Marilyn Monroe and Carl Sandburg – An Unlikely and Intriguing Friendship

Barbara Stepko
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Talk about worlds colliding: A half-century ago, Marilyn Monroe, Hollywood’s most famous and fantasized-about sex symbol, would strike up an unlikely friendship with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and Abraham Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg.

Perhaps their relationship wasn’t really that surprising. After all, Monroe had always been attracted to older men, particularly those who possessed an impressive intellect.

Her third husband was playwright Arthur Miller, and legend has it that she had a mad crush on renowned physicist Albert Einstein.

Marilyn Monroe in 1962.

What’s more, the actress frequently mingled with members of the literati — Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Danish author Isak Dinesen among them — all of whom were more than a little curious about the woman behind the headlines.

While in London, filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1956, Monroe spent time with poet Edith Sitwell at the author’s home, the two of them sipping gin and grapefruit juice and discussing the work of Dylan Thomas. She met Vladimir Nabokov at a party in 1960.

Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier at a press conference announcing their partnership.

The writer, who was working on a film adaptation of his novel Lolita, reportedly found Monroe delightful, describing her to an acquaintance as “gloriously pretty, all bosom and rose.” And, of course, Truman Capote was a confidante.

When she and Sandburg first met is a matter of some debate. Some believe it was in 1958, during the filming of Some Like It Hot.

Carl Sandburg in 1955.

Others say it was two years later, when an 82-year-old Sandburg, working in Hollywood at the time, was temporarily given the actress’s dressing room to use as an office.

Monroe introduced herself and the two immediately hit it off.

The two would meet up again at the New York apartment of photographer Len Steckler in December 1961, then a month later at the home of Hollywood producer Henry Weinstein, with photographer Arnold Newman and others in attendance.

Monroe on the set of Something’s Got To Give.

A Look tribute to Monroe which Sandburg had written after her death was accompanied by photos from both photographers.

The black-and-white shots are astonishing in their candidness. In one, Sandburg and Monroe are dancing; in another, the poet is demonstrating an exercise (reportedly to help combat insomnia) to guests at the get-together, a barefoot Monroe mimicking the move.

Henry Katzman and Carl Sandberg, September 1953. Photo by Bertha Katzman CC BY-SA 4.0

What Monroe found in Sandburg was someone who could see beyond her glamorous image and like her for herself. Sandburg, for his part, was impressed with the actress’s down-to-earth personality, citing “a vitality, a readiness for humor.” He also appreciated that Monroe, like himself, had come up the hard way.

Monroe was eager to pick Sandburg’s brain, the two of them discussing a wide range of topics. Although the actress was a bit out of her depth when it came to science and economics, she was well-versed when it came to current events and, naturally, Hollywood. (At one point, both of them would sing the praises of Charlie Chaplin.)

Ominously, Monroe would tell Sandburg that she was too smart to succumb to suicide. Less than a year later, on August 5, 1962, she would die of an overdose of sleeping pills. Her ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio — faithful to the very end — handled the funeral arrangements and requested that Sandburg deliver the eulogy.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t attend due to ill health. Another friend and mentor of Monroe’s, Lee Strasberg, director of the Actors Studio, where she once studied, would memorialize the fallen star instead.

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But weeks later, in an issue of Look magazine, Sandburg would indeed pay tribute to the actress, who he considered a friend and kindred spirit. “I wish I could have been with her that day,” he wrote. “I believe I could have persuaded her not to take her life.”