Interview with Gary Vitacco-Robles, author of ICON
In honor of Marilyn's 90th birthday, we have something special for you: and interview with Gary Vitacco-Robles, author of ICON: The Life, Times & Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1&2 and Cursum Perficio: Marilyn Monroe's Brentwood Hacienda. I can fully recommend Gary's books, and have often wondered what it takes to write such detailed, wonderfully researched books that do justice to Marilyn, so let's hear from Gary himself.
Gary Vitacco-Robles, photo credit Tamera Weyers Patrick
Gary Vitacco-Robles, photo credit Tamera Weyers Patrick
1. Your biography of Marilyn Monroe, Icon, is a detailed, monumental book that was published in two volumes. What prompted you to write a biography of Marilyn?
After reading exploitative and scurrilous biographies of Marilyn over the years, I was driven to tell her story based upon fact and with empathy. Many biographies are completely inaccurate and relay upon questionable sources or fabricated stories which are repeated by author after author until they are believed as truth. People whom I interviewed who actually knew Marilyn, such as Evelyn Moriarty, her stand-in, told me Marilyn was completely unrecognizable in the biographies they had read and in film documentaries they had watched. This is a travesty.
As a licensed mental health counselor and national certified counselor with experience in trauma-informed care, I interpreted Marilyn’s life within the context of her being a survivor of childhood complex trauma who displayed symptoms consistent with the diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and the Bipolar Spectrum. She clearly experienced recurrent episodes of depression and also mixed episodes that included symptoms of hypomania or mania. For over twenty years, I have been a treatment provider for many children and adults, many with these disorders, and I have developed a keen eye for identifying the symptoms. I identifed them in Marilyn’s journal entries and drawings and in the testimonies of those who knew or observed her. To tell her story without the context of trauma and mental illness completely misses the mark. Male biographers have been especially disrespectful to her, misogynistic, in my opinion. As a male biographer, I hoped for redemption or, at least, a corrective experience for the reader.
Marilyn was and remains an American Treasure. She survived a childhood marked by trauma to become a psychological, cultural, and spiritual phenomenon of the Twentieth Century. She is one of us, the masses, only her start was far worse than many of ours; yet she made it, and never lost sight of from where she originated, and related to those who struggled, the working man. Marilyn worked hard and was honest about her limitations, she studied acting at the height of her fame and had a deliciously appealing self-deprecating humor. She revealed her soul and her humanity. We can all relate to these qualities. Part of Marilyn’s enduring appeal may be the empathy her pain and life experiences evoke in each of us. She inspires us to project our own subjective interpretations onto her extraordinary life. Marilyn’s life was remarkable, and her story inspirational. Her tragic ending does not diminish this.
Historical context was also important to me as well as serious exploration of her career and work, often lost in stories of her personal challenges. I was striving for accuracy and had access to Marilyn’s personal letters, diaries, journals, notes on dreams, and receipts. With many of her authenticated personal files being auctioned, the information was readily available and seemingly spoke the truth. Marilyn’s voice is clear through her own writing.
Also, her story is incomplete without mention of those whose lives she touched. The biography becomes an exploration of mid-twentieth century America, as she networked with so many illustrious notables in many fields and had meaningful relationships with a wide variety of people, She befriended Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Christopher Isherwood, Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandberg, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dame Edith Sitwell, Fluer Fenton Cowles, Bertha Spafford Vester, Karen von Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). I also had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Newcomb, her last press agent and friend; a gentleman, who as a boy, conversed with Marilyn as he built a sandcastle on Redington Beach, FL, in 1961; and the gentleman from whom she purchased canine vitamin for Hugo, her Basset Hound, in New York.
Rather than focus on those celebrities or public figures with whom she is alleged to have had personal relationships, I focused on those non-famous families with whom she actually shared meaningful relationships like Sam and Anne Shaw and children, Norman and Hedda Rosten and their daughter, Lee and Paula Strasberg and children, Romeo and Hildi Greenson and chidden, Milton and Amy Greene, Ralph Roberts, Rupert Allan and life partner, Frank and Nan Taylor and children, and the teens and young people known as The Monroe Six, who trailed her in Manhattan.
2. It must have been an enormous task to write a book that covers the whole lifetime of someone as famous as Marilyn. How long did it take to research and write Icon?
Enormous, indeed! It was like scaling a mountain! I continued to collect information and research after publishing the first edition of Cursum Perficio in 2000. During that time, my plan was to write a book comprised of a series of articles about Marilyn’s major films, her significant relationships, and various themes in her life, not a comprehensive biography. Overall, I believe there was a total of a decade of serious research since I became more focused in 2005.
