Death comes to all. But there are some deaths that shock us so profoundly that we remember exactly where we were when we heard the news.
The death of Marilyn Monroe, 50 years ago this month, was one such death for me.
Mom, Dad, brother Pete, sister Beth and I were spending the week at my aunt’s lakeside cabin near Traverse City, Michigan.
The small, blue gem of Chandler Lake lay deep in the northern woods. Fallen trees, half buried in its gently lapping waters, lined the shore. Turtles used them to sunbathe. Sometimes there were so many turtles on the half-submerged tree trunks, that they actually stacked themselves on top of each other, two or three high. They made quite a splash when they scrambled off into the water.
The cabin had no electricity. Lights, kitchen stove & fridge were gas-powered. The nearest store was more than a half-hour drive away.
For entertainment we swam, rowed around in the boat, or read.
I’d spent the week reading a long magazine biography of Marilyn Monroe. Was it LOOK or LIFE magazine? Can’t recall. But it was very long and I read a few pages every day while sitting on the screened porch.
Until I started reading that biography, I hadn’t thought much about Marilyn. I knew she was a big movie star (of course), a beautiful woman described as the sexiest woman on earth. I’d seen the movie "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and loved the music, loved how she sang. But I thought her "sexy" walk was so exaggeratedly fake that I couldn’t believe anyone took it seriously. (Remember I was only 15, so my reactions were those of a teenager who didn’t quite understand satire.)
But what I learned from that article made me like her and feel both sorrow for her sad childhood and admiration for all she had accomplished. I learned about her disappointing marriages and how she had longed for a real and "ordinary" married life.
On the morning when I read the last few pages of her biography, my dad and brother had driven to the store to get milk and eggs and a newspaper.
I’d just finished the Marilyn biography and was sitting on the screened porch gazing at the lake and thinking about Marilyn and me. How she had dreams she’d made come true. How as a high school sophomore, I had some dreams of my own.
I thought about the way people’s lives wander through so many experiences bringing both pain or success. I think reading her story was my first introduction to the fact that you can have all the success in the world and still not find happiness or peace. What a discovery!
In the middle of my reverie, Dad and Pete returned from the store. Pete jumped from the car and ran into the house, shouting, "Marilyn Monroe is dead."
I thought he was making fun of me because I’d just spent half our vacation reading about her. "Come on!" I said, waving away his comments.
"Nah, it’s real. She’s dead," he said, and handed me the newspaper, where the front-page held a story about her passing.
I couldn’t believe it. Reading that magazine profile had brought her alive for me. For the first time, I’d connected with her. And as quickly as that, she was gone.
I felt dazed, in shock for the rest of that week.
Amazing that it was 50 years ago.
Half a century.
And as fresh as this morning’s coffee.