Writing for UK weekly newspaper The Jewish Chronicle, Nathan Abrams – Professor of Film Studies at Bangor University – asks, ‘Why don’t people realise that Marilyn Monroe was Jewish?’ And indeed, it’s true that Marilyn’s embrace of Judaism has been somewhat overlooked. (However, she has been featured in exhibitions at New York’s Jewish Museum, and a 2019 cover story for the Atlanta Jewish Times. MM fan Simone Esther has also written an interesting blog post about Marilyn’s conversion.)
“The famous female Jewish icons of the 20th century normally include figures like Lauren Bacall or Barbra Streisand. Marilyn Monroe? Not so much. But that is incorrect. ‘Marilyn was a myth,’ wrote the journalist Max Lerner in 1962. And that myth was Jewish. Monroe chose to convert to Judaism upon her marriage in 1956 to the Jewish playwright Arthur Miller.
Miller was born on October 17, 1915, in Harlem, New York City borough of Manhattan, to Jewish parents. He was brought up in a religious home, his grandfather was the president of his synagogue, and Miller read enough Hebrew to understand about 20 per cent of it. He fondly recalled Friday nights at which he ‘felt the warmth of closeness with my family’ and sitting in the synagogue on Shabbat with his grandfather.
But like so many second-generation Jewish-American youngsters at that time, Miller distanced himself from his origins. He was discomforted with his Jewishness and his father’s ‘so Jewish name, Isidore’ embarrassed him. ‘I had already been programmed to choose something other than pride in my origins,’ he wrote later in his autobiography, Timebends, dreaming of ‘entering West Point, and in my most private reveries I was no sallow Talmud reader but Frank Meriwell or Tom Swift, heroic models of athletic verve and military courage.’
As a sign of that desire to leave his religious and ethnic origins behind, Miller married out of the faith when he wed Mary Grace Slattery, who was Catholic, in 1940. They had two children together.
And when he began to write plays, Jewishness was submerged, hidden beneath metaphors and analogies which would have been obvious to a Jewish viewer but perhaps not to a general audience. The exception to this is his little known anti-antisemitism novel, Focus, which was published in 1945. Only later did Miller become openly at ease with his Jewishness and it wasn’t until the 1960s — after he divorced Monroe — that his plays, such as After the Fall, began to feature more explicitly Jewish material.
Miller met Monroe on the set of the 1951 movie As Young As You Feel. When he first shook her hand that day, Miller recalled, ‘the shock of her body’s motion sped through me’ … It wasn’t until five years later, in June 1956, that Miller left Mary to marry Monroe. The marriage was announced with the headline ‘Egghead Weds Hourglass’ and was a source of great pride for American Jews after World War II, a form of acceptance, as one of their own married the blonde bombshell of her age.
Given Miller’s ambivalence about his Jewishness, she did not convert on his insistence. Rather, in a desire to embrace the family she lacked, Monroe, who was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, decided herself to become Jewish. She believed it would bring her closer to Arthur and his parents. And she took the decision seriously, embracing her new identity … Miller, though, was more sceptical, saying that her conversion was brief, superficial and perfunctory. ‘The rabbi was a reform or liberal and he sat with Marilyn for a couple of hours and that was it.’
‘I’m not religious, but she wanted to be one of us and that was why she took some instruction. I don’t think you could say she became a Jewess, but still she took it all very seriously. I would say she wanted to join me and become part of my life. But her interest in talking to the rabbi had about it an unreality to me.’
Although Monroe called herself a ‘Jewish atheist’, she maintained her Jewish identity after her marriage to Miller ended in 1961 … But despite continuing to consider herself Jewish until her death the following year, her funeral was conducted by a Lutheran minister and Monroe was not buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Jewish or not, our fascination with Marilyn Monroe endures and a new film, Blonde, based on her life, opens on September 28th.
Where Ana de Armas plays Monroe, Arthur Miller is played by the actor Adrien Brody, who has Jewish heritage. It will be very interesting to see how the movie treats this somewhat unknown dimension of the myth.”
In another recent article for US newspaper The Forward, PJ Grisar revealed how Marilyn’s Jewish marriage is depicted in Blonde.
“A few months ago, Joyce Carol Oates, as is her wont, tweeted something baffling:
‘When I was first married to my (Jewish) husband two Jewish women friends of mine took me aside and said with wry smiles: “Welcome to the club.” Soon, I knew what they meant.’
No one was entirely sure what Oates meant … But watching Blonde, the fitful, NC-17 fever dream of Oates’ best-known novel, about Marilyn Monroe (née Norma Jeane Baker), I couldn’t stop thinking of what she — and filmmaker Andrew Dominik — meant to say with their portrayal of Arthur Miller.
While Oates’ novel lightly obscures key names with titles like ‘Ex-athlete’ and ‘the Playwright,’ Dominik’s film — a punishing and impressionistic Hollywood martyr story — is more direct. Though never named as such, Bobby Cannavale plays ‘Joltin’ Joe’ DiMaggio and Adrien Brody is Arthur Miller. The two men serve as polarised totems of Norma Jeane’s love life.
At this point in the film we are entering some potentially hazardous territory, with an avatar of tender-hearted, New York Jewish erudition (the sort that won’t raise a hand to you), wooing the picture of peroxided goyishe beauty. Monroe’s own conversion to Judaism is duly glossed over … While skipping the steps leading up to a pivotal transformation, Blonde wants to tell us about the roles we play and the constructs we fit into.
In the end, the role Miller plays, as yet another surrogate for Norma’s missing father, is fungible … But the larger point, in all its glaring banality, is we can never really know a person if we insist on simple classifications like ‘Jewish husband,’ ‘ex-athlete’ or ‘blonde.’ Oates should know that too — she wrote the book on it.”
Thanks to A Passion for Marilyn