A black and white picture of Marilyn Monroe in a black turtle neck.

Eliza Gale Interviews Writer Tony Jerris

A headshot of writer Tony Jerris wearing a light blue button down shirt. He has dark brown hair and eyes.

Writer Tony Jerris

Q: What made you want to write about Marilyn Monroe?

 

A: As a former New Yorker, I’ve always had a fascination with “all things Hollywood.” Actually, one of my first term papers in college was on the conspiracy theory surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death and the Kennedy’s. So, when I was introduced to Jane Lawrence, who started Marilyn Monroe’s first fan club, I thought, “Okay, this is kismet.” I always found Marilyn to be groundbreaking in so many ways, including one of the few actresses of her time to start her own production company.

 

Q: How is your book different from other stories about Ms. Monroe?

 

A: The story of Marilyn Monroe has been told many, many times and from many different angles. This is not what “Marilyn Monroe: My Little Secret” is about. The book is twofold, in the sense, that it’s a human interest story about two kids from the same orphanage, thirteen years apart, who would become friends, and grow to love each other. When Marilyn died, it took a failed marriage, and many years for Jane to come to terms with her feelings for Marilyn, their relationship, and the big question about Jane’s own sexuality. The book also debunks the Marilyn that the public knew, you know; unpredictable, flighty, talented, ambitious and naughty. Instead, “Jane’s Marilyn” is soft, attentive, gentle, fiercely protective, and loving. That was the Marilyn Jane wanted people to meet, her Marilyn. The Marilyn who used to call her “my little secret.”

A black and white picture of Marilyn Monroe with a huge white hat on.

 

Q: What makes Jane an interesting narrator?

 

A: I think it’s important to first say how I met Jane Lawrence. I was introduced to her to assess her collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and help her get it on eBay because she needed money to buy a new pacemaker. In the first few weeks of our relationship we spent a lot of time sifting through various items, with me guessing what they might go for. Jane had what Sotheby’s or Christie’s would characterize as a “collection” because it was so extensive. Some of the stuff, through years of neglect, wasn’t in the best of shape, jammed into boxes or what-have-you, but some of Jane’s items were pristine and, perhaps, priceless. She also had the most bizarre collection of little odds and ends of Marilyn discards: tissues, napkins (with lipstick and not), notes, matchbooks, and other such dreck that had real value because of the provenance. And as we took our journey through this detritus of memory, I was treated to all of the stories that went with it. Memory can be cruel, but for Jane her recall was spot on, and as her story poured forth about her Marilyn, I began to visualize her story in a bigger context. She always wanted to tell her relationship with Marilyn, only never trusted anyone to tell it “her way.” So, who better to have as a narrator than Jane.

 

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?

 

A: A lot! You know, one of the biggest challenges I faced when writing “Marilyn Monroe: My Little Secret” was to never second guess myself as I delved into the life of probably the most celebrated of all actresses. But I’m only human and, at times, feared how some people might react to the book, especially the diehard Marilyn fans. I knew what I was up against, and knew I had to verify everything Jane told me so they wouldn’t tar-and-feather me! (Upon the book’s release, I did receive a few death threats from a couple of “those fans.”)  Jane struggled with her sexuality growing up, and claims how Marilyn taught her “how to make love to a woman.” But that is not the core of the story. These two women had a special bond for ten years, and I have hours of audio-tape with Jane telling her story, and contacted those – who were still living – to verify what she said, including actress Polly Bergen, Patrick Miller, who headed FOX’s archive department, archivists at RKO, just to name a few.

 A black and white picture of Marilyn Monroe laughing.

Q: Several actresses have played Marilyn in plays, movies and biopics; who do you think did the best job?

 

A: I think we can all agree that there’s only one Marilyn, but Michelle Williams did a decent job playing her in “My Week With Marilyn.” There was also a 1980 TV movie titled “Marilyn: The Untold Story” starring Catherine Hicks. I thought Hicks did an amazing portrayal of Marilyn. I also think Charlize Theron would be a perfect choice to play Marilyn.

 

Q: What kind of day job do you have and how does it influence your writing?

 

A: I’ve been lucky enough to be a work-for-hire on a couple films, which are finally going into production, and also a ghostwriter for a couple stand-up comics. I did start my own catering company a few years back called called Mangia, Mangia! That means Eat, Eat! in Italian. Growing up, my family owned an Italian restaurant in Upstate New York, where my mother was the head chef. Over the years, I’ve been mastering her recipes, which includes her homemade bread dough recipe. In my spare time, I’m working on a cookbook called “If You Can Make Bread, You Can Make Dough!”  Mama’s words, so you can’t steal it! I’m also the in-house caterer for AMIA’s (Association of Moving Image Archivists) annual events at The Mary Pickford Building. I’ve always said, if I wasn’t a writer, I’d be the Next Food Network Star! As far as how this influences my writing, I believe you write what you know from experience. I’ve drawn upon a lot of my “survival jobs” to create characters that represent “me.” Especially the early years when I bartended, waited tables, or worked as the “dreaded telemarketer!” But I never followed a pitch, and actually developed a loyal client base who looked forward to my calls, which is rare for a telemarketer!

 

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of your research?

 

A: One of the most surprising things I learned over the course of my research was, “Old age can be cruel.” It’s actually a chapter in the book, where Marilyn tells Jane how hard it is for a woman in Hollywood to find work as she gets older, and Marilyn was only 36 upon her timely death. The same held true for Jane. I would discover that Jane, at 61 years old, had few friends and lived a guarded life. She had learned that in Hollywood many people will befriend you for what they think they can get from you or what you can do for them. There’s a real cynicism that informs many relationships in this town. Jane knew that all too well, and while she knew a lot of people, they were mostly just acquaintances and not true friends you could confide in or lean on when things got tough, especially as she got older. In other words, she was very lonely, but when I entered her life, she had a new reason for living.

 

Q: There has been a lot of talk about sexual harassment in the news recently. Do you think being a woman in Hollywood is better, worse or basically the same as it was in the 1950s?

 

A: I think sexual harassment in Hollywood back in the 1950s is similar to today – for both sexes – only, nowadays with Social media, it’s like a flood gate for both genders to spill their stories of sexual harassment to entertainment and cable shows. It’s like everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon and have their fifteen minutes of fame. Back in the ‘50s, stars didn’t reveal these things in fear of being blacklisted.

 

 

Q: Why do you think Marilyn is still interesting to so many people?

 

A: Marilyn is still so interesting to many people because she was one of the cultural linchpins between the simpler, naïve world of the first half of the 20th century, and the loss of innocence in the second half. She wasn’t as “shocking” as some celebrities of today, as she was a breath of fresh air with a naughty streak. There’s a mystery about both her personal life and death that people will always find intriguing.

 

Q: What is your personal theory about Marilyn’s death?

A: I’ve always had my suspicions that there may have been a cover-up surrounding her death, however, after what Jane’s told me, I tend to believe that Marilyn accidentally overdosed. Jane said Marilyn used to break capsules of Nembutal (a short-acting barbiturate) into her champagne because it would digest in her bloodstream quicker. Leading up to her death, Marilyn was very lonely and in a fragile state. She had just purchased her first home in Brentwood (which I had the privilege of actually going through), and had a lot of time to think. She was fired from “Something’s Got To Give” and wasn’t sure what the future held for her because she had a reputation of not being reliable. The four special tiles in the walkway leading to her front door might have foreshadowed things to come. They read: Cursum Perficio. It’s Latin for, “My journey ends here.”

Eliza Gale

Eliza Gale began her blogging career on the Los Angeles based site Curvewire.com where she interviewed Angelinos about their jobs and their dreams.

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