Snapshot I: Banff, July 1953
“Marilyn! Give us a big smile!”
She turns towards the photographer’s voice. She wiggles her bum, juts out her breasts, and smiles. She poses near the edge of a swimming pool at Banff Springs Hotel wearing a black two-piece.
Click. Flash. Click.
She widens her mouth and runs her tongue over her teeth. She had Whitey come to her room this morning to do her hair and make-up. It takes more than an hour to transform into Marilyn. He’s covered the inside of her lips in a thin layer of Vaseline, an old pin-up girl trick, to ensure her lipstick doesn’t stick to her teeth. Whitey has said more than once, “You are my greatest canvas.”
At least ten photogs circling the edge of the pool: she called the press herself and told them she would be available today. She stands on one foot, in a black kitten heel, and leans on silver crutches from the local hospital. She kicks her wrapped injured ankle out behind her, making a ninety-degree angle of her legs. In the background, the Rocky Mountains jut into the sky in all their ambivalent hubris.
She is here in the Rockies filming a movie called River of No Return and it is beginning to feel like a mistake.
“Marilyn – how’s the ankle?” a journalist armed with a notepad asks.
“Oh, much better, thank you!” She makes her voice sound honey sweet. “I’ll be back on set in no time.” She is doing damage control.
A few days ago, she stood in the Bow River alongside her co-star Robert Mitchum. The director Otto made them do take after take in the teeth-chattering current, holding the wet edges of a poplar log raft, screaming dialogue at each other. Robert is a drinker and couldn’t remember his lines. She doesn’t recall why or how this scene fits into the film’s story,but she remembers her waders filling up with water. A rapid pulled her. The water is so clear she could see all the way to the stony bottom. Once she was under the surface, she was so cold she almost felt warm.
Someone pulled her out and slapped her back like a doctor slaps a newborn. That is when she twisted her ankle on the slippery rocks. She coughed and gasped as Robert held her up under her armpits. “Jesus Christ Marilyn. We thought we’d lost you!” he yelled. Snot ran down her face, bark stuck out from under her fingernails, and her ankle throbbed hot and sharp. She is the dumb blonde who needs a big strong man to rescue her. She is tired of this story.
“Marilyn, Marilyn! Over here please!”
She obliges. She tilts her head towards her left shoulder so the sun is not in her eyes. She imagines how the photos will look in black-and-white: the dark swimsuit highlighting her curves, her platinum hair luminescent in the sun, the black shoe contrasting with the bandage on her injured foot. She wears fake eyelashes to make her eyes look bigger and red lipstick so her lips contrast with the paleness of her skin (Whitey has over twenty shades of red and he mixes them like a painter using a palette). They are shooting the movie in Technicolor which feels garish.
“When exactly will you be back on set Marilyn? We hear your director is getting anxious.”
“Soon!” she assures them.
Otto has not sent flowers or come to her room to ask how she is feeling. All he said as the doctor checked her over was, “Thank God you didn’t bang up your face.” She knows he thinks she is exaggerating her injury to get out of filming. Even so, she doesn’t understand why he’s so angry at her. The press interest in her injury, in her, is worth thousands of dollars of promotion.
She thought this movie would be different, away from the Hollywood studio system, retreating into the wilds of Canada. But the system came along with the cameras and the wardrobes and the director Otto who, despite trying all her charms to endear him to her, made up his mind about her before they even met and certainly before she hurt her ankle.
She is not sure why she let go of the raft.
Her acting coach Natasha tells the photographers, “That is all for today. Marilyn needs to rest.” Natasha offers her a white terry cloth robe which seems silly. She stands under a beam of the summer sun shining through the cool mountain air. She stands on her heel, in her bikini, for a few more minutes signing autographs and 8x10s for the journalist’s buddies, girlfriends, dads (when really she knows the signature, the moment, is for them).
Natasha takes her arm and leads her back to her cabin. “The mosquitos and the chill in the air remind me of the Black Forest. I worry you will catch a cold.”
“I’ll be fine Natasha. As long as I stay off my foot, it doesn’t hurt too much.”
“The foot is only part of my worries. It was cruel of Otto to make you spend all day in freezing water. You are his star. He is a little man. A little dictator,” Natasha says this in her German accent and with life experience.
