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Marilyn’s summer dress is billowing above a subway grate at the corner of Lexington avenue and Fifty-second street. A huge crowd, held by barriers, hoots and shouts. “Hey, Marilyn! You’re the best! Looking good, Marilyn! Great legs!” She is shooting The Seven Year Itch in New York City. The year is 1954.
She’s not really shooting. She’s playing the scene at the corner of Lexington and Fifty-second for the crowd. The cameramen, the director, the gaffers, are only pretending. Some wizards in the production team set up the scam for publicity. As the story is supposed to take place in a house on East Sixty-First street, the crew does film Marilyn there, a few days later, for half a minute or so. Otherwise, the whole movie will be made in a Hollywood sound stage.
While she is in New York City, Marilyn meets some friends and attends a few parties. She’d go out more if she wasn’t married to Joe DiMaggio, who doesn’t like her milieu.
When she attends a party, everybody tries hard not to stare at her. A man stares and nods. He looks like a doctor—receding hair, high forehead, round glasses with tortoise-shell frames.
“Do you remember me, miss Monroe?”
“Yes. You’re a photographer… Hatman or something.”
“Halsman. I made the picture that was on Life magazine’s cover two years ago.”
“Sure. I remember. You also had me jumping up and down for hours. Gee, my legs were so sore afterwards. Just thinking about it still hurts.”
“When people jump, they tend to drop whatever mask they’re wearing. Thus, I can photograph their real self. I have photographed more than eighty jumpers. Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, even Vice-President Nixon. As soon as I reach one hundred, I’ll publish a book. I already know the title: Jumpology.”
“I had a small part in Love Happy, the last movie the Marx Bothers made. Groucho asked whether I could walk so that smoke would come out his ears. I did my sexy walk and he gave me the part.”
“Talking about sexy—I read something in a magazine. As the sexiest woman alive, you were asked whom you considered the sexiest man alive. You answered Einstein.”
“You shouldn’t believe everything you read in magazines. I’ll tell you the true story. I shared an apartment with Shelley Winters in Hollywood a couple years ago. Just for fun, we drew lists of men we thought sexy. I remember I had Charles Boyer and Jean Gabin on my list. French guys, you know. Also John Huston. I had just made Asphalt Jungle, which he directed. And well, I had been reading a book of letters by professor Einstein and anyway I have always admired him, so that’s all there is to it. I guess Shelley talked to one of those press people.”
“He is a good friend, you know.”
“Who, professor Einstein?”
“I’m going to visit him in Princeton on Friday. He usually spends the summer sailing on Long Island somewhere, but he is not so well, so he has to stay at home. He enjoys visits. You can come with me, miss Monroe. I’m sure he’d be delighted.”
“Oh, I’d love to. I mean it. How come you’re friends? Did you photograph him?”
“I did, but we were friends already before I became a photographer. In a way, he saved my life.”
“Professor Einstein saved your life?”
“Is this some kind of a riddle? I can’t imagine professor Einstein saving your life. Twice? Wow!”
“If you want a riddle, you can ask me where I come from.”
“I was going to. I just can’t place your accent.”
“I grew up in a city named Riga, by the Baltic sea. When I was a child, it belonged to Russia. In the past, it was German at times, or Polish, or Swedish. Then, when I was twelve years old, at the end of World War I, it became the capital of a new country, Latvia. This country didn’t survive World War II: my birthplace is now part of the Soviet Union. I spoke Latvian and Russian and also Yiddish, because my family was Jewish. I studied in Germany and spoke German, then worked in France and spoke French. So my accent when I speak English is a strange brew, with many exotic flavors.”
“You didn’t tell me about professor Einstein saving your life.”
“Oh yes. My father was a dentist. He hoped I would become a doctor, which is considered better than dentist for some reason, but I wanted to be an engineer. Schools in Latvia were a joke, especially when compared to German ones. I passed an exam and was accepted in a very good engineering school in Dresden, Germany. During the 1928 summer vacation, my father came from Riga and we went hiking together in the Austrian Alps. I remember early pictures you made in the Rockies. Another European photographer. Hungarian, yes?”
