One summer, I had a place in a car pool for a job that was 45 minutes from town. I lived in the same neighbourhood as one of the car-poolers, and we would alternate collecting one another from our respective homes. In the first week I noticed that he was carrying a biography about John Lennon. Incidentally, I was reading “Wonderful Tonight“, the autobiography of Patty Boyd, wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and the inspiration of famous songs from both men. I began to do my own internet research about Lennon and the Beatles, and we found that our daily journey would be speedy and scholastic. One day, after two books, and too many lengthy conversations about music, movies and pop culture, he appeared despondent and distant.
“What’s wrong with you buddy? You look troubled”. His eyes fixed on the highway; he shakes his head in disbelief: “I can’t believe he’s dead, man”.
“…Who? John Lennon?”
“Yeah, dude…I just can’t believe he’s dead”.
“Yeah, like… 27 years ago”.
It certainly wasn’t news; in fact neither of us had even been born when he was alive. He’s read every word, knowing how the story ended, but on that long stretch of highway, he couldn’t help but wish that things were different. Of course, in the days leading to that particular conversation, discussion of Lennon’s life had inevitably led to his assassination. Mark David Chapman met Lennon outside of the Dakota apartments in New York City, had his copy of Double Fantasy autographed by Lennon himself, who was on the way out to a recording studio, presumably to lay down some tracks with Yoko Ono. There is even a poorly centered photograph snapped of Lennon and his assassin, taken on that fateful December day. Chapman, satisfied with the meeting, suddenly deterred from his violent plans, thought of going home, of not pulling the trigger. But the story doesn’t end that way. And over three decades later, you still can’t help but wish you could turn the tides, negotiate with long established fate.
The internet becomes a breeding ground for the obsessed to fuel their creepy hobbies and obscure fascinations. I am certainly not immune to the perils of investigatory predilections. One late night in New Zealand, unable to sleep, I watched Amelia, the Hilary Swank picture about Amelia Earhart. I remember a storybook from my childhood about the famous ‘lady pilot’, and her famous disappearance. Though I was aware of how the story ended, my heart was in my throat as the final moments of the film began closing in. I joined my sleeping husband in bed and laid awake for a long while, wishing things had been different for old Amelia Earhart. How terrifying that your dream could be the death of you; that the very thing that drives you is what destroys you. To disappear and be unreachable, silenced and secrets left unspoken—leaving loved ones behind who are unable to make peace with what could have happened to you, forever haunted by the uncertainty and the unknown.
The following day was fueled by Amelia Earhart fever; I spent that morning sitting on the floor with a cup of tea, watching a 1970’s documentary on YouTube. The piece regarding her career and subsequent disappearance was narrated and hosted by a young Leonard Nimoy, hip in his turtleneck and blazer, with cool, expansive sideburns kissing his angular cheeks. When the film had been produced, the mystery was not yet forty years old; now it’s well over seventy, and the mystery still remains unsolved. The most recent theory would attest that Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan, (who is historically speaking, a tragic grain of sand on the vast and endless desert of the Earhart mystery), were castaways on a deserted island. I suppose that anything is possible, but in all likeliness, Earhart ran out of petrol and crashed into the sea.
One can surmise that there is a collective desire to be swept up in the romance of the unknown, to either solve a mystery or to wade amongst the million possibilities that fail to alter the final result. Like conclusive results of an autopsy, knowing what happened doesn’t undo the knots of loss. Throughout the day, the recent feature film, and the grainy aging documentary fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but think about Earhart’s husband George Putnam. I researched further, this time about her personal life and marriage. Adrift on the sea of imagining, I pictured her husband coping after her disappearance. He must have been devastated, haunted forever by the loss of his adventurous, trouser wearing wife. I read Earhart was officially declared dead in absentia approximately two years after her ill-fated flight in 1937. One website declared that this was done so that her affairs could be finally put to order, but another site stated it was so her widower could remarry. Horrors! He did in fact marry again in 1939-which shattered my romantic illusions of a man pacing along a shoreline, holding vigil for a resolution that would never come.
(I have since made my husband promise, if ever I were to disappear in an airplane in a round the world tour, that he would hold out for longer than 24 months to shack up with someone else. I need him to be a Joe DiMaggio type, to never remarry, to always carry the torch, never divulge my secrets to the press, and to always ensure fresh roses were flourishing on a memorial on a bi-weekly basis.)
My thoughts were consumed by the history, the celebrity, the legacy, and I was certainly not alone. There are people just like me, perhaps with more money to burn, that are desperate to know the truth about such things. All the lost souls and their impenetrable secrets, deep underwater, buried in the earth, locked away in people’s hearts. The world is simply bursting with secrets that we are rarely privy to. The iconic figures that captivate national attention have specific exceptional qualities, talents or skills that first gather focus, and then merit respect. Earhart’s passion for flight was so great that she was willing to die for her craft-she knew that her goals were risky and still she pushed forth fearlessly. Her rationale was simple: she wanted to see if she could do it. What better reason is there, beyond money, fame or accolades-just desire to achieve. I wonder what would have happened if she had survived the mission, and gone home as planned. Would she have retired as she promised? Would she have been satisfied? Would she have delighted in knowing the mystery she left behind? I wonder the same about Marilyn Monroe, what she would have thought of the conspiracy theories and mythology that surround her life and death to this day.
While living in Australia, I caught the second half of the documentary “The Many Loves of Marilyn Monroe”. Curiosity ignited, I followed the program with a series of Google searches, trying to piece together details about her short life and lengthy legacy. Trust the internet for photographs and commentary; disjointed detailed accounts of her history, her behaviour, and even more about her mysterious death. But I was not satisfied, only more intrigued and voracious for information. Benjamin and I took a stroll through Hay Street, Perth’s chic shopping district and found the most delightful consignment book store amongst Tiffany’s, Burberry and Gucci. In Elizabeth’s Second-hand Bookshop, we found a 500 page text called “The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe”, which was all the glamour I could afford in that particular neighbourhood. I bought the book and carried it out of the store clutching my new purchase lovingly to my chest.
Summer was passing and the stifling weather had cooled in Perth. The dampness of winter crept inwards and I felt illness roll in along with the bad weather. Within 48 hours I had a debilitating head cold and was unable to work. It is a rare occasion that I become ill with a cold or flu, but when I am struck down by a germy invasion, I fall like the Roman Empire, and it’s always ugly. As the sickness infiltrated my body, I retreated into the biography, reading either curled up in bed, or while soaking in the tub. After the Monroe biography ended, I couldn’t deny the sadness I felt. I couldn’t believe she was dead. To have read that whole book in a mere 72 hours was to have watched her perish in one continuous cataclysmic crash, as if she was both the speeding car and brick wall. Still, it seemed so sudden.
“Oh my God, Marilyn Monroe just died!”
“Oh my God, when?”
“50 years ago!”
The circumstances in that plane, that locked Hollywood bedroom, outside the New York apartment building are grim and fantastic. Suddenly those figures are forever shrouded in their final outcome, and it’s impossible to see past the fog. Though I know how these stories end, I can’t help wishing it were different. But, wanting doesn’t make it so; once the machinery of fate is in motion, not even God can pull some mystical emergency brake-ceasing all action that leads to tragedy. What remains are fragmented, feverish late night Google searches. But satisfaction could not come from a simple answer. American writer Ken Kesey states: “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer–they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer”. And so the fascination fever may never break, and we will spend our lives trying to prescribe answers for incurable questions.
Images Courtesy of Google