Watching Marilyn, p.22Jack Chapman
It was Marilyn’s sister, Bernice Miracle, let us in with a key she had to the front door.
Under her funeral coat she was wearing worn-out clothes but respectable, made her look like a woman who had to be economical, but well kept, not like she didn’t care. She looked weary, seemed a little in awe of Joe the way she stood aside for him, but she took the lead in being hospitable, assuming a family responsibility for the house. She offered coffee in a southern accent, the kind whatever she said it was always going to sound polite. We followed her into the kitchen, easier than making conversation.
Joe DiMaggio had driven us back to 12305 Fifth Helena in his blue Cadillac with the licence plate JOE D. He had come up to me after the funeral and asked wasn’t I the private eye knocked insensible at Calneva. I told him all sorts of stories flew around but it wasn’t necessary to believe them all. He said you could believe the truth and didn’t I want to know the truth about Marilyn. I asked him what the truth was and he said last will and testamentary evidence about the way her mind was working. On the way back, talking about the past to Bernice who sat next to him in the front of the Cadillac, he had said "She didn't want to give up her career, and that's what I told her was destroying her even then, she couldn’t see that."
Someone had started putting kitchen things in open packing cases, pale yellow Le Creuset cooking pots and a turkey baster in the original cardboard box. The way that house had always felt unfinished the packing cases suited the place. Bernice seemed to know what she was doing with the instant coffee and Joe wasn’t doing much. I wandered back out and down the corridor to the bedroom.
The scent of Chanel 5 was still around the place. They’d stripped off the sheets on the bed where she’d lain. Emptied the wardrobe, jeans folded over the white silk quilted headboard, pair after pair of beige kid evening gloves arranged on the mattress. The dressing table had diamanté earrings and rhinestone brooches shining like the night map of a city under siege from false eyelashes and half-used lipsticks. A collection of white fox-fur stoles had been thrown on the carpet. Lined along the wall were 40 pairs of spike-heeled shoes in every material from pale silk to scarlet sequins, size 7 ½, every pair made by Salvatore Ferragamo.
In the living room my eye was caught by Jack Kerouac's On The Road wedged in an over-full box below the half-emptied bookshelves. I leafed through wondering if this was any inspiration for Ray Charles’s Hit The Road, Jack I’d bought Tommy Junior for his birthday. Kerouac had autographed the fly leaf.
"You want a souvenir?" Joe Di Maggio made me start.
I put the book down, "Just browsing."
"No, I’m serious, you want it, you keep it. You don’t take it then all this stuff goes to that acting coach. And Strasberg’s never gonna read 400 books when he needs all the time he's got to take care of his ego." Joe was tense, holding his emotions back, wanting to target a distraction.
I dug on through the packing case to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, J.D. Salinger, G.B. Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, books on psychology, philosophy, religion. A dog-eared, typewritten diet sheet fell out of a well-used Joy of Cooking, it recommended ending the day with an eggnog, the autopsy hadn’t reported anything like that among the barbiturates. On an inside page of The Hostage Brendan Behan had inscribed 'For Marilyn Monroe, a credit to the human race, mankind in general and womanhood in particular.'
"What do you make of words from a man couldn’t hold his liquor?" Joe asked over my shoulder. I turned to give him my full attention. He said "Marilyn always thought that stuff would improve her mind. It just made her dissatisfied. If she’d ever listened to me I told her to take up golf."
"These all go to Strasberg? You read her will?"
"I got a copy of her will, like I told you."
"You stayed close, Mr Di Maggio?"
"Someone had to. Marilyn always kept close to my parents anyway and they were fond of her whatever happened between the two of us. She needed a family I’d say. She was on the phone to my son just before she died. Giving him advice. He’s getting married soon."
"Were you two planning to remarry?"
"You planning on getting your nose broken?"
"No offence. Only suicide’s not a frequent option of people with plans for the future."
"It was up to her. It was always up to her."
Bernice came in with the coffee. I put down The Hostage I was still holding and took the cup she offered me. Joe chain-smoked his Camels. We all needed something to do with our hands. Bernice went over the white baby grand and started picking out notes like her sister had done one time I was here before.
"She told me your mother bought that piano from Frederic March," I said to Bernice.
"Who’s Frederic March? I believe she got it from an auction. Couldn't have been when Norma Jean was more than eight, mother wasn't around much after then."
"A white grand piano, it’s a crazy thing to give a kid if you’re that poor," Joe said.
"Love always gives strange gifts," I said.
"It used to be black. She had it repainted to match the carpet," Bernice said. She quit tinkling at the keys.
"What happened to your mother? Why did Marilyn always claim she was an orphan?"
Benice got up off the piano stool. "I guess there's no reason to keep secrets any longer," she said. She went out of the room and came back a minute later holding her shabby, capacious handbag and the photograph of the old woman with sunken cheeks that Marilyn had kept on the bedside table. She handed the framed portrait to me while she rummaged in the bag and took out a second, smaller picture which she kept hold of for the time being. "That’s her, Mrs Gladys Baker, our mother."