“André de Dienes. My first real pictures.”
“So you hiked in the mountains. My father stumbled and fell down several hundred feet.”
“Oh Gosh. Was he hurt?”
“This is awful.”
“Wait. It gets awfuller and awfuller. They pretended I had killed him. You know what Dr. Freud says: a son always wants to kill his father. Austrian judges read Freud, of course.”
“You can’t accuse someone because of what a doctor says. You need material proofs.”
“I was just kidding. They hate Freud, anyway. They don’t care about material proof either. I was a foreigner and a Jew, that was proof enough. The jury condemned me to ten years in jail.”
“This is really shocking. Did you spend ten years in jail?”
“My family and my friends went around and got people to sign petitions and so on. The nazis were gaining strength in Germany and Austria in those years. They denounced the petitions as a Jewish plot to get a murderer out of jail. An Austrian bishop said I was worse than Judas, who had the decency to hang himself. After a kind of appeal, I was granted a second trial. An expert showed I couldn’t have pushed my father. He convinced the new jury sort of halfway: I was condemned to four years only this time.”
“This couldn’t happen in America.”
“Unless you’re black, of course. Well, this is when my sister went to Einstein in Berlin. He had taught physics in Austria and knew many people there. He wrote a personal letter to the president of the Austrian Republic. This gentleman signed a pardon decree that set me free. I had spent two years in jail. Some people are still trying to get the sentence overturned altogether1. Jail was a rough place. I don’t know whether I would have survived another two years there, being a Jew. That’s why I say Einstein saved my life.”
“That was the first time.”
“German engineering schools don’t like Jewish jailbirds. Instead of returning to Dresden, I moved to France and became a photographer. I was quite successful. I liked it there. I spent ten years in Paris. As you know, the nazis caught up with me. They invaded France in 1940. They convinced the French puppet government to round up most Jewish immigrants and refugees. Cattle cars carried them to the Death Camps, where they were gassed. America could have saved many of them, but it closed its doors. A few of us did escape our likely fate because we received affidavits from the United States, which means we could emigrate. Do you know who signed and sent my affidavit?”
“He saved many people. As many as he could. He is a great man in more ways than one.”
“He is becoming sexier and sexier!”
“So—day after tomorrow. There’s a very convenient train from Penn Station.”
“You said you’d love to come.”
“I mean, I can’t take a train. I don’t feel like the sexiest gal on earth, honest, but if some journalists say so, then lots of people think so. This colleague of yours, Tom Kelley, asked me to pose in the nude and he made a calendar and called me miss Golden Dreams, and maybe some soldiers in Korea were happy looking at the pictures. Is there anything wrong about it? But now if I travel on a train and anybody recognizes me, there’s a mob and it gets unplesant. Somebody might be hurt, even.”
“How foolish of me! I have no imagination. I’ll rent a car, don’t worry.”
Marilyn spends half a day in Princeton with Halsman while she is in New York for the mock-shooting of The Seven Year Itch, and there she meets Einstein. This visit is well documented. There’s a slight mystery: why don’t we have pictures? An obvious explanation comes to mind.
“Hey, Mr. Halsman, what are you doing?”
“What do you think I’m doing? I’m putting a roll of film into my Leica. I’m going to take some photographs.”
“You can’t do that. Please.”
“I understand we couldn’t ride on a train. But why can’t I take pictures?”
“Look at my hair! People who believe Marilyn Monroe is sexy would discover she is ugly. I don’t even have any makeup on.”
“Same here,” Einstein says, smiling.
“Okay. I’m going to take a few pictures, but I’ll sign a paper saying I’ll never show them to anybody. I’ll keep them in my safe as a memento of this visit.”
Einstein died in April, 1955. Although Marilyn was forty-seven years younger than him, she survived him only seven years. Philippe Halsman died in 1979. Maybe someone will find his safe someday in an attic and we’ll know what Marilyn looked like without makeup.
Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, married a certain John Baker when she was only fourteen years old. When she was sixteen or seventeen, she already had two children, Jack and Berniece (some biographers write the name Berneice). Then she divorced and John Baker took the children away to his home state, Kentucky. The son died. Berniece Baker married a Mr. Miracle and settled in Florida. Marilyn met her a few times.
Marilyn Monroe’s own name wasn’t Marilyn Monroe, of course, but Norma Jeane Baker. Or Norma Jean—she dropped Jeane’s last e because she admired Jean Harlow. Ah, but wait! Gladys had divorced Baker and married a Mr. Mortensen, so it should have been Norma Jean Mortensen. She sometimes used that name. He had also gone away before Norma Jean’s birth, and Gladys didn’t seem to know who was Norma Jean’s true father. When Norma Jean Baker or Mortensen married Jim Dougherty, she became Norma Jean Dougherty. The casting director at Fox said nobody would remember her name. He wanted to call her Marilyn Miller. She suggested Monroe, which was—maybe—the name of Gladys’s father.
By the way, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Jean-Jacques Greif. Jean is a very common French name. I don’t know whether my mother knew Jean Harlow, but I’m sure she read Jean-Jacques Rousseau and had friends named Jean-Paul and Jean-Pierre..
When I was born, she was married to a Mr. Roth, but then she divorced and married Mr. Greif, who was my real father. So I was Jean-Jacques Roth for about six months, then Jean-Jacques Greif. I am French and I live in Paris. If you want to know more about me, just go and visit my web site, www.jjgreif.com. You’ll see that I wrote a book about Marilyn Monroe a few years ago. Recently, I received the following letter—which I translate from the French:
“My dear Jean-Jacques (if you allow me to call you by your first name),
“I have read many books about Marilyn Monroe, maybe all of them, being a second cousin twice removed1 of her half-sister Berniece Baker Miracle. Well, let me tell you I consider your book the truest, movingest, best-written [I skip a whole paragraph of flattery] of them all.
“As you certainly know, being the number one specialist of Marilyn in France and probably the world2, Berniece died in a freak accident in Florida, where she lived. While she was feeding her pet manatee, she fell in the bayou or whatever it’s called and her long red hair got caught into the propeller of the outboard engine3. Being Berniece’s heir, I inherited what Marilyn had left her, which wasn’t much. You know about it, since you mention it in your book: she left most of her property and stuff to Lee Strasberg, her drama teacher. Anyway, Federal Express delivered a single suitcase to me three years ago or so.
“I just couldn’t open the damn suitcase because they hadn’t delivered any key. I was very busy at the time, having just bought a taxi licence, so I put the suitcase away in a small storeroom here.
“When I read your wonderful book, however, I remembered the suitcase. I called a friend who knows how to open a lock without a key. I felt pretty stupid when he told me the old iron clasp wasn’t locked, but only rusty and stuck. He opened it in ten seconds with a screwdriver.
“I discovered a strange assortment of tidbits: sunglasses, old-fashioned kid gloves, a couple of fountain pens, a small Japanese doll, a porcelain parakeet, and so on. My screwdriver-savvy friend thought the tchotchkes could bring in some money. He knew a gentleman who sold stuff in big auction houses. The gentleman seemed shocked that I considered selling these valuable heirlooms. Marilyn had intended her half-sister to wear the glasses and write with the pens, obviously, so it would be a sacrilege, sort of, to sell them. Well, I didn’t.
“The suitcase also contained a notebook. This is where I need your help. I wonder whether the text on its pages is a movie script copied in her own hand or something. You quote some of Marilyn’s letters in your biography, so I thought that 1) you know English 2) you can recognize Marilyn’s handwriting.
“If we could meet, I’d show you the notebook. I found your address on the Internet, but of course I am ready to go any place you choose.
I called her on the phone.
“Oh, I’m so thrilled, Jean-Jacques, to talk to a real writer. I appreciate your taking the time… You must be very busy.”
“Not so busy that I couldn’t look at that notebook.”
“I’ll bring it right away. Do you want me to come to your apartment?”
“That would be convenient. I don’t know where you’d park your taxi, though.”
