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      THE INTELLIGENCE AND BOLD ACTIVISM OF MARLYN MONROE by Kathryn Sheneman

      b23 21Women in theater, as in most professions, have long had poor representation and precious little respect for their intelligence. Although an unforgettable icon of theater, the hype around Marilyn Monroe as flaky and overly sexualized, plus the sad and unclear circumstances of her early death at age 36 in 1962 tends to sell her short and overshadow a more nuanced perspective of this actor.

      As an example of Monroe’s sense of responsibility and doing for others, after her risqué pinup photos became popular with our soldiers, Monroe cut her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio short to visit our troops in Korea. She developed pneumonia after performing ten shows in four days all in freezing cold weather.

      Additionally, Monroe quite publicly and at great risk to herself displayed loyalty to Arthur Miller. Miller had been indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to reveal names of persons involved with the Communist party. Monroe’s open loyalty kept Miller out of jail, although it meant that the FBI opened a file on Monroe herself.

      And Monroe was an activist for civil rights. She attended rallies protesting the anti-Communist fervor and was chastised for reading radical books. She stated that her “nightmare” was the H-bomb and she joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

      Monroe was incredibly generous; with friends, with children, with child-focused charities such as the Milk Fund for Babies and The March of Dimes.

      But the story that really resonates, particularly in light of our current confrontation with racial divisions and disparity truly illustrates what a smart and strategic, as well as good and forward thinking an individual Monroe was, bent on interrupting racist stereotyping. When once asked about her own favorite singers, Monroe responded, “Well, my very favorite person, and I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she’s the greatest, and that’s Ella Fitzgerald.” The two had the sad commonality of traumatic childhoods. Monroe never knew her father and her mother was mentally unstable. Monroe was sexually abused when she lived in various homes through her childhood. Fitzgerald’s life fell into disarray at 15 when her mother died, leaving her with an abusive stepfather and then relatives. She landed in reform school where she was all but tortured.

      In the 1950s, Fitzgerald’s voice enthralled. But she could not make an entrance into better clubs, even those that did regularly hire African American performers, because she was heavyset and considered unspectacular. Around the same time, Monroe’s voice coach had recommended she listen to recordings by Ella Fitzgerald in order to improve her own singing. Monroe spent hours listening to Fitzgerald’s voice. After Monroe saw Fitzgerald perform in person in 1954, the two became friends. Monroe learned that the famous Los Angeles nightclub, Mocambo, would not sign Fitzgerald on. Monroe decided to help. The club’s owner thought Fitzgerald lacked the glamour to draw in crowds. Monroe proposed to him that if he booked Fitzgerald, she would position herself there every night in the front of the house and bring along other celebrities. Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland were among the celebrities who joined Monroe, but all that firepower proved unnecessary. Fitzgerald’s shows sold out regardless. She was a celebrity in her own right. Never again was it necessary for her to play small clubs.

      That was not all that Monroe did on behalf of Ella Fitzgerald. Although Fitzgerald managed to get other jobs with big venues, not surprisingly, she was not always treated respectfully. She would often be forced to go in the side door or back entrance. Once she and fellow performers were arrested and when taken to the police precinct, she was asked for her autograph. When Monroe observed Fitzgerald being directed to a side door on one occasion, she spoke up and refused to enter unless both she and Fitzgerald entered through the front doors. Monroe, of course, got her way. Soon all the clubs treated Fitzgerald with the respect she deserved. Although the two women shared a good friendship, sadly Monroe’s alcohol and drug abuse kept them from enjoying a truly deep friendship. Fitzgerald avoided all uses of substance and would not even perform songs that mentioned drugs. Still, Fitzgerald was always grateful to Monroe.

      Monroe remains an icon of American popular culture. However, at a time when super feminine women were not supposed to be smart, a notion that sadly lives on today, difficulty discerning Monroe’s intelligence and drive to do right in the world, as a human being, as well as an actor, is rooted in our repressive history.

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