Rarely has a book about Marilyn Monroe been more maddening than Elizabeth Winder’s “Marilyn in Manhattan.” And the steepness of the competition would daunt an Alpine climber. Winder has found a premise just good enough to pique a little curiosity: Was the year Monroe spent in Manhattan (roughly 1955) really “Her Year of Joy,” as this book’s subtitle brands it? Winder has sloppily crafted an answer to suit her own question.
This book might aspire to be like Sam Wasson’s enchanting “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” a close look at the making of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and a short, sweet groundbreaker for Hollywood historians. And zeroing in on a limited period can certainly reward close attention. Winder has tried this before, in “Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.” That previous book reveals that the glamour-girl-visiting-Manhattan idea has personal appeal for Winder, and that she, like Plath, identifies as a poet. In Winder’s case, that just means poetic license: “Marlon Brando was the type to stick a bottle of Chianti in his back pocket, whisk you away on his motorcycle, and carry you up to his lair lit with pyramids of orange incense and candles stuck in Coca-Cola bottles.”
“Marilyn in Manhattan” takes off from the true, hardly undocumented fact that Monroe came to New York in December 1954 after burning bridges with 20th Century Fox, her husband Joe DiMaggio, and a movie industry that wanted to see her forever trapped in sexpot roles when her own ambitions were arguably more serious. She came to New York, home of the Actors Studio and trees without leaves. She formed her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, with photographer Milton H. Greene, whose pictures of her are among the most beautiful ever taken.
She hid out in Connecticut with the Greene family for a while, then found several other foster families in the city before her New York idyll was over. She played with puppies and children. She went without makeup. She drank constantly. She read Russian novels and maintained her crush on Abraham Lincoln. She became close to Arthur Miller, who had resisted her years earlier. This time he fell hard, decided to marry her, left his children and wife.
So far, there’s nothing wrong with this – and nothing particularly right with it either. But consider Winder’s sourcing. Most of her anecdotes are either unattributed or ascribed to Kindle editions of recent books, with no page numbers given. Movie magazines from the 1950s are taken seriously. She relied in part on “the informative website everlasting-star.net,” which is a fan site that says: “90 percent of this site focuses on Marilyn Monroe’s image and nothing else,” directing anyone interested in facts to a link that is out of service.
Why read an author who’s not willing to annotate her best quotations for readers who’d like to pursue them? Would it be for Winder’s prose? (“Who was this warm-blooded space creature who lugged around dictionaries, spoke like a drugged-up puppy and looked like a French pastry?”) We do not lack for writers who have enjoyed going overboard where Monroe is concerned – although Winder mostly overlooks one of the most prominent, Norman Mailer (she says she did visit the Norman Mailer collection but doesn’t make serious use of her research).
The factoids? It’s already known, to anyone who cares, that Monroe put Vaseline on her cheekbones and sewed marbles into her costumes where her nipples should be.
The possible errors? Did Monroe really eat “lone liver chops broiled in hotel kitchenettes”? Are there liver chops or is this just chopped liver?
The questionable names? Winder has the media tycoon “Leo Lyons” holding court at the 21 Club along with his fellow gossip columnist Earl Wilson. She’s probably talking about Leonard Lyons, and the only reason this matters is that it’s more filler in a book that’s very slight to begin with.
The bulk of what’s here is a strangely culled, often repetitive set of anecdotes from only a few easily obtainable books that most Marilyn fans probably know about. Winder leans heavily on books by Shelley Winters, Susan Strasberg, Norman Rosten and James Haspiel, as well as filmed interviews with Amy Greene (Milton Greene’s widow) and Jack Garfein of the Actors Studio.
Garfein speaks more candidly than anyone else quoted, because he addresses the elephant in the room: How did Marilyn, during this year of childlike innocence, deal with the various men whose families she had dropped into? Not as naively as most of “Marilyn in Manhattan” makes it sound. Winder, perhaps mad for Marilyn, doesn’t seem to want to confront the household problems she might have created.
Garfein describes a Marilyn who never intended to make trouble but wasn’t willing to give up flirting, either. She invited him shopping, saying she’d heard he was good at choosing women’s clothes, then dared him to hold hands with her in a coffee shop. He was wary: Marilyn could go largely unnoticed or make tabloid front pages, and it was hard to predict which would happen when. She ended up walking him home, and he “had a sense that if I wanted to invite her upstairs she probably would have come.” He went upstairs alone.
“She laughed, because she knew that there was a conflict and she was enjoying it,” Garfein said. And there was a New York ambiguity, a sense of power, that she hadn’t had in Hollywood. That’s the joy and freedom this book seems to be after, and it comes through much more clearly in Garfein’s understated anecdote than in Winder’s hot air and specious detail.
Marilyn Monroe wanted to get away from her movie stardom. She managed it for a while, though not without a cadre of protective men. Then the hiatus ended, and she went back to the movie world she hated. Thanks to New York she had become a more seasoned actress and a stronger person. But by then she was doomed anyway.
Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy
By Elizabeth Winder
Illustrated. 283 pages. Flatiron. $27.99.