Marilyn Monroe is many things to many people. For me, she was a catalyst for several leadership lessons, six in particular.
Lesson #1: Never assume anything
I was interviewing for the job of executive director of a former orphanage in Hollywood where Norma Jean Baker had lived for 18 months in the late 1930s.
My first visit to the Hollywood campus made it immediately clear that I was not in the glamorous section where the stars hangout.
Dashed expectations notwithstanding, I admired the quaintness of this ivy-walled, three-quarter acre campus, exactly one block from one of the biggest and most famous movie studios in the world. During the interview, I asked about the extent of financial support that they received from the nearby studio where Marilyn had made some of her most famous pictures. I assumed the studio was a major supporter with potential for more. “They give a tree at Christmas,” was the reply.
Lesson #2: When you need to manage your emotions, find a refuge to gather your thoughts.
I took a tour of the orphanage. My host showed me the dining room. There, at each place setting, was a plate with a cereal-sized bowl turned upside down. My host proudly informed me of their tradition that went back to the 1880s when the organization formed.
“It’s what they did back then to protect the plates from the rats,” she said.
“The what?” came my less-than-diplomatic response.
“Oh yes! It’s just one of the many traditions that we’ve maintained.”
At that point, I asked where the restroom was, afraid I would say what I was thinking.
Lesson #3: Be sure to get your facts straight.
I got the job. For my first few months on the job, all I had time for was to try to sort out some of the bigger issues facing an organization that saw itself as an orphanage. The rest of the country’s orphanages had evolved into “residential treatment centers.”
However, I was still curious about Marilyn.
I collected books about our agency’s most famous resident. Each had a different story. Several said that Marilyn was forced to clean 100 toilets. The fact is that the agency barely had ten toilets. Another said her aunt had taken her there, and said she would be back, but the aunt never came. Still another said that when Marilyn walked in the door that said orphan’s home society, she started screaming, “I’m not an orphan! I want my mother!”
Marilyn Monroe was not an orphan. She was described by the professionals of the time as a “half orphan,” meaning her mother was living but couldn’t care for her, which was not uncommon in those years. Incidentally, her dad was alive, too, but his whereabouts were unknown.
When I finally found the time to find and read Marilyn’s file that the agency had kept, there was a profound double sense–of relief that there were no terrible items in the file, and of disappointment there wasn’t more information. What I did find were two simple pages describing Marilyn as a compliant and kind child that did her homework and was not a problem. Quite a leap from cleaning 100 toilets!
Lesson #4: Sometimes young people lack perspective gained through experience, so don’t judge them too harshly.
A few years later after we had engaged the studio where she had became a star in becoming major supporters, we decided to honor what would have been Marilyn’s 75th birthday with a charity event. A newer, very young staff member approached me and said, “Why are you making such fuss over Marilyn Monroe? Nobody remembers her anymore.”
I knew how much the world did remember her; e.g., A gigantic billboard on the art center in my visit to Hong Kong with her likeness; the famous Andy Warhol picture everywhere; wine named after her; Marilyn look-alikes, the occasional stories wondering about the cause of her death.
At the birthday bash, three of the children we cared for performed for the audience of Hollywood celebrities one of Marilyn’s famous songs, “Heat Wave” (with tastefully edited lyrics). I noticed a tear slide down the cheek of the man who ran the parent company of Paramount, CBS and others. People remembered her.
Lesson #5: Follow your instincts and see where they lead; never underestimate the possible.
Performing arts was a major part of the treatment program we provided for these 5 to 12-year-old, troubled children. Paramount and other studio volunteers coached the children when they stumbled on their lines, and helped with set decoration and makeup. In one of my optimistic moments of chutzpah, I had tried to contact the widow of Marilyn’s famous acting coach but heard nothing back.
Months later, the receptionist announced I had a visitor. It was the widow and she had become the executor of Marilyn’s Estate after her husband died. She also ran the acting school blocks from our campus.
She decided to fund the agency’s performing arts program for children. Hundreds of children found new talents and new outlets that might never have been opened up to them. We staged three musicals performed across the street in a 100-seat theater where Charlie Chaplin had once performed. These were our versions of “Lion King,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Into the Woods.” Each play performed two times and the theater sold out every time.
At the end of the first performance, I was sitting in the front row as a backup line coach. At the final curtain, Jimmy, the 12-year-old, inner city star who had experienced horrific abuse, came out for a bow. The audience leaped to its feet, cheering wildly. He came to the edge of the stage, bent over and beckoned me.
“What are they doing?” he whispered in my ear.
“They’re telling you how much they loved your performance. They are giving you a standing ovation.“ Tears poured down both of our faces.
The widow of Marilyn’s acting coaching was able to attend one of the performances. Afterward, she was so moved that she could hardly speak. “This is such a great legacy from Marilyn. She and my husband would have been so proud,” she said.
Nearly 15 years later, Jimmy works part time in the theater, plus a steady job. Given the gift of learning by people who cared about him, he saw there was more to life than gangs and violence.
The Last Lesson…
Years later I had an unsettling conversation with one of the young, innocent residents.
“Miss Judy, what was Marilyn Monroe like?”
“I only know what I read in the many books about her,” I replied.
“You mean you never met her?”
“Well, no, that would mean that I’d be 90 years old.”
Clearly, from the look on the face in front of me, that was not in the least an unreasonable assumption. Hmmm…