Having known for some time of the unlikely friendship between the dour T.S. Eliot and the zany Groucho Marx, I was intrigued to learn that the weird poet Edith Sitwell was friends with the wild sexpot Marilyn Monroe.
There is a famous photograph from 1953 of the two of them sharing a sofa and engaged in conversation. The juxtaposition of the aristocratic Englishwoman with the Hollywood starlet makes one wonder about the two women and the lessons we might learn from their famous and fragile lives. When examined, it is not surprising that they became friends, for beneath the contrasting surface they were sisters-in-arms.
The meeting between the unlikely friends happened because Sitwell had been commissioned to write an article about Hollywood. The movie moguls arranged the conversation for publicity purposes. Maybe the two would hate each other and sparks would fly and headlines would be made. Instead of fireworks a friendship sparked. Sitwell said of Marilyn, “On the occasion of our meeting she wore a green dress and, with her yellow hair, looked like a daffodil.” Later she described Monroe, “In repose her face was at moments strangely, prophetically tragic, like the face of a beautiful ghost—a little spring-ghost, an innocent fertility daemon, the vegetation spirit that was Ophelia.” In her autobiography she added that Marilyn was “quiet, with great natural dignity and extremely intelligent.” They talked about Rudolf Steiner.
They met for the second time in July 1956 when Marilyn was in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl, and in a BBC interview Sitwell said she had met Monroe and Arthur Miller again during a visit to New York. Then Sitwell revealed her true sympathy for Marilyn Monroe, “She was a very nice girl and I thought she had been disgracefully treated.” After defending Monroe’s nude modeling on account of poverty, Sitwell continued, “the poor girl was absolutely persecuted.”
Much has been written about Monroe’s vulnerability and instability, and most observers rightly trace her problems to her horrible childhood. Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jean Mortensen to Gladys Pearl Baker. Although Martin Mortensen is named as her father, her paternity remained mysterious. The young girl’s mother soon drifted into a complete mental and emotional breakdown, at which point Norma Jean was taken into foster care. Gladys interrupted her daughter’s life until the poor woman was finally taken screaming and laughing to an asylum.
After another failed foster family, with an abusive father, Norma Jean ended up in the Los Angeles Children’s Home, and then bounced to another adoptive family where she was probably sexually abused again before entering into a teenaged marriage in a sad attempt at security.
For her part, Edith Sitwell also endured a bizarre and unhappy childhood. Neglected, unlovely and unloved, her father thought education for girls made them “unwomanly” and refused to send her to school. Edith’s mother, Lady Ida Sitwell, was insane and given to “ungovernable and terrifying rages.” An alcoholic, she once pawned her mother’s false teeth for brandy. Perpetually impoverished, she got involved in a fraudulent bonds swindle and spent three months in jail. Finally she went down with aphasia—a disorder that renders the sufferer unable to comprehend language of any sort.
Sitwell’s father was also a notable eccentric, and accounts of the family life in their country mansion Renishaw Hall sounds like a mix of the Addams Family and the Royal Tenenbaums. Her parents thought the bird-like Edith was too tall and gangly with weak ankles, so she was strapped into metal orthopaedic braces and iron corsets. Furthermore, because her long nose was considered a “cartilaginous deformity,” she was forced to wear a nose truss. Prongs were clamped on to her face, held in place by a leather belt buckled around her forehead.
It damaged her deeply. Her two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, were both highly dysfunctional and self-absorbed, and Edith Sitwell’s biographers all noted that she remained strangely sexless, never having a genuine, loving relationship with anyone.
It is no wonder then, that Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe—at first glance so utterly different—would find in one another a kindred spirit. Like many unloved persons they created a lovable persona. Desperate for attention, they became actresses and entertainers: Monroe most obviously, but Sitwell too. Wearing her outlandish costume and reading her poems through a megaphone, Sitwell’s major work was called Facade—An Entertainment. In many ways the bizarre composition was a self-portrait.
Marilyn wore the costume of the screen goddess. Edith wore the costume of the medieval queen. Both wore masks: Marilyn the pretty ingénue; Edith the poetic genius. Marilyn attracted and repelled with her kittenish sex appeal. Edith attracted and repelled with her aristocratic and artistic hauteur. Marilyn did a song and dance; Edith, with her poetic performances and creative costumes did the same. Both of them assuaged their hurting heart with substances to dull the pain: Marilyn famously addicted to every pill and potion Hollywood had on offer, while Edith repeated her mother’s alcoholism—being described by biographers as “a paranoid alcoholic.”
Marilyn famously slid down the path of celebrity self-destruction, ending in her sad and sleazy suicide in 1962. Edith was saved. She found reconciliation and resolution in her conversion to the Catholic faith. In 1955 she was received at the Jesuit church in Farm Street. Alec Guinness and Evelyn Waugh (both wounded souls themselves) were there. Waugh was her godfather and described Sitwell as ”swathed in black like a 16th century infanta.”
Two years later Sitwell took to a wheelchair suffering from Marfan syndrome, and she spent her final years living in a small flat in London, dying from a brain hemorrhage on December 9, 1964—just two years after her friend Marilyn.
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