Unless, of course, that author happens to have been famous and somewhat mysterious, which is the case with Marilyn Monroe. Her "Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters," which appears in a slender, handsomely illustrated volume edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, has a curiously enlightening effect on the reader.
We all know, of course, how ill-used Monroe was by life — the mentally damaged mother and grandmother, the foster homes, the unhappy marriage at 16, her exploited early professional life as model and small-parts actress, her lifelong attraction to men who were not good for her (a poignant passage in "Fragments" recounts her devastation when she discovers that her third husband, Arthur Miller, was ashamed of his friends' opinion of her).
What we didn't know was what a game girl Monroe was. Her formal education was brief and catch-as-catch-can, but she became a devoted reader of serious literature — everything from Joyce's "Ulysses" to Heinrich Heine's poetry — and had a firm belief in the restorative power of psychoanalysis, though it has never been clear who among her several shrinks were helpful and who were quacks (or whether she could tell the difference). Her largest hope was to take command of her own career, create an image of herself unbeholden to the one that she had, to a degree, co-conspired with the media to create.
Here her fundamental innocence and disorganization undid her. What whoops and laughs greeted her announcement that she might like to play Grushenka in "The Brothers Karamazov." What contempt Laurence Olivier visited upon her when he directed and costarred with her in "The Prince and the Showgirl." Her attempts to take charge of her own fate, through independent production, foundered on the trust she lavished on the untrustworthy — and on her distracted attention span. Which is why "Fragments" is so … fragmented.
The book reproduces many pages of her writing, and they are a mess: Typically, a paragraph in, say, the upper right hand corner of the page relates to another in the lower left, and the editors have to draw accompanying diagrams to help us make some sense of what she was trying to say. She was, I think, more serious about her ambitions as an actress than we knew; she seems to have believed that there was some personal salvation to be found in disciplined, thoughtful professionalism. We can see that her love for Miller was real, and that it was a shattering disappointment to her when their marriage failed. We sense in her striving for poetic imagery an attempt to mobilize her sometimes shrewd but glancing observations, which rarely expand into any larger coherence — unless you count her glum yet understandable reflections on the ever-grasping humanity that always surrounded her ("I can't really stand Human Beings sometimes.... Trying to understand,/ making allowances, seeing certain things/ that just weary me").
Implicitly, occasionally quite explicitly, these writings reveal a death wish ("Oh damn I wish that I were/ dead — absolutely nonexistent — /gone away from here…") though we must remember that such thoughts are common in amateur poeticizing. It seems that the unacknowledged drama of this book, this life, is the attempt by almost everyone Monroe encounters to intellectualize what is really her instinctive talent. Being the earnest soul she was, she did her best to follow their leads. But that took her, all unknowing, to ambitions that were wrong for her and made her look absurd.
In a long letter to her psychiatrist, written a little more than a year before her death, she recounts her affair with the director Elia Kazan (begun simultaneously with her affair with his friend, Miller), who said she was "the gayest girl he ever knew." That's because, almost alone of her acquaintances, he wanted nothing from her — except agreeable sex. They were together, on and off, for a year, and he "once rocked me to sleep one night when I was in great anguish." This is the tenderest moment in the book, undoubtedly the thing this sweet, messed-up woman constantly sought and never found in those intent on improving her until the day of her death. By her own hand. At age 36.
Schickel is the author of "Elia Kazan: A Biography." His new book, "Conversations With Scorsese," will be published next spring.