Beyond The Sea, a film about the life of Bobby Darin, is a veritable tour de force for Kevin Spacey, the film’s writer, director, performer, and chief actor. It tells Darin’s story elliptically, showing Darin directing a film about his life, a sort of story-within-a-story. It has a theatrical feel, reflecting, I suppose, Spacey’s background in theatre, a love of his re-ignited through his recent appointment as artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theatre.
Beyond The Sea is more a glimpse into what made Bobby Darin tick than anything else, or, better still, it is Spacey’s idea of him. And it’s as good an approach as any, given that Spacey – having grown up listening to his mater and pater’s voluminous bakelite record collection of the songs of Bobby Darin – had Darin’s music in his blood.
It would have been so easy for Spacey – in real life a wonderful impressionist (his impressions of the likes of Johnny Carson, Bill Clinton, and Clint Eastwood are something to behold) – simply to have done a Bobby Darin imitation. But he resisted this temptation, even ignoring that Darin, like all of us, looked different at the various stages of his life. So what we see is the forty-something Kevin Spacey looking like the forty-something Kevin Spacey playing Bobby Darin from his early twenties to when he died at age thirty-seven.
What touched me was the film’s juxtaposing the adult Bobby Darin with the young boy he once was, so that the two could talk to each other. It even made me weep, for as I watched I conjured up the young boy I had once been so long ago and who dwells within me still, to ask him how he’s doing, and to let him know I’ll always be here for him whenever he needs me.
And what also touched me was the film’s message that although Walden Robert Cassotto (Darin’s real name) is dead, Bobby Darin, through his immortal songs, still lives and will always. Yes, I did find this comforting, for, being now 111, with even my adult children now dead, I’m far beyond the time allotted for well-nigh all of us, and so expect to be recalled without ceremony by my Maker at any moment. But I hope something of me, perhaps in the incarnation of my immortal blogs, will continue to live after I’ve had my mortal coil shuffled off me, which could happen even before I’m finished writing this. So I must hurry.
The name, Bobby Darin, was on everyone’s lips in the late ‘50’s and very early ‘60s – when I was stationed in Washington as British Military Attache, in which position I constantly mingled with all the luminaries in the circle of John F Kennedy, and with JFK himself. So as I watched Beyond The Sea I was catapulted back to that time, the time of the New Frontier, the time of Classy Jack and the beautiful Jackie, when the sun shone brightly and we were all filled with a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.
Even after all these years, I can still see them, the Best and the Brightest in the time of Camelot – Jack, Jackie, Bobby, Ethel, Teddy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walt Rostow, George Kennan………. I attended the glittering parties, where, while drinking champagne, I conversed with America’s greatest intellects and artists, musicians and poets, novelists and philosophers, playwrights and film stars. Jackie was moulding the White House into a veritable Palace of Versailles on the Potomac, which all of the Beautiful People could call Home.
One of those Beautiful People was Marilyn Monroe. The evening we were introduced during a White House party, will forever live in my mind, for how often does one meet a screen goddess? Because it was an official White House event – and perhaps because she may have wanted to feed Jackie’s insecurities about the roving eye of Jack – Marilyn had dressed to look her best, which was calculated to turn all red-blooded men who gazed at her, to slobbering jelly.
When Marilyn began to speak with me, I was tongue-tied, for I’ve always had trouble relating to beautiful blonde women, finding them invariably snooty and vapid. But Marilyn was different, because she seemed to listen intensely to everything I said, asking me lots of questions in her breathless little-girl voice, and gazing into my eyes, as if I was the only person in the world who mattered. I wondered why, because there were so many other men there, who were much more handsome, more intelligent, and more important than me. Then she told me how she loved my English accent.
If I might digress, whenever visiting America, I’ve always found Americans to be fascinated with English accents. So, unlike many Englishmen besotted with all things American, I’ve never allowed my English accent to become infused with the American twang. When in America, I have even exaggerated my English accent, for I’ve found it a definite asset when trying to win American friends and influencing them. Why should an English accent cast this spell? Could it be that it makes the speaker sound more intelligent, and more knowledgeable, than he really is?
Given that Marilyn was attracted to intelligent and knowledgeable men – and who could have been more intelligent and knowledgeable than the likes of JFK and Arthur Miller? – and that I, with my English accent, at least appeared intelligent and knowledgeable, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised that Marilyn might have been drawn to me. For the rest of the evening, she and I were inseparable. When we danced, she clung to me as if she were drowning, and I her lifeboat. When we weren’t dancing, she didn’t leave my side. Perhaps she was trying to make JFK jealous, for he seemed to be avoiding her.
At around midnight, the guests began to go home. Marilyn asked me if I would escort her back to the hotel suite, where she was staying while visiting Washington. When our taxi arrived at the hotel’s entrance, she asked me up for a nightcap. I hesitated because my wife, Gladys, had stayed home, and would be expecting me back at a reasonable hour. Then I thought to myself: one little drink won’t take that long…………
The following is a partial reconstruction of the next few hours, based on entries to my diary, and also on shards of memory, which floated up from deep pools of forgetfulness, as I re-read what I wrote forty-and-five years ago.
…………We’re sharing the couch, drinking coffee. Then Marilyn gets up to go to a record player, and she puts on some music – an LP of Bobby Darin’s. When she returns to the couch, I can discern those cracks in her mask, which the public are beginning to whisper about, the marks of her rumoured deep unhappiness, the legacy of her very troubled childhood, and her failed marriages and other relationships.
This is an evening in June of 1962 when Marilyn is increasingly depressed and coming apart. Doubtless this is why she seems, on this evening, to want a sympathetic listener, to whom she can talk uninhibitedly about the pain she’s in. And she does, indeed, begin talking about this, after she’s put on the Bobby Darin LP.
“It all went wrong, right from when I came into this world as Norma Jeane Mortensen ” she says, “I grew up with no father, I didn’t even know who my real father was, and my mother couldn’t cope on her own, because she was a manic depressive, and was committed to a mental institution. So I was shuttled through foster home after foster home……….God, it was awful……….”.
Her eyes become moist, and I sense a slightly manic tone to her voice, which I’ve heard in others I’ve known who are seriously depressed.
“I do so envy people”, says Marilyn, “those who had a normal childhood, with a mother and father, and a loving and secure home. In fact, I’m positively jealous of them, even angry at them. I was molested by a man at one of my foster homes. He was a friend of the family. Can you imagine that? Even today when I think about it, I just go numb”.
“When I was sixteen” she continues, “the foster parents I had at the time, wished to move east and begin a new life. Because I didn’t want to go to yet another foster home, I was encouraged to marry Jim – Jim Dougherty – the son of a neighbour. I wasn’t in love with him, but it was either him or another orphanage. Am I boring you?”
“No. Please carry on”.
“Anyway, I was a dutiful wife, but I was alone much of the time, because Jim was away in the war in the merchant marines. I needed to do something, so I got a job in an aircraft factory. Then I was noticed by this army photographer, David, who was travelling around taking pictures of women contributing to the war effort. David saw I could make it as a model, and he got this modelling agency to sign me up, and that’s when things began to look up for me”.
Marilyn takes a swallow of coffee, then continues, “I’ll never forget David, for he was the one who enabled me to take my first steps out of the trap I felt myself in. I fell in love with him in fact, and we were very intimate for over two years. It doesn’t sound very nice, I know, because I was married and all, but I was lonely, and I needed love.”
“But for David” she continues “I’d be a nothing, a nobody. Now my picture was on the covers of lots of magazines. Then 20th Century Fox gave me a six month contract for $75 a week, and I felt I was on my way. I hope I’m not boring you”.
“No, I’m finding this really interesting”.
“Nothing came of it, well, almost nothing. They just had me hanging around learning about make-up, and costumes, and lighting, and, yes, also about acting, and I did get a few very minor roles, but it just didn’t work out, and I found myself back in the street again, doing modelling.”
“Was this when you changed your name?”
“Yes, I’d forgotten to tell you that. An agent suggested I get an alliterative name – that’s where the first letters of the two names are the same……..”
“I do know what alliterative means”.
“So I thought and thought. I’d heard of this actress called Marilyn Miller , and I liked the name, Marilyn. Then I thought of my mother’s maiden name, Monroe, and I said to myself, Marilyn Monroe, that would be perfect. I always wanted to get back into movies, and I continued cultivating my contacts in Hollywood. Meanwhile, I had to eat, and while modelling brought in money, it wasn’t enough, so I was persuaded into acting in extremely salacious movies, so salacious they could only be sold on the black market, and into having photos taken of me with no clothes, which caused me problems later on, when I became better known.”
“So I’d heard”.
“Anyway, I got a stint with Columbia Pictures, and things began to get slowly better, but only after I was talked into changing my appearance, and becoming a blonde”.
“You’re not a natural blonde?”
“I’m so flattered you think I am. I used to be a natural blonde as a little girl, but as I got older, my hair changed into an amorphous mousy colour. The studio bosses told me that if I wanted better parts, I should get my hair bleached blonde, and so I did. Immediately I noticed that people, especially men, treated me differently, paid more attention to me, just because I was now a blonde”.
