My mother was very young, my father was always busy with his chain of electronics stores, so consequently, as a kid, I often stayed with my grandparents. Imagine the most picturesque, lush children’s book house you can—add a spooky twilight, the kind of light they use to depict dreams in movies, and you get the idea.
My grandmother usually was in the kitchen, silently pottering about, my grandfather stared out of the window. It always seemed to me he was waiting for something. Later on I learned that’s what a traumatic war can do to people. I guess the gruesome death of your sister is not something you easily bring up to your grandchildren.
Whenever I came over, my grandfather would show me the cartoons he had taped for me: Road Runner, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop. He was one of the first people who owned a VCR, much to my joy. One day though, I was about eight, he was in the middle of watching an old movie—he either stared out of the window or watched a classic Hollywood movie, usually a musical. There was this golden blonde woman struggling to get out of a porthole. For some reason I found her very intriguing, she kind of burst through the screen. She didn’t seem real, yet she wasn’t one of the cartoon characters I usually saw.
“That’s Marilyn Monroe,” my grandfather said, a little puzzled that I had to ask.
He told me she had been very famous a long time ago, and had died very young. That last part was a quick stab of a dagger: suddenly, in this bright comedy scene, Death had appeared. I felt I had to back off a little.
For a long time, the name “Marilyn Monroe” had the same ring to me as “Mickey Mouse”, “Charlie Chaplin”, or “Coca-Cola”: an alliterated American wonder. The Death cameo that had startled me so as a kid went up in the general theme of violence that permeates American culture, with its glorification of gangsters and war, what remained of my idea of Marilyn Monroe was an unrealistically beautiful face, or rather an aura. Some people have white auras, others are red or green, but Marilyn Monroe had one of glittering gold—a Hollywood corona.
Then it happened. It was my first year at University, and the days were dark. In my own life, Death’s role had grown into something more than just a cameo: it had cheerfully paraded through my family, grabbing people left and right, until me and my cousin were the only people left standing (and I really disliked my cousin). I often wandered through Amsterdam as the sun was setting, looking for something. These travels would nearly always end in a bookstore, where I browsed every book, still looking for something.
A row of postcards grabbed my attention, one in particular. A woman in a darkened room, surrounded by upturned chairs. The end of a party. I thought I recognized her as Marilyn Monroe, still, I had to check the back of the card to make sure. Gone was the gold, the glamour, the comedy; silver-toned sadness was her aura now. I stared at the card until I noticed that I was staring at the card.
It’s strange to look at that photo now (it’s the first image of this post of course). All sorts of things come flooding back you can’t even imagine. I still have the postcard—I never throw meaningful things away—but it’s kept in a secret place, as I don’t want to get too used to it.
The Internet was in its embryonic early years. I could find some Marilyn Monroe photos among the porn sites and Jesus dot-coms, but they were merely promises, glimpses—I knew there had to be something greater out there. I bought all the books I could find about her, continually stepping into traps set by sensationalist pseudo-writers, finding my way, weighing all the information and insights, slowly chiselling away all the superfluous marble until a sculpture started to appear.
I learned that everything I had assumed about her had been wrong. This was endlessly fascinating to me. There were two Marilyn Monroes now: my grandfather’s Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood screen icon, Venus, Cleopatra, Lady Godiva, and a kind of weary, melancholic creature, who forever feared to descend into madness, who had recurring dreams of being sexually touched by a crowd of hands, who wrote odd, lonely poems, and who would study her face for hours, looking for imperfections, until she had convinced herself she was a piece of nothing who deserved nothing—but who also was bright, original, magnetic, genuinely kind to everyone and everything.
I connected with the second version. The first one was distant like a star, but the second one was me.
Though I always had many friends, and you could say I was a popular kid at school, I always felt like an alien in disguise, trying to do what people did, adopting their lingo and habits, closely following and mimicking human behavior. My real friends were figures in the sky: they were artists I admired, original thinkers, gifted oddities, rare birds, wanderers, searchers, talented rebels, nonconformists. People who tried.
Marilyn Monroe was all those things and more, and that is why she appears on this blog once a day, every day.