Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Am No One You Know: Visiting Marilyn Monroe's Grave in Westwood

I took a walk to the cemetery today, hidden in Westwood behind Wilshire highrises, visited by tourists who look at their Los Angeles guide books to walk them through the graves of the famous.  I overheard a Scot telling his mum that Natalie Wood was buried here too. Oh is she now, she replied in her heavy, gorgeous accent, photographing the grave of Don Knotts.

I came to see Marilyn Monroe's grave — not even a grave, but a headstone in the wall of the mausoleum.  My roommate had told me about this small cemetery, where so many stars are buried (Monroe, Wood, Knotts, Truman Capote, Donna Reed, Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin, the list goes on).  I was seeking out silence, tired of the pounding of workers fixing apartments at our complex, the sound of moving vans and garbage trucks.  But, though small, the cemetery was not a place of peace for me.  Surrounded by highrises off Wilshire and homes to the south, it felt too open to the neighborhood.  It didn't feel designed.  Cared for. There were orange cones on the grass next to graves and tourists flattening the overgrown grass.

I'm fascinated by Monroe, but was more fascinated by the headstones of people I don't know.  What is the story of someone whose eternal (earthly) resting place designates her as a "sister."  Who was this couple who chose a German phrase, "Wir Haben Uns Geliebt" stating for eternity, "We have loved."  How did Madeleine and Fred Arnold, from New Jersey and Tennessee, respectively, come to meet, fall in love, and live together to be buried in Los Angeles?

These stories are unknown, while Marilyn Monroe's has been recounted, rewritten and filmed many times over.  But it made me wonder if we will ever know someone like her.  Which makes her even more mysterious: that she was one of us. 

"and now I perceived an individual in the aisle pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she read, a woman nearly my height (I was tall for a girl, in 1956) in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head ... and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blond plait at the nape of her neck; and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots.  Someone we knew? ... A girl-poet like ourselves?  ... the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e. e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys —always I would remember that title!) and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.

"Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.

..."Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in her selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a reader. One of those who reads. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul. And it was poetry she was reading, her lips pursed, silently shaping the words. Absent-mindedly she wiped her nose on the edge of her hand, so intent was she on what she was reading. For when you truly read poetry, poetry reads you.

..."We were stunned to see that this woman looked very little like the glamorous 'Marilyn Monroe.' That figure was a garish blond showgirl, a Hollywood 'sexpot' of no interest to intellectuals (we thought, we who knew nothing of the secret romance between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller); this figure more resembled us (almost) than she resembled her Hollywood image.

..."But you, gripping my wrist, had another, more subtle thought.
'She thinks she's like us.'

"You meant: a human being, anonymous. Female, like us. Amid the ordinary unspectacular customers (predominantly male) of the Strand.

"And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe's wish. To be like us." For it was impossible, of course."

~From "Three Girls," in I Am No One You Know
 Joyce Carol Oates

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