I’ll play her song ‘til everybody knows
That something second-hand and broken
Still can make a pretty sound.
Don’t we all deserve a family room to live?
Oh, the words can’t stay unspoken until everyone has found
That second-hand white baby grand
That still has something beautiful to give.
This is for my sweet Ingenue, who has been wanting me to sing it, and who found the piano accompaniment for me.
This is also for little Norma Jeane, plunking away on those out of tune piano keys.
Of all the songs I’ve recorded so far, this is my personal favorite. As I said to Hannah, it may not objectively speaking be the best (I, admittedly, am no Megan Hilty), but there’s something very special about it to my heart. And I’d like to give it a bit of context.
Marilyn Monroe’s early childhood was characterized by unhappiness, and her single mother’s instability and mental illness haunted her throughout her life. Marilyn would say later, “I was never used to being happy, so that wasn’t something I ever took for granted. You see, I was brought up differently from the average American child because the average child is brought up expecting to be happy. I was a mistake. My mother didn’t want to have me.” She never had a permanent home - she was with her mother sporadically and lived in various foster homes (with various levels of safety themselves). Eventually, her mother had a complete breakdown and was forcibly committed, and most of their possessions were sold at auction. Amongst these was a baby grand piano. “My happiest hours as a little girl were around that piano.”
The piano was something never forgotten to her, and when she found it again, still struggling to make ends meet as an actress, she bought it back - “Even when I didn’t have enough money to eat, I borrowed money to keep that piano in storage.” Her sentimental attachment to this instrument is well-documented in the 1974 book, published posthumously, ‘My Story’ by Marilyn Monroe, in Chapter One entitled ‘How I Rescued A White Piano.’ (x) She moved the piano around in storage whenever she had to, until she finally had a home of her own where she could keep it. Scott Wittman (who co-wrote the original songs for Smash with his partner Marc Shaiman) said, “For her entire life she was looking for this piano until she found it at another auction and bought it back. It was the one thing she kept with her [until her death]. It was even in the Brentwood house when she died.” Marilyn was known for loving music, and I feel like the piano had a profound symbolic significance to her - some reminder that innocence and happiness can be preserved, that lost things can be found. Incidentally, the piano now belongs to Mariah Carey, and undoubtedly will be passed to another Monroe someday - her daughter. (The tiny white baby grand I used for the artwork here is actually a trinket box of mine, the closest I can get to the real thing. <3)
Reading about this story was very emotionally moving to me, and the song itself expresses it with exquisite melancholy - there’s such sadness running through the melody, but such hope running through the words.
For my own part, it always hurts me to think about Norma Jeane’s life as a little girl, because I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel entirely displaced and unwanted. My mom and I have had more than our fair share of struggles and hardships, but as she was raising me, there was one thing I always knew - that I was wanted, and loved. By her, if by no one else. She used to tell me how she prayed for a child, how ecstatic she was when she found out she was having me, how the only bonus she asked for after she found out I was a girl was that I have the blue eyes she had always wished for herself (I got them). Other people were transient, other people left, other people hurt us, but my mom has always been my touchstone and my best friend. That said, I certainly understand the feeling of being beaten down by outside forces, by others; the feeling of being broken nearly past the point of repair.
When I got sick a few years ago, followed by other circumstances in my life unraveling, one of the most significant things that seemed to be taken away from me was music - I didn’t really sing anymore. What was the point? No one could hear me. And no one being able to psychologically became the idea that no one would ever want to again. That music I’d carried with me since before I could really talk no longer had a place to live.
For many years, the music had to roam, until we found a way to find a home. Entirely unexpected, the home it found was here. It may just be a silly little internet blog, my tiny corner of space where only a handful of people hear me. It may not mean anything to the rest of the whole wide world, but it means something to me. Every time one of you clicks those play or like or reblog buttons, whether you realize it or not, you’re proving that there’s a reason to let the music live, reminding me that something second-hand and broken still can make a pretty sound.
And the immense beauty of this song comes not only from its specificity to Marilyn’s own story, but to the universality of its heart - Don’t we all deserve a family room to live? Our keys may get knocked out of tune along the way, and our strings may snap, and it may take years to fix, to find any kind of meaning in it. Maybe sometimes there isn’t a meaning at all.
The point to remember is that there’s still something beautiful to give.