“I have a day off next Friday. If it’s okay with you… I’ll take the subway, so I don’t have to worry about parking.”
She was very tall and very thin, with black hair and pearly white skin. I wondered how she managed to fit in her taxi. If she wanted her clients to have a comfortable ride, she couldn’t push her seat too far back. It would be worse if she were really fat, I thought. As a foreigner, I use words I have learned in school, like “fat,” instead of modern expressions like “weight-impaired.”
“Call me Marithé. Nice apartment you have here. You must earn lots of money with your books.”
“I wish I did. The apartment is nice because I bought it long ago, when prices were still quite low. I’m not rich, just old.”
“Here’s the notebook.”
It had a blue cover and a red canvas spine. Inside, these two colors alternated on the pages.
“It doesn’t look like a movie script to me. More like a dialogue between two characters. She uses red pencil for one of them, blue for the other.”
“When you say she, do you mean Marilyn? Do you recognize her handwriting?”
“I am not sure. All American handwritings look the same to me. Let me read some of it… Hey, this is really something. Seems she’s having a conversation with Einstein.”
“Einstein? Did they know each other?”
“They met once, at the end of his life. This is a second meeting. It isn’t mentioned anywhere. He died soon afterward. Quite a discovery, you know.”
“Is it worth publishing?”
“I’ll tell you what. If you trust me and leave the notebook here, I’ll read it and type it. Then we’ll see.”
We decided the notebook was worth publishing. Here it is. Instead of red for Marilyn Monroe and blue for Albert Einstein, I introduce each locutor with the letter M or A. Einstein drew several very messy pictures on Marilyn’s notebook. I substituted my own drawings for clarity’s sake.
After my work was completed, Marie-Thérèse gave the original notebook to the French National Library. They are treating the pages with adequate chemicals so they’ll last a few centuries, then they’ll scan them and display them on the internet. The whole process shouldn’t take more than five years, they told me.
A—I was surprised when you called me on the telephone, miss Monroe. That you’d honor an old man like me with a second visit.
M—You’re too modest, professor Einstein. Talking with you is a privilege and a pleasure.
A—I’m not a professor anymore. I retired long ago. You can call me Albert, yes?
M—Okay, but then you should call me Marilyn.
A—What are you writing in your notebook, Marilyn?
M—I have decided to record what you say, Albert. I’m not too bright, you know. I’m afraid I won’t understand everything. In this way, I’ll be able to read it at home as many times as I want.
A—You’re brighter than me.
M—How can you say that, professor, I mean, Albert?
A—Last time, you came with Halsman. He was driving the car. This time, I am breathing some fresh air in my garden, I see you park your beautiful white automobile. But me, I’m not even smart enough to drive a car, so you see.
M—I have several European friends who can’t drive. You don’t have so many cars over there, I guess.
A—Most of the people are too poor to own a car. When they are rich, they hire a driver. And you know what, Marilyn? I had never seen a woman drive a car before I came to America.
M—It’s a cinch. You would learn in a jiffy, I’m sure.
A—A cinch? A jiffy? Even English I can’t learn. I have always been a slow student. If I start going to driving school now, I probably receive my diploma as a present for my hundredth birthday.
M—I have read somewhere that you didn’t speak until you were five years old.
A—Who made up this legend I don’t know. Would you like I tell you the truth? I didn’t want to babble like other children and appear foolish, so I built full sentences in my head before letting them out. I often moved my lips while I prepared the sentence, then said it aloud with a tiny time lag. Some people thought I am retarded, but my not grandmother. She said I contributed clever remarks to the conversation of adults when I was only two years old. This means I could speak before five, no?
M—Clever remarks when you were two? Wow! You were a genius already.
A—In my opinion, everybody is born a genius. Most children end up being boring adults because they follow the easy path. They obey parents and they obey teachers. When I was a child, Germany had just been unified and dreamt of the great conquests. We wore uniforms in school. The teachers wanted us to march in step and sing patriotic songs. My comrades enjoyed being all alike and playing soldiers. I prefered to become my own self.
M—You wanted to march to your own beat.