I looked from the portrait to Bernice and back and remembered Marilyn's transcendent beauty. Bernice was older than her half-sister, in her forties, never pampered by the likes of Sol Marx, maybe older now even than her mother was in the photograph, and neither mother nor first daughter would in past, present or future inspire great carnality. She had struck me as very ordinary but you could see resemblances, the line of female inheritance, the same bones and widow’s peak hair. Somewhere between the faces of these three women was whatever secret changes human clay into a luminous angel.
I took the photograph from Bernice. "What happened to her? When did your mother really die?"
"Gladys isn’t dead. Everyone tries to keep her hidden. It wasn’t right to bring her to the funeral. She’s been in mental institutions pretty much all the time since Norma Jean was eight. Mostly Agnews State Hospital down in San Jose. I was already sent to my daddy's kin back east which wasn't an option for Norma Jean since she never knew hers. I guess my kin must have known what was going on but at the time they kept it from me. Thought I was too young to understand and didn't want to upset me I guess. Gladys was never talked about and she never made any effort at contact. So my little sister, I didn't even know I had, went to a string of foster folk and in-between to the orphanage. That piano had to be sold of course after mother was committed to the asylum. Norma Jean told me she bought it back with her very first earnings from 20th Century-Fox."
I looked at the photograph of the staring woman again, remembering Sol had told me Marilyn’s maternal grandmother Della May Monroe had died in a straitjacket in Norwalk State Hospital. It would be undiplomatic to ask Bernice if insanity ran in the family.
"It sounds to me like neither of you had much reason to appreciate the woman. Why did Marilyn keep this?"
"I guess you can have feelings for an idea, even if the reality never lives up to what you need."
I handed her crazy mother's framed picture back to her. In return Bernice passed over the other photo she'd been holding onto, the one she’d taken out of her handbag.
It was an expensive, studio portrait in a cheap cardboard frame. I looked and knew but I asked anyway, "Marilyn?"
"God, she was a sweet kid. Shy, she’d stammer 'till she knew you
"She stay with you?"
"Just for a few weeks. We got on real well, but then she pined to come back here. All her roots were in Los Angeles. She sent me that picture when she got back, I always kept it in our album, I brought it with me, didn’t know who I thought I would show it to, I thought someone might ....?" She shrugged, desperate to prove her family had once existed.
The child in the glossy, black and white print looked like a film star even then. Lipstick, make-up, striking a magazine pose she must have studied in front of a mirror and knowing which side the light was from. I wondered how come a few years later she turned into a church mouse housewife for Jimmy Dougherty. Then into the girl with bad posture that Mitchum had described who by accident fell straight out of a factory job into a photo model contract. She'd always been an actress, she could be anything. Maybe that was what her life was about - always being whatever other people wanted.
"You want to see them, Joe?" Bernice Miracle asked. Joe had gone quiet but his presence still loomed in the room, that kind of contained power. I’d never much followed baseball but I could guess why Reagan admired the man.
Joe took the picture and studied it, turned it from side to side as if it would change the carefully posed profile, shook his head, "Don't make sense to me. Just a little girl. Someone or other was grooming her all her life. Maybe herself. You see this photograph, there’s only one thing she was growing up to be and she was growing up fast."
"There are stories she was plain when she was younger," I said.
"People change," Bernice said. "But she was never plain. That just isn’t true."
"How the hell could she be plain?" Di Maggio asked forcefully.
"Norma didn't change. Leastways not from the age of 12. She kept the same dream and just married different men." Bernice glanced up at DiMaggio. "Sorry, Joe."
"I know what she was like."
"All I can say is what sort of person I knew. We always stayed in touch, letters and such, except she was never one for Christmas cards in those days with her last foster folk being strong Christian Scientists. No medication either, they don't believe in pills or sleeping potions in any way or form. If she'd kept her faith we wouldn't be here." She looked at DiMaggio for a moment like she was wondering if it was his fault, but even family could see a man less dissolute than Joe would be hard to find. Bernice went on, needing to get it all out of her system, "When she was 18 she came to visit me and my husband again. We'd moved to Detroit temporarily for work reasons. By then she was taller than me. Still stammered. But not plain. I was so happy and proud of her. She was so young and beautiful."
"Be true to her," Di Maggio instructed. "That’s all I want." He handed the photograph back to Bernice.
"She ever talk to you about the early days? About James Dougherty?" I asked Di Maggio.
"She never talked about anything outside of show business."
Bernice Miracle looked at her photograph of a young girl playing at being a glamorous woman. "She told me she sat at the window of the LA orphanage every night and in the distance she could see the RKO studio in Hollywood. She said ‘There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, but I'm not going to worry about them, I'm dreaming the hardest’. Later on after she turned 16 she used to write letters about how much she was in love with Jimmy, how married life was so good despite she was working 10 hours a day at the Radio Plane factory, saving so they could get a little place of their own. They were real lovebirds. That was before she got successful. I never really saw her that much, living the other side of the country the way we did, but she sounded real happy in those letters. Like life was good to her. I wish I knew what happened."
