Salisbury native sparks talk of Marilyn Monroe
SALISBURY — Even 50 years after her death, the interest in Marilyn Monroe remains insatiable. For serious authors, filmmakers and fans, the obsession with the Hollywood icon inevitably leads them to Salisbury, a place she never visited yet knew everything about.
Credit the late Ralph Roberts for that. For the last three-plus years of Monroe's life, Salisbury native Roberts served as her personal masseur and, probably, closest friend.
By most accounts, Roberts was the last person Monroe tried to contact the night she died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles.
Only two weeks ago, documentary filmmakers from Paris were here, interviewing Ralph Roberts' nephew, Hap, who saw his uncle almost every day for the last three years of his life in Salisbury.
French Connection Films also spoke to Chris "Steve" Jacobs, the man Hap Roberts has made archivist for his uncle's papers and all things Marilyn.
Together, Roberts and Jacobs have developed a Ralph Roberts website. They keep a Greensboro attorney on call, just to make sure nothing false is attributed to Ralph Roberts.
Working from Hap Roberts' company, Statewide Title, they store anything connected to Marilyn Monroe in lock boxes off site.
Long after Monroe had died and mainly as a way to correct and set straight things written about her, Ralph Roberts started several versions of a memoir, which he titled "Mimosa."
"There's constant interest in that manuscript," Jacobs says.
Hap Roberts and Jacobs hope to publish the memoir some day, though putting the Marilyn years in chronological order and dealing with Ralph's writing style have been difficult.
"He never took advantage of his relationship with Marilyn Monroe in any shape or form," Hap Roberts says of his uncle. "We don't want to profit from it, either. We just want to do what Ralph would want done."
Hap Roberts' life keeps bumping into his Uncle Ralph and Marilyn Monroe.
He's not complaining. He loved and adored his uncle, and through him appreciated the actress.
In recent years, Roberts and Jacobs assisted University of Southern California professor and author Lois Banner on her recently released book, "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox."
Banner's index lists Ralph Roberts on 19 different pages, and the book devotes considerable space to his brother-sister relationship with Monroe.
Bill O'Reilly's best-selling book, "Killing Kennedy," mentions Roberts on a single page. It's one of the more famous Roberts-related stories because it essentially confirms the affair Monroe had with President John F. Kennedy.
O'Reilly probably gets it wrong, however. He writes that when Kennedy, staying in Palm Springs with Monroe, complains of chronic back pain, Monroe calls Roberts and puts him on the telephone with the president. The passage says Roberts offered a quick diagnosis and hung up after a few minutes.
But while he was alive, Roberts told the Post at least twice - in 1985 and 1993 - that Marilyn called him that night after the president had asked her how she pulled off her signature walk.
Monroe knew it was a variation on an exercise using a muscle that connects the thighbone to the hipbone through the spine. But when Kennedy asked her the name of the muscle, she couldn't remember.
So Monroe called Roberts, put Kennedy on the telephone, and Roberts told the president it was the psoas muscle. And that was pretty much their conversation.
Paris filmmakers Ian Ayres and Eric Ellena are still in the United States interviewing people for their documentary, "Marilyn: Birth of an Icon."
They describe it as a movie "about a sensitive, caring person trapped in the role of the world's greatest sex symbol." Their treatment of the subject, Hap Roberts says, is something of which his Uncle Ralph would have approved.
Forever cognizant of his uncle's wishes to protect the Monroe he knew, Hap Roberts says he has only granted two interviews about Ralph Roberts since his death in 1999. One was for Banner; the other, for Ayres and Ellena.
When they were in Salisbury, the men filmed Hap and his wife, Annette, walking in City Memorial Park toward Ralph's grave. They also interviewed Hap for an hour at his home and Jacobs for a considerable time back at the Statewide Title office.
They took pictures of several of the Marilyn artifacts Ralph had kept after the actress' death Aug. 5, 1962. Ralph was among only a small group of people, including former Monroe husband Joe DiMaggio, who attended Monroe's funeral.