I started writing in 2006 and expanded my goal to a full-length, comprehensive biography shortly thereafter. I created a Word document for each year and each major film in Marilyn’s life and started filling the files with information. It was an overwhelming process, but I focused taking one step and then another, without pressuring myself with a deadline. I did not write in chronological order, as I was inspired by various periods of her life. I started with the production of Niagara, the Miller years, the Actor’s Studio era, and then her final year. I progressed to her ancestry and birth. In fact, I ended with the early years of her career.
While writing, I would play music of the particular time period I was covering, and wrote mostly on Fridays, as I work four ten and a half hour days Monday through Thursday. Toward the end of the project, I targeted a deadline; I needed to land the plane. I started writing through the weekends and in the evenings after my gym workouts. My husband, Oscar, was tremendously supportive. He had gone back to college later in life, and that required a time commitment; having finsished graduate school early in our relationship, this project was my equivalent of going back to college, for example for a PhD degree. So the time investment for Icon, in a way, was like the time investment for a doctoral dissertation!
In the end, when I finally reviewed the product of my writing and stared merging all the individual Word documents, I realized I had over 1800 pages in Word. Writing online, I had failed to realize the enormous output I had created. Consequently, the editing and publishing process took nearly a year! I left a publisher who wanted drastic deletions; so I dissolved the relationship and partnered with BearManor Media. Ben Ohmart, the owner, owner supported a concept of two volumes to retain much of the content.
In 2010, my laptop fried along with a jump drive with many updated files I had failed to secure in another format; I was devastated and had to make a decision to abandon the project or recreate it. I realized Marilyn had persevered, so I could not give up and abandon her; her resiliency provided the strength I needed to keep going, even if it required a re-creation of lost work. However, I sent the fried jump drive to a company in Seattle that was able to retrieve all the files at the cost of $1200.
3. What part of the process did you enjoy the most (researching, writing, editing, something else)?
My favorite is the research. It’s like searching for treasuure, but then becoming tangential and finding many other things and learning about so much more through the process. I would veer off the path and down rabbit holes. Along the way, I met many interesting people like a woman who managed Frank Lloyd Wright’s archive—this was when I researching the architect designing a home for Marilyn and Arthur Miller; the plans were eventually used to build a golf clubhouse in Hawaii. I could spend an entire day searching for something and celebrate finding a tiny gold nugget many hour later. Ultimately, the process of researching another person’s life provides insight into one’s own life. I sometimes cannot believe I researched, wrote and published it—especially since time has distanced me. I now go back and read what I wrote from the eyes of the reader. I have to stop and think, “I really did this!” The most rewarding part is to hear the feedback from the readers, how much the book resonated with them, how much they enjoyed it. I love hearing from the readers and maintain contact with them in my Facebook group for the book. I especially like when they take selfies with both volumes and I can see their faces. The expressions convey even more than their written comments.
4. Reading Icon, I especially enjoyed how you wrote about Marilyn in a honest, truthful and positive way. Do you feel she has been treated unjustly, ie. the focus has sometimes been on the negative rather than the positive?
I wrote ICON as a therapist and from the perspective of a therapist. As a therapist, I identify and celebrate strengths and build upon them. I reframe situations for people and identify the positive aspects of situation for others who are overwhelmed by the negative and can no longer identify the positive. I search for the underlying issue, the root. I avoid lables like “good” and “bad” which indicate a restrictive “black and white” way of thinking. I am trained to look for and to live in the “gray” where life really exists. I can validate both sides of opposting positions and operate from the belief that events, people and situations contain both sides, not one or the other. Things aren’t always mutually exclusive. Relationships and people aren’t all good or all both; they are combinations of both. I don’t judge people.
Marilyn has been maligned by biographers who imply don’t know any better; they just don’t know what they don’t know. They are making a living by writing and selling their book. I wasn’t interested in profiting. I wanted to offer a truly academic exploration of Marilyn’s notable life, a definitive biography that would last for another generation. Other authors minimized, denied her issues and judged her; and in doing so, they judged their readers who have experienced what Marilyn experienced. As I said earlier, her story cannot accurately be told without the context of child development, the impact of trauma, genetics, and mental illness. This isn’t about a subject’s character, it is about genetics and brain development. As a culture, we don’t know enough about these issues, but I have dedicated my life to the study of these issues, educating others about them, supporting clents in recovery from thises issues. When some biographers have attempted to analyze Marilyn’s romantic relationships, ambition to become a serious actresws, her sometimes erratic behavior on set, and misuse of of prescribed medication, those biographers may not have had insight into topics such as long term impact of childhood sexual abuse & negleclt, the co-occurrence of mental illness and addiction, etc. I felt qualified based upon my professional experience and perspective.
