Retracing Marilyn’s Jewish Identity

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.”

Adrien Brody and Ana de Armas play Arthur Miller and Marilyn in Blonde

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