Hap Roberts still has his uncle's program from the memorial service.
"I grew up reading every book about her," Ayres said in an email to Hap Roberts. "Now I find myself in the position of making the documentary I'd always hoped someone would.
"And your uncle Ralph meant so much to Marilyn. I know she'd be pleased."
This year, Hap Roberts was invited to attend Marilyn Remembered's Aug. 5 memorial on the 50th anniversary of her death. Marilyn Remembered is a fan club of sorts established in Los Angeles in 1982.
More than 400 people from all parts of the world attended the memorial service, according to Greg Schreiner, president of the group.
Hap Roberts wrote some words of tribute for his uncle which were read at the Monroe memorial, but he did not attend.
The photographs that exist of Ralph Roberts with Marilyn Monroe inevitably show him standing behind her, giving a neck massage.
Descriptions always mention how tall and handsome he was. Hap Roberts says his uncle was about 6-2.
Authors also describe a man who was a good listener - a Southern gentleman who was tight-lipped and trusted by the famous people he massaged, especially Monroe.
"She was very comfortable with Ralph," Annette Roberts says.
Hap Roberts adds that his uncle purposely kept in the background, not wanting to be considered part of Monroe's entourage.gg
Ralph Roberts' acting career should not be overlooked, nor his military record.
He graduated with honors from Salisbury's Boyden High School and Catawba College. He was attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he volunteered for the Army before Pearl Harbor and World War II.
After Officers Candidate School, he rose to the rank of major and served as Gen. Joseph Stilwell's assistant in the China-Burma Theater. During the war, he also was one of the first liaison officers from the Pentagon to the White House. In that position, he met President Franklin D. Roosevelt twice.
When Roberts was called back to active duty during the Korean War, he held the reserve rank of lieutenant colonel.
His military obligations behind him, Roberts headed for New York to follow up a love for acting he developed in college and community theater productions in Salisbury.
Through much of his life, he seemed consistently drawn to famous or soon-to-be-famous people. Roberts attended the method acting school of Lee Strasberg with fellow students such as James Dean, Shelley Winters and Marlon Brando.
In 1954, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine behind actress Julie Harris, who was starring in the play, "The Executioner." Roberts was the executioner.
Roberts actually met Marilyn Monroe for the first time at Strasberg's New York apartment in 1955. He wrote in his memoir that she was "one of the most radiantly beautiful creatures" he had ever seen.
"And when I say 'creature,' that was it," Roberts wrote. "An animal. The blue-whiteness one sees sometimes in the stars of a desert night. White-blond hair, clear-white complexion framing violet-blue eyes."
Roberts had parts in long-run Broadway productions such as "Witness for the Prosecution," ''The Lark" and "The Groom Wore Spurs."
His first movie was Stanley Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss."
To supplement his acting income, Roberts trained at the Swedish Massage Institute in New York, and he quickly became known among Broadway actors, film and television stars as the man who could help them relax before or in between performances.
The clients he would have over three decades, mostly in New York, sound like a Who's Who in acting. He massaged, for example, Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton, Natalie Wood, Judy Holliday, Imogene Coca, Milton Berle, Red Buttons and Ellen Burstyn.
And, of course, Marilyn Monroe.
Roberts became Monroe's official masseur in 1959, and for long periods, during her various marriages and romantic entanglements, would give her massages daily.
Roberts and Monroe forged a bond. She called him "Rafe," the British pronunciation for his name.
They connected on the Willa Cather books they read, their spirituality and, believe it or not, Salisbury.
As Roberts massaged her at night, he spoke to her about his hometown and all of its places and people - down to men such as Irvin Oestreicher and Julian Robertson Sr. to the roasted peanuts at the Lash store and the winged statue on West Innes Street.
Together, Roberts and Monroe ran errands, ate meals together, attended parties and took plane trips across the country between New York and California.
Roberts was with Monroe the night she practiced singing "Happy Birthday," the version she would famously croon to Kennedy.
They watched the 1960 Democratic National Convention together when Kennedy won the nomination. They were on the set together every day of "The Misfits," Clark Gable's last movie.