Natasha is the bossy mother bear she never had; her real mother Gladys barely knew where Norma Jeane was at any given time. She has blurry memories of being taken to visit Gladys in various institutions. In a few brief attempts, she and Gladys lived together but those times always ended in disaster. Gladys was not able to be a mother, so Norma Jeane grew up being shuttled from foster home to foster home. A few of the women who looked after her were kind (and strict) but many were also indifferent (especially if their men paid too much attention to pretty little Norma Jeane). That is all behind her now. She can choose her own family.
Natasha commands, “Rest. Don’t stay up all night on the phone.” The drama coach kisses her on the cheek and leaves the room. She nods like an obedient child.
She orders two bottles of champagne and a grilled cheese sandwich from room service. She has problems sleeping at the best of times (which this is not) and hopes a few glasses of champagne will relax and warm her. She has pills too but they make it hard to wake up in the morning and she has already literally gotten off on the wrong foot with the director. While she waits for room service, she telephones friends in Los Angeles. No one is home. Joe is on his way to Canada. In the next few days, the set is moving north to a different resort town called Jasper and he will meet her there. She thinks she could be in love with Joe.
Joe’s a famous baseball player. Well, he’s an American hero: they call him “the Yankee Clipper.” He’s actually from San Francisco but has lived in New York for most of his adult life. Joe is famous enough that he says he’s had enough of that life and he wants her to marry him. She has been a wife before and is not sure she wants to be one again. He does make her feel safe though and that is a rare thing.
She spends the evening drinking her champagne and quietly practicing a sad song for a scene where her dumb blonde character sings in a dingy bar. Around 10pm, she decides to sit outside to watch the sun set. She puts on a cardigan, refills her glass of bubbly, and limps without her crutches to sit in a red wooden chair outside her hotel room.
As the sun wanes over the mountain tops, she pushes brittle pine needles with her toes poking out of her wrapped foot. She outlines hearts in the dirt. She is going to talk to a doctor and insist on a cast. Everything will be better when Joe gets here.
Snapshot II: Jasper, Summer 1953
She sinks into a shallow bath full of bubbles in her cabin at Becker’s Bungalows in Jasper. She sticks her exposed big toe in the silver faucet, careful not to get her casted foot wet. It is early evening and she’s had a long day back on set. Every morning at 7:30am, the crew boards a train called the “Devona Special” that takes them to location out in the woods. Today, Robert was still drunk from the night before, the mosquitos were bad, and Otto barely used her at all. She doesn’t know if she was even on film. She thinks Otto made her come out just to show her he is the boss.
Jasper is different than Banff. In Banff the mountains are majestic, like castles or cathedrals. In Jasper they seem older somehow, narrower, more rugged. Jasper feels more remote, quieter than Banff. It is further north and is a smaller town. Of course, there is attention wherever she goes, and frankly wherever Joe goes too, but people also respect them and ask before taking their photo. One night she and Joe had dinner at a restaurant called Spero’s where they were warmly welcomed and hardly interrupted. As they were leaving, the owner tried to treat them to their dinner (Joe refused and paid him handsomely). She thanked Mr. Spero with a kiss on the cheek. One of the crew told her that people in town said the old Greek man put clear tape over the lipstick mark and proudly told the story for the whole next day until his wife made him wash his face.
She thought Joe coming up to Canada would make things better. In some ways it has. But after an initial flurry of sex and promises upon his arrival, they’ve spent most of their time together fighting. Joe says he wants her to give up Hollywood and settle down with him, but she knows that he would get bored so quickly. She does not want to spend her days fetching his slippers and a whiskey while a tomato sauce bubbles red on a stove. She will never be as good a cook as his Sicilian mama. In the times she was able to live with her mother when she was a child, Gladys worked in the cutting rooms of studios. Gladys always told Norma Jeane, “You are pretty enough to be a movie star. If you play nice, you could live up to your name, become the next Jean Harlow.” Now that dream is coming true. She has spent too much time on the casting couch and is too close to real fame to give it all up now for something quiet and small. Why can’t Joe understand that? He has fame.
Love always leads her down the wrong path.
The cabin door creaks open.
“Marilyn!” She hears Joe’s voice. “I have some very special fans who want to say ‘hello’.”
“Just a minute,” she says making her voice cheerful.
She is surprised Joe didn’t tell the autograph seekers to come back later. He fiercely guards the little privacy they have. He will sign baseballs and 8x10s and autograph books and be courteous but when he is done, he is done. She still feels like fans are doing her a favour by asking. She knows she has a long way to go as an actress, Natasha says she could be great if she just works hard enough, and she also knows that being a fan favorite makes the studio nicer. He should understand why she doesn’t want to give it up when she is on the edge of something truly great.
