Hear Marilyn Monroe’s Acting Teacher, Lee Strasberg, Deliver a Moving Eulogy at Her Funeral (1962)

Good­bye, Nor­ma Jean…

Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s star­dom is tru­ly leg­endary. Her image gen­er­ates mil­lions of dol­lars annu­al­ly. From high-end mem­o­ra­bil­ia to lunch­box­es, fridge mag­nets, and oth­er cheap trin­kets, the world still can’t get enough of her, near­ly fifty-five years after her death.

Her act­ing tal­ent was con­sid­er­able, but by and large that is not what she’s cel­e­brat­ed for. Speak­ing at her funer­al, her men­tor Lee Stras­berg, the Artis­tic Direc­tor of the Actors Stu­dio, lament­ed that “the pub­lic who loved her did not have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see her as we did, in many of the roles that fore­shad­owed what she would have become.” In his opin­ion, the movie star’s true des­tiny pegged her to become “one of the finest Amer­i­can stage actress­es of all time.”

Actor Mar­tin Lan­dau remem­bered Mon­roe steel­ing her­self to get up in front of her Actors Stu­dio class­mates for the first time, in a scene from Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie with Mau­reen Sta­ple­ton.

Alas, this is not the sort of Mon­roe moment pos­ter­i­ty pre­serves on a beach tote or sequined t‑shirt.

Strasberg’s mov­ing 1962 eulo­gy, above, acknowl­edged both the 31 inti­mates invit­ed to her final send off, and the crowds out­side the gate. Frank Sina­tra, Ella Fitzger­ald, and Sam­my Davis, Jr. were among the lumi­nar­ies denied entry. Monroe’s for­mer hus­band, base­ball great Joe DiMag­gio banned a whole pan­theon of Hol­ly­wood movers and shak­ers, along with the pub­lic.

If it was­n’t for them, she’d still be here,” he told her lawyer, Mick­ey Rudin.

Stu­dio execs had lit­tle regard for the actress’ well­be­ing, but Stras­berg was both teacher and father fig­ure, allow­ing her beyond the usu­al pro­fes­sion­al bound­aries to become a de fac­to, if prob­lem­at­ic, mem­ber of the fam­i­ly. As his daugh­ter, Monroe’s friend, actress Susan Stras­berg wrote:

Mar­i­lyn broke all the rules I was expect­ed to fol­low. She was unpre­dictable, but he didn’t yell at her. He con­stant­ly val­i­dat­ed her. With her, Pop was vul­ner­a­ble, pater­nal, per­mis­sive. With me he was imper­son­al, crit­i­cal, for­bid­ding. What was I doing wrong? Why didn’t he give me per­mis­sion to be myself as he did her?”

DiMag­gio had orig­i­nal­ly hoped that poet Carl Sand­burg might be avail­able to orate at Monroe’s funer­al. When Sand­burg declined due to ill health, the sad duty fell to Stras­berg, who turned out to be unique­ly pre­pared to ful­fill this role.

The com­plete text of Lee Strasberg’s eulo­gy for Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe is below, as is a short doc­u­men­tary on her involve­ment with the Actors Stu­dio.

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe was a leg­end.

In her own life­time she cre­at­ed a myth of what a poor girl from a deprived back­ground could attain. For the entire world she became a sym­bol of the eter­nal fem­i­nine.

But I have no words to describe the myth and the leg­end. I did not know this Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. We gath­ered here today, knew only Mar­i­lyn – a warm human being, impul­sive and shy, sen­si­tive and in fear of rejec­tion, yet ever avid for life and reach­ing out for ful­fill­ment. I will not insult the pri­va­cy of your mem­o­ry of her – a pri­va­cy she sought and trea­sured – by try­ing to describe her whom you knew to you who knew her. In our mem­o­ries of her she remains alive, not only a shad­ow on the screen or a glam­orous per­son­al­i­ty.

For us Mar­i­lyn was a devot­ed and loy­al friend, a col­league con­stant­ly reach­ing for per­fec­tion. We shared her pain and dif­fi­cul­ties and some of her joys. She was a mem­ber of our fam­i­ly. It is dif­fi­cult to accept the fact that her zest for life has been end­ed by this dread­ful acci­dent.

Despite the heights and bril­liance she attained on the screen, she was plan­ning for the future; she was look­ing for­ward to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the many excit­ing things which she planned. In her eyes and in mine her career was just begin­ning.

The dream of her tal­ent, which she had nur­tured as a child, was not a mirage. When she first came to me I was amazed at the star­tling sen­si­tiv­i­ty which she pos­sessed and which had remained fresh and undimmed, strug­gling to express itself despite the life to which she had been sub­ject­ed.

Oth­ers were as phys­i­cal­ly beau­ti­ful as she was, but there was obvi­ous­ly some­thing more in her, some­thing that peo­ple saw and rec­og­nized in her per­for­mances and with which they iden­ti­fied. She had a lumi­nous qual­i­ty – a com­bi­na­tion of wist­ful­ness, radi­ance, yearn­ing – to set her apart and yet make every­one wish to be a part of it, to share in the child­ish naïveté which was so shy and yet so vibrant.

This qual­i­ty was even more evi­dent when she was in the stage. I am tru­ly sor­ry that the pub­lic who loved her did not have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see her as we did, in many of the roles that fore­shad­owed what she would have become. With­out a doubt she would have been one of the real­ly great actress­es of the stage.

Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sym­pa­thy and under­stand­ing for a sen­si­tive artist and a woman who brought joy and plea­sure to the world.

I can­not say good­bye. Mar­i­lyn nev­er liked good­byes, but in the pecu­liar way she had of turn­ing things around so that they faced real­i­ty – I will say au revoir. For the coun­try to which she has gone, we must all some­day vis­it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Recounts Her Har­row­ing Expe­ri­ence in a Psy­chi­atric Ward in a 1961 Let­ter

A Look Inside Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Per­son­al Library

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Explains Rel­a­tiv­i­ty to Albert Ein­stein (in a Nico­las Roeg Movie)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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