Marilyn Monroe was the woman on the screen — hardly even real, so exalted was her public image.
But she was also a person of the book, as some Jews call themselves. The actress converted to Judaism in 1956 when she married the playwright Arthur Miller, who was of Polish-Jewish descent. Now, more than a half-century after Monroe’s death in 1962, her personal prayer book — known as a siddur, derived from the Hebrew for “order” — is going under the hammer in New York. It could be worth thousands.
Annotations are believed to have been inscribed by the actress herself, recording the instructions that she had received either from Miller or from the rabbi who had given her the book.
“Omit,” it says next to certain prayers. “Skip.”
The auction, set for Nov. 12, brings new attention to a little-known side of a celebrity about whom everything is known, from her movies to her marriages to her melancholy. Numerous items have been sold over the years, including her lipstick and leather sandals, her nose drops and an X-ray of her chest.
But her prayer book reveals something different about the star of “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot” who once said, according to Ms. Magazine, “I restore myself when I’m alone. A career is born in public — talent in privacy.”
“It means that deep inside, she has a Jewish soul,” said Jonathan Greenstein, the owner of the auction house J. Greenstein & Company, which is running the sale in Cedarhurst, N.Y. “She took it very seriously, even after she left Arthur Miller. She considered herself Jewish.”
The prayer book is decorated with a Jewish star and a shofar, the ram’s horn whose wailing notes ring out from synagogues on Jewish holidays. It bears the imprint of the Avenue N Jewish Center in Brooklyn, the synagogue attended by Miller, who was Monroe’s third husband. The 1922 copyright is from Vienna.
If it hadn’t been used by the actress, the book of daily prayers would be worth between $100 and $200, Greenstein estimated. But because it belonged to Monroe, he said, it could fetch between $7,000 and $12,000 — more if “two crazy people start bidding for it.”
Greenstein received the book several months ago from an Israel-based American who had bought it from Monroe’s estate in 1999, in an auction run by Christie’s. The original buyer, who is now of advanced age, left the item with her sister in the United States and recently consigned it to Greenstein to resell. It didn’t find a buyer in a Doyle auction last year.
Greenstein said the prayer book has generated significant interest. Since news of its upcoming sale appeared Monday in the Jewish press, “my phone has been blowing up literally nonstop,” he said.
“In 35 years, this is the most significant celebrity Judaica we’ve ever had,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. He has auctioned musician Sammy Davis Jr.’s menorah, as well as the entire collection of Jewish ritual art amassed by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor who has taken to defending President Trump on occasion. “We’ve had some incredible items. But nothing like this — Marilyn Monroe’s personal siddur.”
One potential buyer, Greenstein said, is a member of the Avenue N Jewish Center where Monroe and Miller prayed. He said the man had contacted him two weeks ago, after reading an announcement in a local Long Island paper, and said he wanted to buy the item for the synagogue’s archives.
“In my heart of hearts, I would like to see it back at the synagogue,” the auctioneer said. “But the truth is that it might have a better home with a private collector. Instead of a museum collection, it might have more meaning to someone who actually wants to use it.”
Anyone who uses it could find themselves following the scribbled instructions left in pencil by Monroe. The notes appear to be in the movie star’s handwriting, Greenstein said.
Significant wear on the pages, as well as on the spine, which is almost separated from the body, suggests that Monroe made daily use of the book, he added.
“It was a daily prayer book. I believe it was used daily,” Greenstein said. “It has had a lifetime of wear in the very short period from the time she was married to Miller to her death. She probably was very attached to it.”
The movie star was raised in Los Angeles by foster parents whose belief in Christian Science she never fully embraced, according to biographies and an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York called “Becoming Jewish,” which examined the conversion of Monroe, as well as that of Elizabeth Taylor.
Miller, the author of “Death of a Salesman,” did not require Monroe to convert. The interest was hers, according to letters written after the movie star’s death by Miller’s longtime rabbi, Robert Goldburg, who oversaw Monroe’s conversion. He officiated the couple’s Jewish wedding in the summer of 1956, several days after a civil ceremony at the Westchester County Court in White Plains, N.Y.
In one letter, written in 1962 to the head of the Reform Movement’s American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, the rabbi recalled how he had met Monroe at her Manhattan apartment and was struck by her “personal sweetness and charm.” She had explained to him that she “had no religious training other than some memories of a Fundamentalist Protestantism which she had long rejected,” Goldburg wrote. She spoke of being drawn to Judaism, he explained, because of Jewish people she knew, namely Miller, as well as “the rationalism of Judaism — its ethical and prophetic ideals and its concept of close family life,” as the rabbi explained.
He gave her several books to read, including “What Is a Jew?” by Morris N. Kertzer. “Marilyn was not an intellectual person but she was sincere in her desire to learn,” the rabbi recounted in the letter. “It was also clear that her ability to concentrate over a long period of time was limited. However I did feel that she understood and accepted the basic principles of Judaism.”
Indeed, the perceived mismatch between Monroe and Miller — the century’s most famous sex symbol and its most piercing playwright — was a source of media intrigue. “America’s best-known blonde moving picture star is now the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia,” columnist Walter Winchell famously observed. Variety announced the June wedding with the headline, “Egghead Weds Hourglass.”
Her conversion came with a cost. Egypt reacted by banning her films, according to an account of her marriage to Miller, “The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe,” written by Jeffrey Meyers.
The movie star described herself as a “Jewish atheist,” according to Meyers. And after her divorce from Miller in 1961, she maintained only a few trappings of the Jewish faith, including a mezuzah — a tiny box containing Hebrew texts — on her door frame.
After Monroe’s death from a drug overdose in August 1962, her second husband, Yankees star Joe DiMaggio, arranged for a funeral over which a Lutheran minister presided.
“She was not buried in a Jewish cemetery — it’s true,” said Greenstein, who will be auctioning her prayer book next month. “While she was alive, though, she thought of herself as a Jew.”
Remaining tokens of the religious life of the actress also include a brass-plated musical menorah, featured in the exhibit at the Jewish Museum. It was a conversion gift from Miller’s mother, and stood on the celebrity’s mantle.
Whether these ephemera provide evidence of her Jewish faith, they are pieces of American movie history. They are also clues into Monroe’s quest for an interior life, away from the screen that so delighted and tormented her.
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