Summer, 1953

Of course, the surface looked sexy enough — parties on Doheny Drive, martini (no olives) in hand, wet red lips, hair like a platinum cloud, white halter top, skintight toreador pants, red peep-toe Ferragamos, and matching cherry polish. Always pale, a milkmaid among Malibu tans.

At twenty-seven, Marilyn Monroe was at the peak of her stardom. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” — her highest-grossing film to date — had launched her into the stratosphere of absolute icon. In less than five years, she’d gone from orphanage waif to child bride to factory girl to car model to GI pinup to studio underling to down-and-out extra to mogul’s mistress to Playboy centerfold to BAFTA nominee. She’d been Sweetheart of the Month, Artichoke Queen, Miss Cheesecake of the Year, Girl Most Likely to Thaw Alaska, Photoplay’s Fastest Rising Star, Redbook’s Best Young Box Office Personality, Look’s Most Promising Female Newcomer, and The Best Friend a Diamond Ever Had. She’d done twenty-one films, three hundred magazine covers, and won three Golden Globes. Marilyn was now Hollywood’s most bankable actress. Not bad for a dirt-poor orphan who’d grown up in foster care and dropped out of high school at sixteen.

But grueling schedules, dawn call times, and constant travel were taking a toll on her. Breakfast of raw eggs whipped in hot milk with lashings of sherry, carrot-juice breaks at Stan’s Drive-In. Giuseppa, her Chihuahua, soiling the carpet. Lonely lunches of raw hamburger and crackers, fights with her agent at Schwab’s. Blowups with boyfriends at La Scala and Romanoff’s. Nightly battles with insomnia, relieved only occasionally by Seconals and Nembutals.

After awards shows she’d flee like Cinderella, skipping the after-party and vanishing by midnight. Alone in her studio dressing room, she’d kick off her heels, strip off her gloves, and unzip a gown that wasn’t hers to begin with. She’d peel off her false lashes, wipe off her makeup with tissues dipped in Pond’s cold cream. Barefoot in jeans and a polo shirt, she’d throw her Ferragamos in the back of her car and drive west on an empty Wilshire Boulevard, speeding at up to 80 miles per hour. Safe at home, she’d drink a glass of sherry, pop a few pills, and sink into blurry sleep.

On set she was known as ditsy and distant, always darting away with a book between takes. Whenever someone would make a friendly overture, Marilyn would clam up. She was too earnest for idle chitchat and considered it a waste of time. As for gossip, she knew too well the havoc it wreaked. While sitting in hair and wardrobe, she’d tune out the whispers and jabs about who had bad skin and who was sleeping with whom and who had just had an abortion. Attempts to squeeze out juicy tidbits were shut down. “I don’t know any,” she’d say with a sigh, “because I don’t get out.”

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Studio gossip and cocktail chatter were the pillars of Hollywood friendships, which were often forged at clannish house parties. Marilyn hated these — what would she even talk about? — it wasn’t as if anyone was dying to know which Turgenev novel she was reading. “I didn’t go out because I couldn’t do polite conversation,” Marilyn remarked. “I couldn’t make table talk, small talk, so I said, ‘What the hell, I’ll just stay home.’” Whenever she did feel like socializing, Marilyn preferred nightclubs such as Crescendo and Mocambo, where she could slink in and out at will and avoid catty banter and boisterous parlor games.

This made for an especially lonely life in Hollywood — which was about cliques, connections, and friends of friends. In Manhattan it was fine to bar-hop on your own, check out your usual spots and see who’s there. In L.A., everyone went to people’s houses: Charlie Chaplin’s in Calabasas or Jack Warner’s on Doheny Drive. They all seemed to have their own group — except Marilyn, who found herself alone even one New Year’s Eve: “Everybody has a date tonight except me. If you’re not doing anything, could we have dinner together?”

“Fundamentally unsure of herself, inclined to be suspicious of people because of past hurts she’s suffered, Marilyn isn’t easy to know,” wrote Rita Malloy in Motion Picture magazine. And she wasn’t. Hollywood would always be a bit baffled by her — skipping studio parties to ride roller coasters at Ocean Park or dreamily reading aloud from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” whenever she broke for lunch. Who was this warm-blooded space creature who lugged around dictionaries, spoke like a drugged-up puppy, and looked like a French pastry? And how could they make sense of a girl who got lost on her way to the bathroom, took sixty takes to learn a line, then went home alone to read Heinrich Heine?

From “Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy” by Elizabeth Winder. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.