Imagining Marilyn Monroe’s last week: Alumnus sets novel at Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge

On the morning of Aug. 3, Adam Braver, ’80, was bombarded with at least 50 emails and phone calls from friends and family—all in response to yet another rave review of his newest novel, “Misfit.”

This review, however, was special because it came from the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle.

In “Misfit,” (Braver’s fifth book, published in July) he explores  the struggle of Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Baker, to uphold her public image while keeping her personal identity.

“Braver wisely avoids gimmickry as he posits the uneasy coexistence of Norma Jean and Marilyn within the same person,” wrote David Wiegand in the Chronicle. “He explores that coexistence by imagining how Norma Jean/Marilyn had to live with it.”

Even though “Misfit” received positive reviews from publications such as The Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly and Elle, Braver said he tries not to read them.

According to Braver, receiving a good review can even be very disheartening.

“It can be disappointing when critics read the work so much differently than what you had intended, and then base their assessments on that,” he said.
Despite the book’s applause, “Misfit” wasn’t Braver’s idea.

“Writing about Marilyn Monroe was a challenge that was put to me,” he said. Braver’s literary agent, he said, suggested that Braver try to write something out of his “comfort zone.”

“Misfit” was originally supposed to be a short story, but Braver kept up his research and pursued it further.

Although Monroe was an unfamiliar subject for Braver, he was no stranger to historical novels when he began writing “Misfit” two years ago.

Braver has written books on people like President Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Bernhardt (an early French film actress) and events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Braver starts his writing process with in-depth research on a possible subject.

“I went through hundreds of newspaper articles and some biographies. I look for themes developing in my research,” he said, “I follow my curiosity most of the time and see where it takes me.”

Much of Braver’s curiosity ultimately lay with Monroe’s inner conflicts. He said that although Monroe is known for her acting and modeling, he saw her as an “interesting, complex character.”

“All of the book deals with culture,” Braver said. “There is a conflict between worshipping and valuing the superficial and wanting to be part of the collective defined by the superficial, yet still wanting to have a meaningful life in which one sees oneself as an individual able to stand above the conventions of the collective. A push-pull.”

He decided to set the novel in the week leading up to Monroe’s death at the Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe.

Secret tunnels were built in the lodge by Frank Sinatra (part owner at the time) for use by the Rat Pack and other VIPs.

Braver considered setting the novel in the tunnels, but upon visiting them, Braver found that they were too small to host the entire novel, so he broadened the setting to the entire lodge.

Because little is known about Monroe’s stay at the lodge, Braver used his freedom as a fiction writer to fill in the gaps between historical records.

Braver said he remembers SCDS warmly and laughed upon hearing that his former teachers, Patricia Fels and Daniel Neukom, are still teaching.

Fels, who taught Braver eighth-grade English in 1976-77, her first year at the school, remembers his “wry” sense of humor even then.

“He always seemed more adult than his classmates—kind of more mature,” she said.

Braver is currently researching a possible novel on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s female driver, with whom Eisenhower may have had an affair.

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