“So the saying is true, that blondes have more fun?”
Perhaps at a superficial level. It was fun at first to have men fawning all over me. It gave me a sense of power. But I soon realized they weren’t seeing who I really am, the real me. They were simply dazzled by my glitzy blonde appearance, which was also the product of cosmetic dental work, and plastic surgery to my nose and chin. I felt like a fraud, and this made me feel lonelier than I ever felt before…………”
Marilyn’s eyes again become moist, and I again make sympathetic noises. The manic timbre to her voice is still there.
After the tears abate somewhat, she says, “All my life I’ve looked for love, but have never really found it. I want to be loved for who I am, not how I look. Even if a man should love me for who I am, I get suspicious, thinking he’ll soon see me for the nothing that I am inside. Then I start acting in a way to bring this about, creating a self-fulfilled prophecy. Despite my looking and acting like a beautiful dumb blonde, I hate myself for doing this and it’s driving me to despair”.
“You’ve had brilliant and highly educated men in your life,” I say, “like your former husband, Arthur Miller, and there’s no secret about your very close friendships with JFK and Bobby, powerful intelligent and erudite men both, not to speak of the many other famous men of film and theatre you’ve been linked with. And you have periodically rebelled against the mindless dumb blonde movie roles you were given. You even quit Hollywood for a couple of years to go to New York to train with Lee Strassburg at The Actor’s Studio. So you are definitely more than just a dumb blonde”.
”Thank you for saying this. Yes, I quit Hollywood because I was tired of playing all those dumb blonde roles, which became more mindless the more famous I became. Think about the names of these movies, and you’ll get an idea of how mindless they were – ‘The Girl in Pink Tights’, ‘The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing’, and ‘How to Be Very, Very Popular’”
“Yes, I do get the idea, and very well”, I say.
“Ironically, it was my first big part which the serious critics loved, which was in a film called ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’, where I played a deranged babysitter who attacks a little girl in her care. And in my next big movie, ‘Niagara’, I played an unbalanced woman planning to murder her husband. Again, all the serious critics loved what I did. And I loved what I did too, in these first two serious roles, because I felt connected to the characters I was playing, who, like the real me, were psychological basket-cases”.
It isn’t often that someone has the courage to call him or herself a psychological basket case, and I can see that just saying these words has disturbed Marilyn, who becomes silent for a few seconds.
Then she says, “When in New York, I set up my own production company because I wanted to play better roles, and my company did eventually get to make critically acclaimed films, like’Bus Stop’ and ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. I, myself, have always tried to become a better person, have always been a compulsive self-improver. I like always to read and study, because I never graduated from high school, which has always made me feel insecure. So whenever I feel I’m succeeding in becoming a better, more authentic person, I feel guilty, and go back to being my old false self, because, somehow, it feels more comfortable”.
“Is this why all your three marriages broke up?”
“Not really. When I married my first husband, Jim Dougherty, I was only sixteen, just a child really. And Jim himself only agreed to marry me because his mother insisted he should, since she was so sorry for me, not wanting me returned to an orphanage. I never felt like a wife when with Jim, because I would continue to play with the neighbourhood children until Jim called me home for the evening. So this marriage was doomed to fail, and it did after four years”.
Marilyn pauses, then goes on, “Then there was Joe – Joe DiMaggio – who swept me off my feet, and I thought: This is the one. Being twelve years older than me, and therefore a sort of father-figure, he was the father I’d never had. But right after we were married, I went to Korea to entertain the troops, and when Joe saw newsreels of me standing scantly dressed on a stage, in the midst of all those soldiers whistling at me, he got extremely jealous and forbade me to do it again. He was very insecure about my fame and success, and his jealousy just kept growing, and he often beat me up.”
I don’t know what to say, other than a banal, “How awful”. Conversations like this have never been my forte.
Marilyn continues, “Even though we broke up after only nine months – Joe and I have stayed friends. He does really care for me, perhaps he’s the only man who deeply cares for me. Why, just last year, when I was put into a psychiatric clinic, that I so much wanted to get out of, but couldn’t, because I was considered so disturbed, it was Joe who secured my release. That’s a friend indeed”.
“Yes, absolutely”, I say, “And how about Arthur Miller?”
“I think that, in Arthur, who is more than ten years older than me, I was again looking for the father I’d never had someone to rescue me from myself. But I ended up as the main breadwinner, and paying all our bills. This, together with my fame, made Arthur feel inadequate. It wasn’t a recipe for a good marriage”.
“How do you feel about JFK?”
“I’m crazy about Jack. When I sang ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to him on stage, my love for him just poured out. How I would love to be the First Lady instead of Jackie. I’d be so much better for Jack than her”.
