Salisbury Post - May 10, 1999 Marilyn's Masseur [View Scan Version]
By Rose Post

Marilyn’s masseur
Salisburian made actress one of us

Rose Post
May 10, 1999

None of the hundred or so people at Ralph Roberts’ funeral last Monday wanted to leave.

It was like the Salisbury native who’d gone to New York and made a life as actor and masseur to the stars would show up soon with another story to tell about somebody we all knew from the silver screen.

Or somebody famous that he’d been in a show with on Broadway.

Or somebody whose tension he’d wiped away with a skill that made him one of New York’s outstanding masseurs.

Not that he went to New York to become a masseur – but that’s what made him Marilyn Monroe’s closest friend and confidante.

The son of the late Mr. And Mrs. H.K. Roberts of West Innes Street, Ralph grewup on the corner where Krispy Kreme now rules. He went to New York seeking a stage career after he graduated from Catawba and completed a distinguished stint as an Army officer in World War II.

And the truth was, he liked a good massage himself.

So he decided to become a masseur. If he worked only a couple of hours a day, he could buy food and acting lessons and have plenty of time to make the rounds of the casting studios.

And it worked.

He got a number of good roles in long-running productions – he was once pictured on the cover of Time with Julie Harris for his part as executioner in the play "The Executioner" – and literally hundreds of lesser roles as a perennial policeman in Broadway productions, movies and television productions.

Massage clients came through those shows and word of mouth.

Old friends and new friends he’d made since he came back to Salisbury three years ago lingered after the funeral, remembering Ralph and the stories he brought home during a half century of visits.

"We’ll be telling his stories for years," someone said.

Especially those about Marilyn Monroe, who dreamed of coming "home" to Salisbury on a train because Ralph described it to her often.

"She went to sleep with Salisbury on her mind many times," he said.

Especially during 1962. That bad year, when she slept less and less and took more and more drugs. That year before she died.

"She’d have a massage to go to sleep about 8 o’clock, and then she’d wake up during the night and call me. I had the key to the door, and I would go in and start the massage and we would talk…

"She’d ask me about what happened there, or about this one and that one."

She got to know so many people he’d grown up with. Eli Saleeby, the produce man who died recently; Post editor Spencer Murphy, who did so much to encourage community theater; Kate Mills Snider, so witty and so beautiful; and Edith Clark, who single-handedly put Rowan Public Library on the road to today and for whom the history room is named.

Did Salisbury, Marilyn wanted to know while she was making "The Misfits" with Clark Gable, have a Clark Gable?

"Oh, yes. Julian Robertson," Ralph would tell her. Julian Robertson was president of North Carolina Finishing Co., where Ralph had worked while he was in high School.

"And whenever Julian Robertson came striding into the plant, everybody would just turn and look," he would tell Marilyn. "All the girls working there would oooh and aaah over Julian Robertson in his tennis clothes or dressed for golf."

Once she asked him if Salisbury had a Marilyn Monroe.

"No," he told her.

On those evenings, and in the middle of the night, his hands soothed and his voice lulled as he walked Marilyn through the streets and into the stores, introducing her to the Salisbury of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

"It was her go-to-sleep fantasy," he said. "She just drank it in as though it was hers. It was the other side of the fence, because she had been adopted so much."

She planned to come here. But she died in 1962, when she was only 36.

The dreams surfaced again in 1993 when Donald Spoto listed 26 references to Ralph Roberts in the index of his book "Marilyn Monroe: the Biography."

They were all accurate, Ralph said, in a telephone interview at the time from New York. The book was true to the Marilyn he knew – and he knew her well.

He was her constant companion during three years of her life and probably the last person she called before she died.

After her death, he stubbornly maintained that she didn’t kill herself – and Spoto agreed, charging that her psychiatrist and her housekeeper cause her death in a horrible drug-related accident.

Ralph and Marilyn had met when they were both students and Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in 1955. She asked him to be her masseur in 1959. He wasn’t taking new clients, but she was Marilyn Monroe…

And they discovered immediately that they had extraordinary ESP.

"I was fantasizing that I was massaging one of the most desirable women in the world," he said, "but I grew tired of my fantasies and started thinking about a book of short stories by Willa Cather, and Marilyn said, ‘Rafe, do you know a writer named Willa Cather?’ I nearly jumped out of my skin."

The attachment developed quickly.

"She considered me a brother," he said. It was not romantic. And when she decided to go to California to begin analysis with a psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, she asked him to go with her – "to drive her, to be with her, to massage her. To help her sleep – and to help her live. So I did."

Until the psychiatrist told Marilyn she didn’t need Ralph.

Then Ralph went back to New York.

Before he went, she made her famous appearance at President Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden – and Ralph was with her while she rehearsed for hours. But, he said, "you can only hear just so much of ‘Happy Birthday.’"

Even if Marilyn Monroe was singing the lyric.

When he died last week, his nephew, Hap Roberts, found Ralph’s announcement of the Madison Square Garden birthday bash for Kennedy in his uncle’s Parkway Circle home.

The book, Ralph said in that 1993 interview, gave an accurate picture of Marilyn’s relationship with Jack Kennedy.

He had pursued her for a year through his brother-in-law and her good friend, Peter Lawford. She spent one night with him – and called Ralph from Palm Beach while she was with Kennedy, because the president asked how she got her walk. It was a variation on an exercise using a muscle that connected the thighbone to the hipbone through the spine, she said.

What bone? Kennedy asked. So she called Ralph to find out and put Kennedy on the phone.

The psoas muscle, Ralph told him.

"And he said, ‘Thank you,’ and that was it. I knew his voice."

She also told Ralph the gossip that she and Bobby Kennedy were having an affair was untrue.

But Ralph Roberts spent little time on the Kennedys. The memories that book brought back for him was the visit she planned to make to Salisbury.

"She wanted to arrive by train," he said, because she liked Salisbury’s depot, even though she’d only seen it through Ralph Roberts’ eyes. He had described it to her often.

And she wanted to walk to East Council Street, pass the Yadkin Hotel, wave to the WSTP, which was in the hotel when Ralph was in Salisbury, and to long-time radio man Russ McIntire, who worked there, then buy a bag of roasted peanuts from Wiley Lash’s grocery store on Council Street, and blow a kiss to the Community Building, where Ralph made his theatrical debut.

Then she wanted to head to the bookstore owned by Al Buerbaum, son of Theo Buerbaum, who had taken so many pictures of Salisbury around the turn of the century, and then turn west on Innes so she could see the Confederate statue.

"She had this whole program planned…" Ralph said.

But she never took that walk.

By the time Ralph Roberts’ friends stood on a hillside at the City Memorial Park on Monday afternoon and remembered him and the stories he brought home about Marilyn Monroe, the years had changed the places and the people.

And the scenes he lulled her to sleep with, the scenes that made her feel our town was "home," are a Salisbury long gone except in stories old friends tell when they’re pulled together. And remember…

Memorials may be made to the Ralph Roberts Endowment, Rowan Public Library Foundation, 201 W. Fisher St., Salisbury. N.C. 28145. Interest on the endowment will be used to process, preserve and maintain the Ralph Roberts Collection in the Edith M. Clark History Room.