Outside the Pieter Performance Space is industrial, modern-day Cypress Park, but inside it's Brentwood on the morning of Aug. 4, 1962. A small crowd sitting on folding chairs quietly watches Marilyn Monroe in bed, her hand peeking out from beneath the sheets. She tosses and turns, answers the phone and takes a sip of grapefruit juice. She then sits up and announces in that soft, signature, childlike voice: “I didn't know that when I started this day, it would be the last day.”
Of course, this isn't the real Marilyn Monroe but performance artist Alice Toohey. From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Toohey is channeling the actress on the 51st anniversary of the final day of her life, in a live installation called Becoming Marilyn Monroe.
During the first few hours of her performance, Toohey mostly stays in bed, playing records and tearfully petting a stuffed animal. It's going to be a long day. She'll talk about Arthur Miller and Lee Strasberg, drink Champagne, interact with the audience and generally contemplate life in a makeshift bedroom loosely modeled after Monroe's, with peach-colored curtains, vintage clothes, old issues of Life and a photo of baby Norma Jeane on the nightstand. There's also an hourglass on the floor, which Toohey flips over every 60 minutes.
The details of how Monroe spent her final hours are mostly conjecture, though most historians agree that she woke up that day sometime between 8 and 9 a.m. and died that night sometime between 8 and 10 p.m.
But Toohey isn't aiming for historical accuracy — we know how the story ends. For her, Becoming Marilyn Monroe is part endurance test, part wish fulfillment and part emotional journey “about life and death,” which has been years in the making.
“I was always interested with the idea of women in their rooms, in their personal space, particularly women in the public,” Toohey tells the Weekly. “What is their life like in their bedrooms? How do they spend their days? I want to create an opportunity to look into the possibilities of her life and to see that, if this was our last day, what would that be like for us?”
A Buddhist, Toohey was conceived on a Vermont commune and raised in Maine. She didn't watch Monroe's movies as a kid, though as a teenager she had a poster of Monroe in her iconic subway-vent pose from The Seven Year Itch. (“Then she was larger than life for me.”) But what really piqued her admiration for the blond bombshell was a photo in a book of Monroe standing next to French actress Simone Signoret, who was married to Monroe co-star (and rumored lover) Yves Montand.
“I just looked at her and something in me said, 'That's a woman,' ” Toohey says. “ 'That is what I'm meant to grow into.' ”
Before moving to L.A. with her husband, Toohey performed a small theater role inspired by Monroe. But, over coffee at a shop in Glendale, she explains that two crucial events two years ago pushed her into fully immersing herself in Marilyn's world: her father's death and a miscarriage.
At first glance, Toohey, 39, bears little resemblance to her muse, save for the blue eyes; Toohey's taller, her nose straighter and her lips thinner. But there's one similarity that goes deeper than bone structure.
In 2011, Toohey suffered a miscarriage. She would learn that Monroe also suffered two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy, and never achieved her dream of being a mother.
In a poignant letter addressed to Monroe on her blog, Toohey wrote, “I, too, lost a baby. We called her Ella, although we didn't know if she was a boy or a girl. … Oh God, I wanted Ella. … Please forgive me for bringing up a painful subject. I just wanted to let you know that I, too, have felt the spasms of my body doing exactly what I didn't want it to do. I have lain on my side in the dark feeling the enormity of the event while my hips pushed out a baby too tiny for life. … Now I am nearing 40 and I don't know if there will be a next time. How do I reconcile my lifelong dreams with this reality of time marching on?”
She continued, “Without putting too much pressure on you, I think becoming you might be an opportunity for me to create something. Something that is not really you and not really me but both of us, too. Do you mind if we work together in this way?”
The following January, Toohey's father, who had emphysema, was placed in hospice care; he died that October.
“Both my miscarriage and my father dying pushed me more toward actually doing it and not just talking about it,” Toohey says. “He was an artist and my mom is an artist, and he was unfulfilled in some ways in terms of his art. He wanted it to be seen. He wanted it to be out there. So there was that feeling that life is short.”
Last summer, Toohey began her physical metamorphosis, which encompassed everything from regularly wearing red lipstick, false eyelashes and dressing as early-'60s Monroe (pedal pushers, pant suits) to bleaching her hair and dieting or, as she calls it, “mindful eating.” (As part of the installation, Toohey included snapshots of her hair transformation, with one photo that read: “I missed a couple of days because my father died.”)
As part of her research, Toohey read books and Monroe's correspondence, watched interviews and studied her voice. She settled on a pitch that sounded more wounded and vulnerable than breathy pillow talk. “I had to find her natural mannerisms,” she says. “Was she that Marilyn behind the pout and the walk?”
Walking in somebody else's shoes — and a troubled somebody at that — couldn't help but affect Toohey's relationships.
“I feel like my highs and lows have been a little more dramatic than they used to be,” Toohey says. “[Her husband] and I would say, 'I think this is Marilyn right now.' It's a very big undertaking. With that commitment came all this discomfort — getting out of our comfort zone.”
As for Marilyn, Toohey says, “She really was just another human being. There's so much information about her, you can never really grasp her.”
She adds, “On the other hand, we all know her because she's us. We're all suffering in one way or another. That's what I discovered. She is me, in some ways.”
Marilyn is just the beginning. In the next three years, Toohey says, she wants to take on the lives of three other famous women in similar fashion — she won't say who just yet.
But by the end of the day on Aug. 4, she has been history's biggest sex symbol for 13 hours, and the journey for both artist and subject is about to end. Toohey tidies up the room, barely making a sound as she walks on the space's very rickety floor. She puts on a black cocktail dress, necklace and silver pumps before facing the crowd for the last time.
“I think I'm ready,” she says. “Let's move on.”
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: