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Marilyn Monroe is one of the most iconic figures in the history of Hollywood, and her legendary work on the big screen is eclipsed only perhaps by the lengend of her life off it. Adam Braver’s Misfit centers on the last weekend of Monroe’s life, which she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort, the Cal Neva Lodge, in Lake Tahoe. Melding facts with fiction, Braver takes moments throughout Monroe’s life—her childhood, her marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her studies with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and her role in The Misfits, the film Miller wrote for her—and explores how they informed her tragic end.
"Seamlessly blending fact and fiction, Braver penetrates the vivacious veneer of Monroe's on-screen persona to reveal a woman so adept at embodying a role, that 'it swallows her whole.' Through his gradual unfolding of Monroe's painful upbringing and her desire to be taken seriously in a world that values the superficial, Braver makes Monroe's tragic end freshly poignant." –Publishers Weekly
“Misfit is a thrilling book, a beautiful book and, most of all, a believable story at last about a woman so well known and not at all." –SFGate.com
"We all know the ending to the story, but you can't help but want to hear Braver tell it all over again once you get drawn into his prose." —Rhode Island Monthly
"Misfit is amazing. Yes, we’re all familiar with the very publicly overexposed story of Marilyn Monroe’s life and death. And no, I’m not going to say that this follows in the path of anyone, or that Marilyn was herself a symbol, or that the book, itself, speaks to some general, important metaphor about America. Instead, it’s a book about the ability, the power of the author to penetrate the cell membrane, to pierce the heart of his recognizable yet perplexingly vague subject, and in so doing, to implicate the reader. It’s about how someone can be explored externally, while also internally examined: a book about identity, privacy, and intimacy that both exposes and conceals the subject. As, it seems to me, Marilyn acted while retaining an unknowable essence, so that she was hugely projected upon yet inhabited no life comprehensible to her. –Ann Beattie, author of Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life and The New Yorker Stories
"Once again, Adam Braver turns his prodigious imagination and keen eye on an iconic figure and breathes life into her. His Marilyn will break your heart."–Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread
"Adam Braver is not the first to interpret the true legend of Norma Jeane Baker, but it may be that he has gone the deepest. Beautiful, aching, fearsome—Misfit is a hall of mirrors that we all know, even those of us lucky enough not to have arrived there as Marilyn Monroe."—Zachary Lazar, author of Sway
"Misfit is an incredible act of imagination. Adam Braver writes with wit and precision and real empathy, telling us something new and vital about one of our most over-scrutinized figures, while restoring some of the humanity that the glare of celebrity has stripped away." —Scott O'Connor, author of Untouchable
"Adam Braver has a wonderfully rich imagination and his grasp of historical characters and settings is both deep and natural. I would gladly read anything he writes."— Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply
The actor Eli Wallach often tells the story of walking down the street in New York with Marilyn and suddenly realizing that nobody recognizes her. How strange that was. Even for New York. But when he mentions it to her, she tells him it isn’t strange at all; she is only noticed when she wants to be, and, as an offer of proof, she stops and says to watch this. She takes a deep breath, rolls her neck, and shakes out her arms and hands. Pushes at her hair. And then starts walking again. The tone of her skin softens. Her hips sashay. The blond in her hair takes on an unreal sheen. Her lips, half-open, deepen into a blood red. And, as if from an animator’s hand, her whole figure seems to mold into an exaggerated shape and glow almost celestially. Within seconds she’s surrounded. People point from across the street. Cameras are fumbled for and aimed. Taxis slow down, their passengers pushed against the windows, cupping their hands against the glass.
Later she’ll say that sometimes the mood to become Marilyn can just hit. But usually it will last only for a moment.
Did you know much about Marilyn Monroe before you began Misfit?
