune to be platforms, not for security or fulfillment, but for self loathing and ultimate destruction) might finally emerge with the clarity we expect at the end of a good whodunit.

Alas, those seeking such clarity, or for juicy insights on Monroe's relationships with the Kennedys or the Rat Pack or the Underworld, should be advised to look elsewhere. The elements that have titillated and fueled history-as-gossip and gossip-as-history for decades are hardly present here.

What is present, on every single page, including the glorious and copius photographs, is a troubled woman who flirted with disaster for so long that the only real mysteries--also unsolved in these pages which instead bring us in closer touch with Marilyn's own concerns--are how she managed to dodge her grim fate for so long...and whether she knew the worst of us far, far better than we will ever know the magical best of her.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)