A—Is this an American expression? Quite clever… You’re a movie star, Marilyn, so you’re not an ordinary person. You’re marching to your own beat, too. You’ve retained some of your childhood genius. Tell me, where were you born?
M—In Los Angeles. On June 1st, 1926.
A—What did your parents do for a living?
M—I had no father. I mean, I have never known my father. Two weeks after my birth, my mother left me in the care of a Mr. and Mrs. Bolender, neighbors of my grandmother. I lived with them for seven years, so they were like parents to me, except they told me to call them Aunt Ida and Uncle Albert. A red-haired woman named Gladys came now and then and brought me sweets. She was my mother, they said. You ask me what my parents did for a living. Well, Uncle Albert was a postman. Aunt Ida took care of children for money. None of the other kids stayed as long as I did, though. What they really did for a living, I’d say, was go to Church and fight sin. When I sinned, Aunt Ida whipped me with a leather belt. Gladys worked as a cutter for the studios. She took me to the movies a few times. The Bolenders considered the movie theater a very sinful place and my mother a great sinner. “We’re churchgoers, not moviegoers,” they said.
A—I’ve noticed there are more churches and churchgoers in America than in Europe. More people obsessed with Bible and religion, too.
M—I was one of them until I was seven, that’s for sure. Then I lived with Gladys for a few months. She brought me to Hollywood to show me her office at Columbia. I sat on a stool and watched her cut film. She wore white cotton gloves. She cut the film with a machine, then she repaired it with tape. So why did she cut it in the first place? It didn’t make sense. Then she was taken away to a lunatic asylum and a friend of hers, Grace McKee, took care of me. Sometimes I lived with Grace, sometimes with relatives or foster families. I even spent two years in an orphanage in Hollywood.
A—You see, fate lets you grow up in Los Angeles. Half the people there, and your own mother, work for the cinema studios. Then you don’t enjoy a standard childhood, so you don’t follow the flock. You live in many families, you try to be all kinds of different girls and adapt, you learn to play pretend. Nature gives you a pretty face, so you end up being an actress in Hollywood. I’m sure you’re a good actress, otherwise people wouldn’t like you so much. None of this would be possible if you had lost your childhood genius altogether. You would be just another face in the crowd.
M—No actor is a genius in the sense that you are. At least, no actor in Hollywood. Maybe some actor playing Shakespeare in the theater.
A—If my parents had moved to America before my birth, I might have become an actor instead of a physicist. What would have become of my so-called genius? I used to come to Los Angeles every winter around 1930. I gave lectures in Caltech university. I became friends with Charlie Chaplin. Isn’t he a genius?
M—Gee, I guess you’re right.
A—I tell you something more. If I hadn’t discovered a secret of the Universe or two, somebody else would have, sooner or later. For example, Newton invented a new branch of math called “calculus.” Very useful. He needs it and uses it himself, but doesn’t bother to mention it to anybody else. Then Leibniz invents calculus too. When people praise Leibniz, Newton becomes quite angry. “Hey, I have this thing in my drawer for twenty years!” He wasn’t an easygoing fellow, you know. Well, if neither Newton nor Leibniz had invented calculus, then Lagrange would have, and so on. But if Charlie Chaplin hadn’t made City Lights, nobody else would have. So I believe he is the greater genius.
M—I had never thought about that. Let me read what I wrote… I understand. You’re putting artists above scientists, because a scientist can be replaced, whereas an artist can’t. But mankind needs the collective genius of scientists as much as the indiviual genius of artists.
A—You’re not just an actress who plays pretend. You know how to use your brain, too.
M—I often play dumb blondes, so people think I’m stupid. If you’re really dumb, you can’t play dumb.
A—Thus, if you had been born in a family of teachers or scientists, you might have become a famous physicist.
M—Are there many women physicists?
A—A pertinent question. If a woman couldn’t be a physicist at all, because she lacked a rational brain maybe, then there would be none. I have known a few, though. My current assistant is a woman, Bruria Kaufman. I’m sure you’ve heard of Marie Curie. She was a very close friend. In Poland she was born. In France she studied and lived.