Marilyn Monroe was not someone who was ever really on my radar. I knew the basic biography. I had a fondness for Some Like It Hot and The Misfits (with the former having a greater appeal when I was much younger, and the latter having much greater impact as I got older). But I never paid much attention to her and her legacy. When I was coming of age, I reflexively rebelled against most establishment icons—and I’m sure I placed her in the category to avoid. What I missed, of course, is that she too was rebelling against many of the same ideas, but in a much more complicated and complex way.
What surprised you the most in your research?
While researching the book, I spent a day at the Smithsonian with Amy Henderson, one of the museum’s popular culture curators. I had asked Amy to imagine that she was making an exhibit on Monroe (as she had just finished one on Katherine Hepburn). Amy really took pause. She said that other than a costume or two, it was hard to think of items that defined Marilyn in the way that, say, Hepburn’s sweaters or scarves defined her essence. I still recall Amy finally saying the difficulty was that Marilyn was something of a “tabula rasa.” That the object that most defined her was her.
In short, I guess most surprising was just how sad her story is—bearing witness to her oftentimes successful but ultimately failed efforts to define (or redefine) herself in a way in which she might feel a truly satisfied sense of self.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle in writing the book was finding the central story. For example, in November 22, 1963 I had a significant event to center the narrative around. With Misfit, I struggled early on to find that. I like to play with narrative structure. And while there are more times than not that I adhere to strict linear movement, I also need the freedom to move the structure around, to find just the right way that certain moments or ideas can work with each other.
But still it needed a core.
At first I just wrote some of the pieces as short stories, particularly involving many of the scenes that would turn into “The Misfits” section of the book. And then I wrote some that centered on the period of Something’s Got to Give.
But still it needed a core.
Somewhere along the way I stumbled into the stories about her last weekend alive, spent at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva Lodge. That penultimate moment spoke to me—her last tightrope walk between tragedy and hope.
In the research I learned that Sinatra had had a warren of tunnels carved out for secret passages between the show room and the lodgings and the casino.
That was a big moment for me.
I began to picture the physical structure of the tunnels as the physical narrative structure of the book—meaning, this idea of Marilyn going through these tunnels could take us into the different directions of her past that would justify the present story. Finally there was a core. A center narrative.
In the end that structure wouldn’t be enough to hold the ideas I wanted to explore. But that was the real launching point for what turned into the final draft.
Can you describe one small anecdote that you learned about Marilyn that inspired a larger scene in the book?
The one that jumps right to mind is the “Wrong Door Raid”—the so-called evening when Joe DiMaggio, convinced that Marilyn was having an affair after she filed for divorce from him, got Frank Sinatra and a small gang of local toughs to bust into the North Hollywood apartment she was visiting and threaten her and her supposed lover. Of course it became farcical, especially when it turned out they entered the wrong apartment (Marilyn was upstairs visiting with a girlfriend), and the single woman sleeping in her Murphy bed screamed, causing the whole event to turn into chaos, resulting in lawsuits and a legacy of scandal. Thinking about it, the failed raid seems almost cinematic, a scene from a movie that Sinatra might have starred in, with Marilyn in the supporting role. But it was real, and it was her life.
How much did you rely on other people’s interpretations of Marilyn?
I tried to keep away from formal interpretations (such as biographies, works of fiction, etc.), as I did not want to be influenced by someone else’s vision of her. I guess part of this was that my ambition was not to find a new take on Marilyn Monroe, but rather to understand aspects of her life in as much as they would help me better understand my ongoing obsession with modern mythmaking, identity, and the negotiation of the inner and outer selves. Now, all that said, I certainly read many interpretations from people who reported on her, knew her, or were around her. But their interpretations were less informative about her and her psychology, and more informative about them, and the effect she had on the people close to her.
Were there any works of fiction that influenced Misfit?
There weren’t any books that specifically influenced Misfit. But that said, I think all good works find ways to inspire my writing. Sometimes it’s a story with precise sentences—making me think very closely about my own, especially in terms of rhythm and precision and word choice. Other books cause me to look at narrative tension, particularly how tension can occur in “quiet” stories, such as the ones I tend to write. I also pay a lot of attention to creative nonfiction and the personal essay—mostly because many of my books are less concerned with coloring inside the lines of genre, and instead are more interested in moving back and forth over those lines in a way that can best articulate the truth of a story.