In addition to massaging Monroe between scenes and being her chauffeur, Roberts played the part of an ambulance driver in "The Misfits."
When he was 9, Hap Roberts says, he wrote his uncle in the spring of 1960 after hearing Ralph had the part in "The Misfits." Hap asked whether Ralph could have Monroe autograph a picture to him and also one to his 9-year-old girlfriend, Kay Snider.
A month later, the pictures came in the mail. His said simply, "To Hap, Marilyn Monroe," but she had signed the cover of a Life magazine with her and actor Ives Montand.
"I still have it," Hap Roberts says.
As his nephew recalls, Ralph Roberts drove one of the first Corvettes - a black beauty with red interior. Monroe enjoyed riding with him.
Hap remembers that his grandfather had one of the first televisions in Salisbury, "and we would all gather around and watch Ralph in early Kinescope productions," he said.
His uncle had an apartment in Greenwich Village. Roberts says one night Ralph and another aspiring actor, James Dean, returned to that apartment to listen to records.
When Ralph was acting in plays in New York, Hap and his mother would visit at times.
"I met Imogene Coca in her east-side apartment, Judy Holliday and Dean Martin back stage and years later with my wife, Lee Strasberg and Al Pacino at Lee's apartment in the Dakota, a year before (John) Lennon was killed."
Hap Roberts even received some hand-me-down clothes, such as sportcoats, from Ralph Roberts' clients.
"I grew into Milton Berle's stuff when I was 18," he says.
In those Marilyn years, Hap says, Ralph Roberts would travel home to Salisbury with numerous small checks from the actress he had yet to cash. Once Hap's father, Harold, asked his brother to have Monroe make out one of the checks to him.
The next trip home, Ralph Presented Harold with a $100 check made out to him from Monroe. Harold Roberts carried it around in his wallet for a year, showing everybody. Then one day he cashed it in.
Hap Roberts couldn't believe it.
"He said, 'Hell, it was $100.' "
Hap Roberts cherishes the last years of his uncle's life after he left New York and lived on Parkview Circle close to Hap's office. They would meet every afternoon around 4 p.m., and Ralph would look after Hap's dogs on the weekends.
Every Sunday evening was "Martini Time."
Ralph Roberts would appear at Hap's house at 5 p.m., bringing the Sunday New York Times with him, so Annette and Hap could read it later.
Ralph Roberts had a art deco martini set Monroe had given him, and once he brought it out for their Sunday ritual.
Hap and Annette, who also became close to Ralph, knew not to probe him for his memories of Monroe.
When he did talk about their relationship, they tried not to interrupt, savoring every detail and recognizing how much he loved and respected Monroe.
Ralph Roberts felt great remorse that he wasn't home the night of Monroe's death to answer her call. He lived close to the actress and could have been to her house quickly.
"I do think he probably carried that to his grave," Hap Roberts says.
Something else Monroe had given Ralph was a box full of the chandelier crystals she had collected. Monroe thought the crystals had healing properties.
Ralph Roberts would sometimes hand out the crystals as gifts to friends.
Hap Roberts tells a funny story, too, of another Monroe gift to his uncle. After Ralph's death, Hap was gathering his uncle's clothing together for a donation to Goodwill.
He noticed a woman's Burberry trench coat in the closet, but he figured it was a friend's coat, left at Ralph's house in the past. He placed it with the other things for Goodwill.
"About a month later, I found a list of Marilyn Monroe items," Roberts says. "Sure enough, on the list was 'Burberry trench coat.'
"Well, Marilyn's coat is now protecting some unsuspecting lady in Salisbury from inclement weather."
When Ralph Roberts died April 30, 1999, at his home, he was 82. Hap Roberts said he sat alone in his uncle's house and cried until he couldn't cry any longer.
Roberts noticed the stacks of memoir papers spread out everywhere in the living room. In the den, he also saw the open Willa Cather book that his uncle had been reading.
Up to the end, Ralph Roberts was chasing his friend, Marilyn Monroe.