28 November 2018

My work is the only trustworthy hope I have

In late 1954, Marilyn Monroe broke her contract with 20th Century-Fox and left Hollywood for New York. Wishing to be taken seriously as an actress, Marilyn soon started attending classes at the prestigious Actors Studio run by Lee Strasberg. Strasberg became Marilyn's acting coach and mentor --due to her shyness Marilyn was also privately tutored at his home-- and was ultimately one of the most important influences in Marilyn's life. When it came to her acting, Marilyn completely trusted Strasberg and at his suggestion even underwent psychotherapy to become a better actress. Marilyn's third husband Arthur Miller disapproved of the strong hold Strasberg had on Marilyn and called Marilyn's dependency on him "nearly religious". 

Above: Marilyn attending classes at the Actors Studio in New York, photographed by Roy Schatt. Below: Marilyn and Lee Strasberg photographed by Elliott Erwitt in 1960 while watching the rushes of The Misfits (1961).

1961 was a very difficult year for Marilyn, having to deal with her divorce from Arthur Miller in January, her admission to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in February as well as several health issues. During the last months of the year, Marilyn tried to take control of her life again and in December wrote to Lee Strasberg about wanting to make a new start ("I have hopes of finally establishing a piece of ground for myself to stand on, instead of the quicksand I have always been in"). Marilyn wanted to set up a new independent production unit* and needed Strasberg to join her in California, feeling that without him she could not succeed. She had also contacted Marlon Brando to help her set up this new ventureWritten eight months before her death, Marilyn's letter to Strasberg is quite interesting but also sad, as it clearly shows Marilyn's desperation to get her life back on track-- something which, as we know, never happened.

Apart from the letter to Strasberg, also shown below are a scribbled note from Marilyn to Marlon Brando (which was later sent as a telegram) and Brando's reply to her via telegramboth messages from January 1962. Marilyn wanted Brando's opinion about her plan to make Lee Strasberg settle in California, her message undoubtedly related to her letter to Strasberg a month earlier. Apparently Brando tried to phone Marilyn after receiving her message, but as he couldn't reach her he sent her a telegram instead.

Marilyn photographed by George Barris in 1962
December 19, 1961
Mr. Lee Strasberg
135 Central Park West
New York 23, New York
Dear Lee: 
This is an important personal letter and please don’t start to read it until you have the time to give it your careful thought. This letter concerns my future plans and therefore concerns yours as well since my future development as an artist is based on our working together. All this is an introduction; let me outline the recent events, my ideas and my suggestions. 
As you know, for years I have been struggling to find some emotional security with little success, for many different reasons. Only in the last several months, as you detected, do I seem to have made a modest beginning. It is true that my treatment with Dr. Greenson has had its ups and downs, as you know. However, my overall progress is such that I have hopes of finally establishing a piece of ground for myself to stand on, instead of the quicksand I have always been in. But Dr. Greenson agrees with you, that for me to live decently and productively, I must work! And work means not merely performing professionally, but to study and truly devote myself. My work is the only trustworthy hope I have. And here, Lee, is where you come in. To me, work and Lee Strasberg are synonymous. I do not want to be presumptuous in expecting you to come out here for me alone. I have contacted Marlon on this subject and he seems to be quite interested, despite the fact that he is in the process of finishing a movie. I shall talk with him more thoroughly in a day or two. 
Furthermore, and this must be kept confidential for the time being, my attorneys and I are planning to set up and [sic] independent production unit, in which we have envisaged an important position for you. This is still in the formative phase, but I am thinking of you in some consultative position or in whatever way you might see fit. I know you will want enough freedom to pursue your teaching and any other private interests you might want to follow. 
Though I am committed to my analysis, as painful as it is, I cannot definitively decide, until I hear from you, because without working with you only half of me is functioning. Therefore, I must know under what conditions you might consider coming out here and even settling here. 
I know this might sound quite fantastic, but if you add up all the possible advantages it should be a quite rewarding venture. I mean not only for Marlon and me-- but for others. This independent production unit will also be making pictures without me-- this is even required for legal reasons. This will offer an opportunity for Susan if she should be interested and perhaps even for Johnny. And Paulawould have a great many opportunities for coaching. As for you, Lee, I still have the dream of you some day directing me in a film! I know this is a big step to take, but I have the wish that you might realize out here some of the incomplete hopes that were perhaps not fulfilled for you, like Lincoln Center, etc. 
So I don’t know how else to persuade you. I need you to study with and I am not alone in this. I want to do everything in my power to get you to come out --within reason-- as long as it is to your advantage as well as mine. So, Lee, please think this over carefully; this is an awfully important time of my life and since you mentioned on the phone that you too felt things were unsettled, I have dared to hope. 
I have meetings set up with Marlon and also with my attorneys and will phone you if there are any important new developments. Otherwise, please get in touch with me. 
My love to all of you,
Sources: RR Auction and The Marilyn Monroe Collection (for the original image of the letter). 

Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando were both students of Lee Strasberg and had met at a party for the Actors Studio in the 1950s. They had a brief affair and afterwards remained friends until Marilyn's death in 1962.

Source: Bonhams


CR 12151 Western Union 

Dear Marlon 

I need your opinion about a plan for getting Lee out here on more than a temporary basis. Please phone me as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.


Source: Bonhams (image via CNN International)


1962 JAN 13 PM 1 06



* Notes:
-Marilyn Monroe had her own production company, being the third woman in Hollywood after Lois Weber and Mary Pickford. Tired of the dumb-blonde roles 20th Century-Fox kept offering her and of being underpaid at $1,500 per week, Marilyn founded 'Marilyn Monroe Productions Inc.' with friend and photographer Milton Greene in New York late 1954. As Marilyn was still under contract to Fox, a legal battle between her and the studio followed. By the end of 1955, following the immense success of The Seven Year Itch (1955), Fox (not wanting to lose its biggest star) had signed Marilyn to a new contract on hér terms, agreeing to give her more money, the right to pick her own projects, directors and cinematographers, and for each finished film with Fox Marilyn was free to make one film with her own company. In the end, Marilyn Monroe Productions produced only two pictures, i.e. Bus Stop (1956) which was co-produced with Fox and The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), MMP's only independent production. In 1957, Marilyn and Greene parted ways due to disagreements, after which Marilyn bought Greene's share of the company. MMP was to co-produce Something's Got To Give with Fox in 1962but Marilyn died before the film was finished.

-Lee's wife Paula also taught Marilyn and was her personal on-the-set acting coach and confidante during the production of several films; like her husband, Paula was a major influence in Marilyn's life. 
Susan and John were the Strasberg children (both actors), Susan being a good friend of Marilyn's.


  1. Marilyn's life certainly does seem to have been mired in quicksand. From what I've seen of the footage that remains from Something's Got to Give, she might've had a chance at moving beyond the "floozy" characters she usually played and into more mainstream romantic comedy had she been able to finish the film. Hers is such a sad story in so many ways.

    On another note, I've read in various places that Brando wasn't actually a Strasberg student. This from a Backstage magazine piece of earlier this year, "Though Marlon Brando’s lifelike acting style is often attributed to Strasberg’s Method, he was actually trained by Stella Adler; his devotion to Adler and her work was so strong that he wrote the preface to her manual The Art of Acting.”

    1. Yes, Marilyn's story is quite sad indeed. And footage from Something's Got to Give should be interesting to watch.

      As for Brando- he apparently said in his autobiography that he never learned anything from Strasberg, although Strasberg did try to take credit for teaching him how to act. Stella Adler was indeed the one who taught Brando.Thanks for pointing it out!