Writing a biography is a tremendous responsibility. And one cannot ethically or successfully research and write about another person’s life without coming from a place of respect and understanding. The selection of sources is also paramount. In Marilyn’s case, an author cannot merely cannot repeat what was already written, one must trace back to the original source.
5. You have also written a book of her Brentwood home: Cursum Perficio. How was writing Icon different from writing Cursum Perficio?
Cursum Perficio was my dress-rehearsal for ICON. It was a homemake Valentine. I didn’t intend to take on the enormity of a full-length biopgraphy. I wanted to side-step Marilyn’s death and produce something different than what had been mass-produced about her in the 1980s. I used the metaphor of her renovation of the home and that unfinished project as a means to explore her unfinished life, her introspective journey in those final month as she rebounded and recoved from a series of negative events: divorce, psychiatric crisis, career crisis. Her settling in Brentwood was a corrective experience for a nomadic lifestyle. I believed the renovation was an externalization or representation of what she sought to accomplish internally.
That book depicted Marilyn as a real woman and not a sexy celebiry. She was a reader, a homemaker, an interior decorator who traveled to Mexico to aquire authentic furnishings, a gardener who pulled weeds while wearing a straw hat, a woman who prepared meals using the copper pots and pans in kitchen and her well-worn Joy of Cooking book. She was a friend to those who worked behind the cameras who gave away possessions and clothing when a friend admired them. The book also includes the psychology behind what she was doing as it involved her psychotherapy and relationship with Dr. Romeo Greenson and his family, who had oddly taken her into their family sysem as a surrogate family member.
6. How did you become interested in Marilyn?
I remember being haunted my Marilyn’s image in childhood. Images of her face was everywhere in the 1970s. I heard she was a glamorous, sexy woman who took her own life, but I didn’t see the pin-up. Her eyes were soulful and mesmerizing. I saw deep into her eyes; I saw the intensity, the pain, the longing. Then I saw The Prince and the Showgirl and Bus Stop. Even at 11 or 12, I found her performances as touching, her personality as enormously endearing, vulnerable, and intriguing. I sensed something in her I couldn’t then identify and felt close to her, wanted to know more about her. I began reading about her and was amazed by her resilience and humanity. I suddenly added her to my litmus test of a warm heart in others. If people didn’t like puppies, babies, the elderly, or Marilyn Monroe, I determined they had a lack of capacity for compassion.
7. What period(s) of her life interests you the most?
This is the most difficult question. I am challenged to focus on a specific period, but I am drawn to a few.
I drawn to the Miller years, when Marilyn was an affluent wife and hostess exercised her domesticity. She had achieved great career success and continued studying at the Actor’s Studio. She was involved with New York’s literati and enjoying a persona life in Connecticut and Long Island. She was decorating her Manhattan apartment, entertaining guests, cooking, planning a family. There was hope, happiness, and stability in the early years of this period. Marilyn was gaining power and making progress; however, this is also when her depressive episodes increased and intensified and when her mood disturbances exacerbated. I felt this period was glossed over in previous biographies and was filled with valuable information about who Marilyn really was when she wasn’t a film star. It was also filled with personal stories from her personal relationships with non-celebrities. I was fascinated by these relationships.
Marilyn’s childhood shaped who she became. Early childhood attachments and experiences impact development, and now brain research shows us that negative or traumatic childhood experiences rewire the brain and can change the trajectory of a life. These years explain her challenges, her resiliency, and her strength. Although these years are filled with heartbreak and are difficult to explore, it is the root of what we know followed. As a mental health therapist, I wanted to tease through this period with a fine tooth comb to truly understand her experience.
The Actor’s Studio period in which Marilyn liberated her self from the film industry and the west coast culture intrigued me. She emancipated and took a risk by relocating to New York to study and to develop, to fulfill her potential. I wanted to know more about her stage performances, her personal journey of introspection and growth, her engagement in psychoanalysis (not a modality that suited her trauma history, but best practices of the era). She journaled extensively during this period, providing us with insights into her psyche. She fought against her insecurity and depression to demand more for herself and of herself. It was so brave, so strong. I really admire her tenacity during this period. ICON covered this period in several chapers while many biographies cover it in one.