In an essay about writing nonlinear narrative, you write, “It’s about navigating an unfamiliar world with some sense of predictability, while accepting that underneath the surface meaningful experiences are happening in the most natural, least explanative way.” Can you give an example of how you navigate the unfamiliar world of Marilyn Monroe with some sense of predictability?
It is very easy to line up the series of known events in Marilyn Monroe’s life (or any life for that matter) and then ascribe conventional meaning to the chain of events in a way that may makes logical sense but, to my thinking, actually diminishes the life by turning it into a narrative meant to fit neatly into a larger, already accepted cultural narrative.
In the case of Misfit, the unfamiliar world is the internal world of the story.
As I mentioned earlier, my central objective was not to fashion a dramatized story of her life; it was to explore my own questions and obsessions about identity and myth and so on. To that end, my challenge was to take these known series of events and somewhat accepted myths and to find the human struggle beneath them—one that spoke to a more generalized essence of human nature, and not just something specific to Marilyn Monroe. To me, the moments in Misfit where this is most pronounced are when she consciously tries to shift her own identity—as a child, with her marriages, and at the end of her life.
Do you consider Misfit “historical fiction”?
In general, I’ve resisted the term “historical fiction” forever, mostly because it conjures up an image of a book whose concern is to dramatize an event, as opposed to one that is interested in exploring ideas through its subject or topic. But that’s my problem, and my hang-up. A stereotype I can’t seem to shake. And one that’s probably not even accurate. Overall, I guess, the labels of literature trouble me a little bit. And while I do believe that there are certain contracts to be made with the reader (for example Misfit is called fiction, so as never to misrepresent the imagined parts of the narrative as fact), I do reject the border of fiction and nonfiction as being impenetrable. The stories of our lives. The myths of our culture. They all have woven—no, not woven, that still connotes genre borders—they have all existed in a place where truths come out of facts, and memories, and imagination.
What are you working on now?
I’ve become very interested in an Irish woman named Kay Summersby, who was Eisenhower’s driver during World War II. While there have been many sensationalist stories speculating on their relationship (sometimes propagated by Kay herself), I’m finding her story as an unlikely person to end up in the middle of a moment of history to be really interesting.
1. Much of MISFIT addresses specific moments in Marilyn Monroe’s life when she shifts personas. What are the lines between escaping a past and creating a new future? Can they be done exclusively? What are the risks?
2. Do you see any relationship or similar traits between the eleven year-old Norma Jeane living at her Aunt Ida Martin’s house in 1937 and the thirty-six year-old Marilyn who is spending her last days at the Cal Neva Lodge?
3. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Marlon Brando, There is no Marlon Brando, just a series of characters who play him. Does this apply to the Marilyn of MISFIT? Who is under all these layers that have been formed and created? Had the persona of “Marilyn Monroe” become too big for even her to discard?
4. Many people have trouble reconciling that Marilyn could have been married to both Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller (two men who could not have been more opposite in what they represented and how they approached the world). How do you make sense of that? What was it about both of these men that might have appealed to her?
5. Marilyn often is portrayed as being very savvy throughout her life, particularly in her professional life. But it can also be argued that her drive was directed toward a more personal ambition to better herself—not just professional ambition. For example, she took night classes at UCLA, tried to self-educate herself through reading, studied at the Actors Studio, etc. Were those two ambitions destined to clash, particularly in an industry for which commodification is at its heart?
6. Marilyn seemed to have the unique ability to become the person that people either saw her as or needed/wanted her to be. Is that a positive characteristic? A necessary one? What are some of the moments in MISFIT where you see this as most evident?
7. It’s been fifty years since Marilyn Monroe died. Why do you think she still captures the public’s imagination?