A Swiss editor is behind a major publishing coup which hits European bookstores on October 7: the private writings of the film star Marilyn Monroe.
The collection of writings is being published simultaneously in a number of European countries before they appear in the United States.
The man behind the book is Bernard Comment, who has been granted the world rights to Monroe’s writings by Anna Strasberg, who controls the star’s estate. Monroe studied acting under Strasberg’s husband Lee, and left him her personal effects in her will when she died in 1962.
Comment, who is in charge of the “Fiction & Co” section of the French publishers Seuil, told swissinfo.ch that Monroe may not have changed his life, but she had kept him up for many a night as he worked on the collection, which is being published under the title “Fragments”.
Monroe is well known for her sexy poses, her sensual voice, her affairs with famous men, her fragility and her death. But few of her writings have been published before. From 1943 to 1962 – the year she died – she wrote down her candid reflections about herself and the world she lived in.
swissinfo.ch : Tell us about your recent visits to the United States and Britain which were entirely devoted to the publication of this book.
Bernard Comment: The book itself is still under embargo. But the few people who have read it are really excited about it. The American monthly Vanity Fair is publishing extracts in its next number. Initially the editor wasn’t planning to make Marilyn the cover story, because she had been on the front two years ago. But when he read the text he changed his mind. Der Spiegel in Germany, El Pais in Spain, le Nouvel Observateur in France are all devoting dozens of pages to the book. This is taking up a lot of my time. I’m the one who selected the foreign publishers. In all these countries, except the United States, Seuil is actually printing the book.
swissinfo.ch : What’s the story behind it? How is it that Anna Strasberg, who now manages Marilyn’s estate, agreed to allow you, a Swiss living in France, to publish these writings?
B.C.: It all started by chance: I met a friend of the Strasberg family in Paris, and he mentioned these unpublished texts by Marilyn. I rushed off straight away to see Anna Strasberg in New York. I wasn’t actually very hopeful. Firstly, I wasn’t really sure of the intrinsic quality of the writing. And then I didn’t have a lot of money to offer. Paradoxically, that’s what attracted Mrs Strasberg. Her interest wasn’t commercial but literary. In fact, we never spoke about money. Never. And if I revealed the value of the contract no-one would believe me.
swissinfo.ch : What did Marilyn use to write?
B.C.: Notebooks, where usually she only filled the first few pages. Headed notepaper from big hotels, like the Waldorf, or from the apartment where she stayed with Arthur Miller. And a few letters.
swissinfo.ch : What struck you most when you first saw these texts ?
B.C.: The way Marilyn explored her own despair. It often leaves you reeling, and it is always touching. She was very generous, endlessly giving of herself. What also struck me was the poetic brilliance of some of the writing, although the style is never affected. We know that she got her friends to read these texts, especially the writer Norman Rosten. But they weren’t designed for publication. They are intimate, but always very chaste. I was never in the slightest embarrassed as I read them. I can tell you that there are no revelations about her sex life, or about the Kennedys.
swissinfo.ch : Are people envious of you, especially in the United States?
B.C.: Perhaps. My American colleagues have made no secret of their surprise. Some are rather annoyed at not having got their hands on these documents themselves. Other publishers had approached Anna Strasberg before me, with fat cheques in their pockets. But Mrs Strasberg was worried that they just wanted to prey on Marilyn. She wanted a book which showed Marilyn as an author, without a photo of her in a bikini.
swissinfo.ch : Did the fact of being Swiss help you?
B.C.: Who knows? One thing I can say for certain is that it was essential not to be arrogant, and not to stint on enthusiasm.
Marilyn Monroe (1926-62)
Monroe grew up as Norma Jean Baker in Los Angeles.
Her mother was mentally unstable and unable to care for her daughter, who spent much of her childhood in foster homes.
Her first career was in modelling, which led to her first film contract in 1946.
Her best known films, in which she played a “dumb blonde” were the comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and The Seven Year Itch (1955).
In 1955 she started to take acting lessons in the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg, who later said that of the hundreds of actors with whom he had worked, she – and Marlon Brando – stood “way above the rest”.
She extended her range in the critically acclaimed Bus Stop (1956).
She was nominated for a Bafta award for the Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and won a Golden Globe for Some Like it Hot (1959).
She was married three times, including to the playwright Arthur Miller.
She had affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy.
Towards the end of her life she was having psychiatric treatment, and feared ending up in an asylum like her mother and grandmother.
She died in August 1962 from acute barbiturate poisoning: the coroner described her death as “probable suicide”.
However conspiracy theories abound, including that she was murdered.
She bequeathed her personal effects to Strasberg, asking him to distribute them among her friends and colleagues. However, he stored them in a warehouse, and left them to his wife Anna.
Her collected writings are appearing under the French title «Marilyn Monroe, Fragments. Poèmes, écrits intimes, lettres»
Biographers have already had access to some of her letters and poems, but the recent discovery of two boxes of her papers produced sufficient work to make a book feasible.
Comment is a Swiss writer, translator and editor born in the western town of Porrentruy in 1960.
He published his first novel, « L'ombre de mémoire» (The Shadow of Memory) in 1990.
He has translated into French several novels by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi.
In 1999 he became fiction editor at the France Culture cultural radio station.
He has been in charge of the Fiction & Co section of the Seuil publishing house since 2004.
By Mathieu von Berchem, swissinfo.ch
translated from French by Julia Slater