I am also drawn to the last eight months of her life, the renovation of the Brentwood hacienda, her last film, the impact of her work with Dr. Romeo Greenson. There was a wealth of information about this period which covers an entire section of ICON, several chapters. Her life in Los Angeles was in many ways so different from her public image. I like that discrepancy, who the public thinks she is and who she really was. I now have very strong feelings about this period because of the reckless prescribing practices of Dr. Engelberg, her internist, and the rogue behavior of Dr. Greenson, whose boundaries became atrocious—egregious behaviors on the parts of these doctors.
8. What are your favorite Marilyn Monroe books?
My favorite is the first I ever read, Norman Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles (the 1969 version, not his 1984 Legend) and Marilyn Monroe by Maurice Zolotow (1960). I especially enjoyed Sam Shaw and Norman Rosten’s Marilyn Among Friends, Rosten’s Marilyn; The Untold Story, and My Story by Marilyn Monroe with Ben Hect.
Michelle Morgan’s Marilyn Monroe Private and Undisclosed is one of the best in the 21st century, written by someone of the generation born following Marilyn’s death. Michelle is my writing and publishing mentor, and I just adore her; she is a prolific writer. Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe: The Biography is epic, although I disagree with his analysis of her death.
I love Marilyn’s interviews with Alan Levy for Redbook in 1962, Richard Meryman for Life in 1962, and Georges Belmont for Marie Claire in 1960.
9. If you could meet Marilyn, what would you say to her? Is there something specific you would like to ask her?
First, I would have to invade her boundaries and give her a warm, tight embrace. I think I would tell her how significant she has become in my life, like a deceased family member—gone before I was born—and thank her for the inspiration she has provided for me and countless others. This sounds bizarre, but I think rather than focus on all questions, I would tell her things & offer her hope. I would tell her life will get better. Treatment modalities for depression and bipolar disorder will improve. There will be mood stabilizing medications that will bring regulation and stability. The role of women will expand. The film industry will change dramatically. The future will provide more opportunities for power and control over her career. The culture will evolve in many positive ways that will make her life better. Staying alive another ten years will place you in a world far different than 1962.
In term of asking questions, probably nothing earth-shattering. In this fantasy, I guess I am meeting her after death, so I would ask her personal reaction to the enormous impact she had made on so many diverse people across the globe for over five decades following her death. Aside from that, I would want to know more about her career plans for following the ending of her contract with Fox, what she wanted to accomplish, what were the roles she wanted, where she saw her career in 1967, 1972, 1982. On a personal level, since I am a therapist, I would probably ask probe her about her journal entries, her feelings—this is a fantasy, so I could go in that direction—I would be most curious about her relationship with Joe DiMaggio and if she truly considered a remarriage in her final months.
10. Any plans to write about Marilyn in the future?
Nearly the week I completed the editing process for ICON Volume 2, significant new information surfaced. Even now, with the approaching auction of the contents of Marilyn’s New York and Los Angeles filing cabinets, we have new information and evidence available which will be published in the auction catalogues. Collector Scott Fortner contacted me about the documents related to Marilyn considering the purchase of a Manhattan townhouse in late 1961, around the time Dr. Greenson was encouraging her to purchase a home in Los Angeles. How I wish I had access to that material during my research! Although Volume 1 is in its second edition, there is potential for Volume 2 to have one as well. As you know, I’ve been involved in the Goodnight, Marilyn Radio investigation into Marilyn’s death since February of 2015. I’ve appeared as Nina Boski and Randall Libero’s frequent guest and current weekly panel member for three seasons and will participate as an investigative team member for the Seeking the Truth Conference in Los Angeles in September. I’ve now acquired the 641-page LA District Attorney’s investigation materials and final report from 1982 and had the privilege of consulting with forensic experts such as Dr. Cyril Wecht; psychiatrist Dr. Reef Kareem; and suicide expert Dr. Scott Bonn. This 21st century investigation will yield new results and impact our perceptions about her death. This research is worthy of a Volume 3, of which Ben Ohmart, my publisher (BearManor Media), is very interested in supporting. So, I am currently researching and outlining ICON: The Life, Times & Films of Marilyn Monroe Volume 3/The 1982 & 2016 Investigations into Her Death. That’s just a working title. Each volume in denser and longer than the previous one; I believe the third will be the biggest of the trilogy. Things naturally align in threes, so I’m happy for a third volume.
Thank you so much, Gary, for the interview.
Please visit Gary's Facebook group for ICON
Listen to Goodnight Marilyn radio show