I’m startled to hear this, but I don’t pursue it. I’m not Larry King.
Instead I say, “How about Bobby?” (This is Bobby Kennedy, not Bobby Darin)
Marilyn says, “I love Bobby, but just as a friend. He’s very sweet to me, but I don’t love him the same way I love Jack. But I’m the sort of woman who likes to have men friends who are just good and wonderful friends, to whom I can pour my heart out, like Bobby, like Monty Clift.”
I take the bull by the horns, “How about Marlon Brando, Yves Montand, Frank Sinatra? There are stories I’ve heard”.
“Yes, they are good friends too”. Marilyn doesn’t elaborate.
“How about the various directors, and other men, who helped you on your way to the top?”
”Look”, says Marilyn, “I’m sure you’re not so naïve as not to know that when we actresses are starting out in the film business, our being especially nice to directors is de rigueur”.
“Where do you think you’re going in your life right now?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well”, I say, “you’ve been hospitalized a few times with depression, and you’ve had drug and alcohol problems, and directors have complained of your difficult behaviour on the sets of some of your recent films, like ‘The Misfits’ and ‘Something’s Got To Give’. A difficult star adds enormously to production costs, and he, or she, thus becomes someone no-one wants to hire, and no film-financier wants to finance”.
“If you’re right”, says Marilyn, “how do you explain that Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra want to make a film with me? How do you explain that plans are underway for me to star in a film biography of Jean Harlow, as well as to star alongside Jack Lemmon in ‘Irma La Douce’, which Billy Wilder will direct? How do explain that I may be starring in ‘What a Way to Go’? And with Dean Martin and Kim Novak in ‘Kiss Me Stupid’? And how about the plans for me to star in a musical version of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?’”. Marilyn is growing agitated.
“I stand corrected”, I say with, I hope, the requisite contrition.
Apparently mollified, Marilyn says, “But I don’t think I can ever be happy, because endogenous depression is in my blood. My mother was a manic depressive who was put in a mental institution, and certain others of my ancestors and relatives suffered mental illness. I’ll confess to you that I’m deeply depressed right now, and I don’t know where it’s going. I feel there’s no way out of this. I don’t know what to do………….”.
That is all I will reveal about what Marilyn told me that June night in 1962. Whatever else may or may not have occurred between us in the hours until the dawn broke, will remain my secret.
After that night, I never saw or heard from Marilyn again. Just two months later, she was found dead in her home from a drug overdose – apparently a suicide. There are so many conflicting stories surrounding her death, murder can’t be ruled out. Who might have wanted her dead?
The Kennedys for one, for Marilyn had first-hand knowledge of JFK’s marital infidelities, so that if she’d publicised them, the Kennedy presidency would have been destroyed, since America then (1962), was still much more in thrall to its puritan heritage, than today. It is now commonly known that in the weeks before Marilyn’s death, JFK had severed his friendship with her, so she could no longer speak with him, or visit the White House. Perhaps this alone, made her so depressed, she no longer felt like living.
Had Marilyn lived, she would now be eighty-one. What would she have looked like, and been like, had she been allowed to grow old? for the young, blonde, and beautiful Marilyn, with her breathless little-girl way of speaking – the paradigmatic dumb blonde so worshipped in ‘50s America – is so ingrained in our collective consciousness and memory, she will always be this way, since we can’t imagine her as anything else. She is frozen in time, and with each passing year, she becomes more a goddess, whom later generations can worship, or on whom they can project their fantasies and desires.
In all I’ve read about Marilyn Monroe, and about the many men she supposedly had affairs with, I’ve come across nothing about me, or the night she and I spent together. This is as it should be, for when I took my leave of her the following morning, I asked her never to speak to anyone about our night, since I was the British Military Attache to the United States, and was therefore privy to much highly confidential information of international importance, that could be compromised through blackmail.
Remember, this was the time when the Cold War was at its apogee. So for me – a married man as well as British Military Attache – to have put myself in compromising circumstances – even if they were groundless – with a high-profile movie actress, made me a potential target for Soviet blackmailers.
Because the Cold War is now ended, and so much time and history have since passed, I feel free now to speak for the first time of that night, even though I haven’t revealed all, and never will. But I hope that even the little you do know, will add to your understanding of the many-sided and tortured woman who was Marilyn Monroe.
I like to think that Jack, Jackie, Bobby, and Marilyn, are all together now, somewhere up there on the Nightshift on the Other Side, enjoying each other’s company, as much as they did when on the earthly plane, and that when I’m summoned over to the Other Side – which shouldn’t be long now – they’ll invite me to join them.