She carefully steps out of the tub, wipes bubbles away from the edge of the plaster below her knee, and wraps herself in a fluffy white robe. She opens the bathroom door a smidge and calls out, “Joe, Honey, can you come here for a moment?”
She hears him say, “Wait here a minute Fellas.” She hears his footsteps on the wooden floorboards as he makes his short way from the cabin’s front door through the kitchen and living area and toward the small bedroom adjoining the bathroom. She sits on the bed. He opens the bedroom door slowly. He is tall and carries himself with an athlete’s muscled confidence. She thinks he is one of the most handsome men she has been with.
“Joe,” she whispers, “Is it press?”
“Baby, it’s three kids. Maybe ten, twelve. They walked all the way from town. They just want to get a look at you. Maybe an autograph.”
She doesn’t know whether to think of this as sweet or strange so she chooses to think it is sweet.
“I started to wash my make-up off and I don’t know if Whitey is even here right now …”
“Sweetheart, they don’t care about that. Must have taken them more than an hour to get here. They just want to say they met you.”
“Alright. Pass me my checkered trousers on the bed and that blouse on the hanger.”
She waits for him to lecture her about being messy but he doesn’t say anything. She forgoes underwear and puts on the clothes. She swipes on a bit of red lipstick to make an effort. She leaves her hair pinned up. She looks at her reflection in a full-length mirror and runs her hands over her breasts and torso to make sure the blouse is smooth against her body. She rolls her shoulders back, takes a deep breath, and smiles to the mirror. She becomes Marilyn.
She walks out of the bedroom and greets the three boys with a breathy whisper, “Well, hello! I hear you walked all the way here just to meet me.”
“Yes Miss Monroe,” the tallest boy says. The three kids stand at the open doorway.
“Well, come in, come in,” she says.
The boys jostle and fidget as they step into the cabin.
“What are your names?” she asks.
“I’m Robert, that’s Jim and this here is James,” Robert pushes a smaller blonder boy forward.
“Well, it is very nice to meet you all. How wonderful to have such nice friends. How do you all know each other?”
“We go the same school Miss,” Robert answers for the three of them.
“There is only one school!” Jim chimes in.
She smiles. “Are you hungry? Would you like a snack? Joe – do we have milk and cookies?”
Joe shakes his head.
“We’re fine Miss. We are hoping to get a photo with you. Jim has his dad’s camera,” Robert says.
“I would love to take a photo with you. Joe – should we go outside where the light is better?”
“Sure,” Joe says, unaccustomed to being someone who takes the photo.
She ushers the boys back outside and stands between Jim and Robert, putting her an arm around each of them. The boys come up to her shoulders. The all have shaggy summer hair bleached by the sun. She imagines their moms will take them to a barber for a trim before school starts again.
“This will sure give me something to say when Miss Emes makes us write about summer vacation,” Jim says.
She leans forward and gives a big wide smile.
Click. Click. Click.
Joe takes a few photos.
She leads them back inside the cabin and signs a stock 8×10 for each of them: From your girl, Marilyn.
“Would you boys like to see a real-live movie set? We are making a picture called River of No Return. You should come out and see it.”
“We’ll have to ask my mom. We might get in trouble when she finds out we came out here today,” James says.
“Your mother is very welcome to come too. We all take the train out to the set in the morning. We will be here for another week or two.”
The boys all nod. “I guess we better be going,” Jim says. “Thanks so much Miss Marilyn.”
“You are very welcome. I am always happy to meet my biggest fans.” She adds, “You should be careful out there on the road,” she says. “Someone on the film crew said they saw a bear yesterday.”
“There are always bears around here Miss. They’re mostly looking for berries this time of year. We aren’t scared of bears,” the youngest boy says with a sincere bravado.
“Just in case, maybe Joe can drive you back to town.”
“That would be nice Miss. Jim here is sweating through his Sunday shirt. Between that and him taking the camera, his mom might get out her wooden spoon,” Robert teases.
Jim shoves him.
“Well, we don’t want that!” She exclaims. “Joe, Honey, can you give these boys a lift home? Maybe you can tell them a baseball story.”
“Sure thing,” Joe says. “I’ve always wanted to be a chauffeur.” He says it jokingly but she worries he will bring this up later. He has a hot-head Italian temper and she sometimes gets the brunt of it.
She gives each boy a kiss on the cheek and watches them pile into Joe’s rented car. The drive to town will only take fifteen minutes each way but that is half an hour she can have to herself before she hears about what she should have done differently.
She pops a cork, pours herself a glass of champagne, and gets back into the tub. She doesn’t even care that the water is cold.
Snapshot III: Jasper, August 1953
“Do you think those bears are in the movie?”
She sits in a canvas chair outside as Whitey applies foundation to her face. About a hundred yards away, two black bears the size of big dogs rummage through garbage they have strewn on the ground after turning over two of three tall metal cans. They are having a noisy feast.
Whitey pauses from applying contour lines and looks over at the bears. “No – the trainers would not let them roam around eating refuse. The poor film animals have collars and are chained up: those two bears are wild.”
“Of course. You know I like to document our creations. I have also taken some gorgeous snaps of the mountains. The light here is gorgeous in the morning.”
“I suppose that is one good thing about having to get to set so early.”
“The train is fun,” Whitey says. “Like travelling back in time.”
“Sure,” she says. “Whitey, I want you to take my picture with the bears.”
“Yes. I just want a photo with them. I’ve been hoping to see lots of animals here and so far all I’ve seen are elk.” She starts unbuttoning her smock that keeps her blouse free of powder and errant colour. Then she changes her mind, “I’ll keep the smock on. This photo is just for us. I will wear sunglasses since you haven’t done my eyes yet.”
She grips the handles of her canvas chair and puts her weight on her good foot before gingerly putting weight on her bad ankle. Otto insisted she removed the cast, but her ankle is still tender and sore. She has some good painkillers from the onset physician. High heels are still a torture though so, unless she is filming, she wears brown leather moccasins she was given as a gift from one of the extras on set who is an actual local Native Chief. People in Jasper have been very kind to her.
Whitey touches her arm, “Do you think it is a good idea to get so close to them?”
“I’ll stand to the side. Miss Golden Dreams and the two bears,” she laughs at her own joke about her infamous nude calendar photo.
“More like Cinderella with your lame foot”
“Silly, Cinderella only lost her shoe, she didn’t hurt her foot.”
“In all seriousness, don’t get too close Marilyn. They are just young cubs, probably born this spring. Their mother is likely close by. She’ll make herself known if she thinks you are a threat. I know we always joke that I’ll do your make-up until you are cold and gray, but I am not ready for that just yet.”
“How do you know so much about bears Whitey?”
He takes his hand from her arm and waves his hand in the air, “I have lots of time to read on set my darling.”
“Did you know they eat berries?” She shares one of the boys’ comments.
“I did,” Whitey says. “I heard someone say they especially like blueberries. And those little purple berries up here called saskatoons.”
She smiles. Whitey is probably her best friend. It is nice to be so close to a man who doesn’t want what most other men want from her (even if they say they want more). She senses that Whitey does not approve of Joe.
She approaches the bears slowly. They root through the garbage like piglets she once helped look after on a foster family’s farm. She loves animals. Maybe if she marries Joe they can get a pet. She’s always wanted a little wiener dog. Or a poodle. At least a cat.
She thinks about the mama watching from the trees. Her mother Gladys was never close by and she never protected her. When Gladys wasn’t in the hospital, her mind whirred with her own obsessions, failed dreams, and future schemes. Gladys wasn’t able to be a mother to Norma Jeane. She wonders if Gladys reads the letters and clippings she sends to the institution. Her life is a dream, a fairytale, and maybe Joe is as close to Prince Charming as she will find. Is this her happy ending? The hero coming to her in an enchanted forest in the mountains and rescuing her from the big bad director? No, she does not want to play the little girl lost. She is a star on the edge of bursting brighter than anyone could have imagined. She wants to shine on her own.
“Ready?” Whitey asks.
“Yes,” she lowers her sunglasses from the top of her head to cover her eyes. She puts her left hand in the pocket of the smock.
“Smile Goldilocks,” Whitey teases.
The bears do not seem to notice her.
Diana Davidson lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her historical fiction novel Pilgrimage was shortlisted for the Alberta Readers Choice Awards in 2014. Her current project is a novel called Liberations that opens on May 8, 1945 as Canadian troops end Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. She has been fascinated by Marilyn since she was thirteen.