"Yank magazine turned up at Radio Plane and discovered her," I said.
"Oh no, it was an Army photographer first discovered her, the war was still on and they needed pictures of the Home Front, especially pretty girls for the troop’s morale. She told me it was the 1st Motion Picture Unit that went to the plant, they were based in Hollywood and she was so excited because a lot of stars like Clark Gable belonged to it and the Commanding Officer was Captain Ronald Reagan."
I considered that. "Fate and coincidence. Links in a chain."
"She don't do much good by you, Bernice." Joe shrugged apologetically and handed her an envelope made from paper so thick it was almost cardboard. "You’d better see what’s she put in her will."
"Her last will and testament?" I asked. "You the executor?"
Joe shook his head.
"The how'd you get hold of it?" Professional curiosity.
"One of her New York lawyers." Joe shrugged again, knowing he was the kind of man where lawyers were happy to take lenient views of executors’ confidentiality.
Bernice opened it and took out some sheets of paper, also of substantial weight, and held together with a brass fastener. She read through slowly.
"That’s nice, Joe, she remembered me first. And she took care to look after Mother."
"She ought to have done more. You're family. I’m sorry."
"We never could be all that much of a family the way things were."
"Mind if I look?"
Bernice glanced across to check with DiMaggio then handed the paper to me.
I read the first line of the typewritten document, it started:
I, Marilyn Monroe, do make, publish and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament.
I skipped to the second page and checked the signatures and the date. Like Joe said it was drawn up by New York attorneys, it was dated 14 January, 1961.
"January last year. That was when her divorce from Miller came through," said Di Maggio in explanation. "One of the things you learn from a divorce, you need to change your will."
"January fourteenth must have been around three days before the Bay of Pigs," I said.
Di Maggio frowned like I was being flippant. Bernice asked "What's that got to do with anything?"
I shook my head and began reading the document through from the beginning.
The first bequest in Marilyn's will was the sum of ten thousand dollars to her sister Bernice Miracle. It was good to be remembered first and it sounded a lot of money to me and my creditors and from the look of her it sounded a lot of money to Bernice, but not generous when in the next clause someone called May Reis got fifty thousand.
Five thousand went to a couple called Norman and Hedda Rosten. Bernice had never heard of them but Joe believed Rosten was some poet Marilyn had known since the days she’d been called Norma, he remembered her mentioning the similarity between Norma and Norman, making it important as if it had some poetic significance.
The next was another puzzle. She'd left the entirety of her personal effects, dresses and lingerie as well as all the books, pots and kitchen pans and gym equipment, to the acting coach Lee Strasberg, the New Yorker who’d delivered the oration at her funeral.
I glanced at Joe and Bernice thinking both might have liked some personal item to remember her by. "This Strasberg wear women's clothes?" It was an easy remark but it gave me a moment and I’d noticed at the Westwood memorial park he wasn’t the type to value gym equipment.
"He’d never get his fat head through the neck," said Joe. "Read on,"
A memory had come of the whisper of silk, of the heavy breeze of perfume carried on slivers of moonlight that first time I'd been to 12305 Fifth Helena. It was empty now inside the dark, silent wardrobe. With much reluctance I came back to the document.
The clauses started to get more complicated as Marilyn’s whims ran out and the lawyers took over. A trust fund of a hundred thousand dollars was set up in substantial legal technicalities for the maintenance and support of Gladys Baker.
"I don't think it's affected her. She's still crazy."
The final part of the will disposed of the residuals. Whatever was left after the specific bequests was to be split 25/75 between a Dr Marianne Kris and again the acting coach, Lee Strasberg.
"You know this Kris?"
"That was her New York shrink at the time she drew up the will," Joe said. "She rented couch space on both coasts. It was Strasberg who introduced her to psychoanalysis. Look where it left her."
"Any idea how much she was worth in total?"
"I probably got a better idea than she did. She never took care of her business affairs. She could be irresponsible in some ways."
I refrained from asking if pouring pills down her throat was one of them. "So?"
"I was wondering about Strasberg, the guy who’s already got all the clothes, why he gets a second mention here, how significant that is."
"What you got earlier is the possessions in the public domain. The accounts that describe the estate residue are something else."
"Only in my line of business if anyone suspects foul play the case is strengthened with a motive. Money, love or hate. Money talks loudest."
Joe shook his head. His lean, dark face looked like a wooden Indian.
"I don't guess it matters any more. I'll save you some arithmetic. The bottom line is Lee Strasberg inherits over a million dollars of Marilyn's money."
Bernice looked like she didn’t understand how her baby sister the movie star could have that much to give away. "I went through this house when I was cleaning up and tidying after the police. All she had here was just three dollars fifty cents."
"She was worth over a million, Joe repeated.
Bernice shook her head. "She should have remembered Mona Rae at least." She looked at me wistfully, "I’ve got a daughter. I guess Norma Jean didn't have the time to be an aunt."
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes