The Marilyn Monroe Collection Anna Strasberg Exclusive Interview: Part I

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In just a few short weeks, Julien’s Auctions will host the largest Marilyn Monroe three-day auction event in history. Comprising roughly 1,000 lots, the auction will offer an unparalleled array of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and ephemera, including film worn costumes, personal clothing and effects, and hundreds of original photos of Marilyn, along with many other items.

The auction will offer fans and collectors the chance to buy never-before-seen photos of Marilyn taken by Monroe Six member Frieda Hull, instantly recognizable film costumes from the David Gainsborough Roberts collection, and the “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress, worn by Marilyn Monroe as she serenaded President John F. Kennedy at a Democratic fundraiser on May 19, 1962. This auction will also offer the last of the items of Marilyn Monroe, which are part of the Lee Strasberg archives.

In an exclusive, first-ever interview, Anna Strasberg sits down with the MMC and opens up about overseeing the legacy of Marilyn Monroe. She offers her thoughts on Marilyn and shares memories of her late husband, Lee Strasberg.

Lee Strasberg was a director, a theatre practitioner, and an Oscar nominated actor. He is considered the father of method acting in America. In 1951, he became the director of the Actors Studio in New York, which was considered the most prestigious acting school in the country.

Lee Strasberg

Lee Strasberg

Marilyn Monroe fled Hollywood for New York in late 1954. She was ready to move away from the comedic roles in Hollywood and become a serious dramatic actress. She was introduced to Strasberg in early 1955 by producer/director Cheryl Crawford, one of the Acting Studio’s founding members.

Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg, New York City, 1955

Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg, New York City, 1955

Lee became Marilyn’s mentor and teacher. Marilyn also bonded with Paula, Lee’s wife at the time. Paula, who passed away in 1966, coached Marilyn and was with her on-set for several films, including The Misfits and Something’s Got to Give.

Paula Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits, 1960

Paula Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits, 1960

Marilyn came to rely heavily on Lee for her professional development, and she frequently attended sessions at the Actors Studio.  An important and influential presence in her life, Marilyn wrote to him in December of 1961 asking that he consider relocating to California to join her in a new production company. “This is an important personal letter and please don’t start to read it until you have the time to give it your careful thought,” wrote Marilyn. “This letter concerns my future plans and therefore concerns yours as well since my future development as an artist is based on our working together.” She writes later in the letter, “…for me to live decently and productively, I must work! And work means not merely performing professionally, but to study and truly devote myself. My work is the only trustworthy hope I have. And here, Lee, is where you come in. To me, work and Lee Strasberg are synonymous.”

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Marilyn Monroe 1961 letter to Lee Strasberg

Lee married Anna in 1968, and together they had two children, Adam and David. I asked Anna about their first meeting. “I met Lee in the spring/summer of 1967 in Los Angeles,” she said. “We were both standing by ourselves, and he started to talk to me. We didn’t know who each other were. He told me that he believed everything could be scientifically proven. ‘That is not so,’ I said. ‘Didn’t you read Hamlet? He says to Horatio, There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Lee had the good grace to put his hand on his forehead, laugh, and apologize. I liked this man, liked his sense of humor. When I found out who I had sassed, I laughed even more.” Anna went on to say that she and Lee went to Wil Wrights, a small ice cream parlor in Westwood. They sat and talked until the place closed, and were together from that point on.

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Lee and Anna Strasberg

I wanted to know what Lee was like as a person. I asked Anna what motivated him, what was meaningful to him, and what she liked best about her husband. “Lee loved family; the ones he lost, and the ones he had,” she replied. “Lee loved music, animals and teaching. He would teach one person as he would teach a thousand. Learning motivated him, gathering and sharing knowledge. He learned from children, from working people. He used to say that if he didn’t learn something new every day, he was not living. I loved everything about Lee and wouldn’t change a thing. More importantly, I really liked him.”

Marilyn’s fans know that Lee was pivotal in her life, so I asked Anna about their relationship. He was many things to Marilyn: instructor, teacher, friend, father figure, confidante, etc., but what was Marilyn to Lee? “It is complicated to get into the relationship between two people who bond so closely,” she commented. “There is one thing that is definitive. She was always very happy talking to him.”

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Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg, December 12, 1955

The professional relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Lee Strasberg lasted from 1955 until the time of her death in 1962. I asked Anna to share her favorite stories about Marilyn that Lee had mentioned. “There are two,” she said. “First, when Cheryl Crawford and Elia Kazan brought Marilyn to meet Lee because she wanted to study with him, he initially said no. He knew he would be criticized because she was so famous and always notoriously late. He told her that when she is late, she disrespects the people she is meeting and disrupts the other actors. ‘But Lee,’ Marilyn replied, ‘I am psychologically unable to be on time!’ to which Lee replied, ‘That’s okay. If you can’t be on time, then you can be early.’” “Second,” she went on to say, “Marilyn used to sit on her bed as a child at Hollygrove, when her mother was in the hospital, looking out the window at the water tower in the back lot of the former RKO Studio, now Paramount, and dream that one day she would walk through the front door of the studio as an actress…and she did, indeed. There was no stopping her. She dreamt it and made it happen.”

Lee Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe, Actors Studio Benefit, March 13, 1961

Lee Strasberg and Marilyn Monroe, Actors Studio Benefit, March 13, 1961

Today, 54 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe is still one of the most recognized celebrities in the world. Her likeness is everywhere, and her legacy continues. I asked Anna how Lee might feel about Marilyn’s iconic status in today’s pop culture. “He always treated her in a very real way, never as a movie star,” she said. “They both had a great sense of humor. After a while, fame ceases to be there – it is just a human being you are connecting with.”

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On the topic of legacies, I asked Anna about Lee’s legacy, and the impact of his association with Marilyn. “The Lee Strasberg Method is Lee’s legacy, as was his passion for teaching, his love of music, art, books literature, sports, imaginative acting and, most of all, his respect for actors. His successes throughout his career as a teacher and director were empowering to those with talent, as evidenced by his illustrious students.

I asked Anna to describe Lee Strasberg in one word. “Humble – a great teacher,” she stated. “When you ask about Lee, that is my one-word answer.”

Over the years, Anna has been very generous by contributing financially to various philanthropic endeavors. Portions of the 1999 Christie’s Marilyn Monroe estate sale were donated to Literacy Partners, the World Wildlife Fund and to Hollygrove. Anna has also offered support to several other charitable causes including the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen. I asked Anna where her philanthropic interests were focused today. “My focus has and always will be on the defenseless and helpless.”

As was the case with Lee, I asked Anna to describe herself in one word. She responded with, “Blessed…with the gifts that I am given and the ability to share them.”

Click here for Part II of my exclusive interview with Anna Strasberg, where she offers her thoughts on Marilyn Monroe and overseeing the Monroe estate.