Inventing Marilyn

Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn't warrant such attention doesn't know much about it.
Hulton Archive/Getty

Thump—it landed on the doorstep last summer like an abandoned baby: the newest biography of Marilyn Monroe, a bouncing 515 pages and obviously loved. Tucked between its covers were 51 pages of footnotes, an 88-person list of interviewees, a four-page guide to abbreviations and “manuscript collections consulted.” Had it found a forever family? Sadly, no; it had been left at yet another hateful group home. After some mild bureaucratic processing—its publicity materials and padded mailer confiscated and tossed in the recycling bin, its well of familiar photographs perfunctorily ticked through—it ended up on a shelf crammed with other Marilyn bios, some tall and lovely and filled with pictures, others squat and densely written, a few handsomely published and seemingly important. It would have to find its place.

But before any actual reading could begin—how quickly Marilyn herself had taken to serious books, and how quickly she’d abandoned them—real life had to be attended to, and it was the busy season: the summer months that begin with the anniversary of her birth and round with that of her death.

On the June night of what would have been her 86th birthday, a small crowd of celebrants ambles about the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, poking our clodhoppers into her tiny shoe prints; smiling at the Marilyn impersonators who have gathered for the occasion; offering one another shy nods of greeting. We love her, each in our own deep and private way—each of us feeling we possess a unique connection to her—and we’re here to prove our love. It’s night one of Playboy’s Marilyn Monroe Film Festival. Some Like It Hot—projected on the huge screen of the majestic old movie palace. Sensational!

Inside, the 1,000-seat theater—it’s a ravishing place, the giant red-and-gold velvet curtain falling in plush waves to the floor of the vast stage, ghosts everywhere—is almost full, and all of us are alive with the delicious combination of fizzy happiness and expansive tristesse that is the soul of Marilyn fever. A tuxedoed emcee walks to the microphone to welcome us (this is how we want it: tuxedoed, formal, haute-’50s Tinseltown, but maybe with an usher locked tight onto a popcorn girl behind a hammered-brass door somewhere close by, panties at ankles, melted butter spilling out of the auto pump back at the counter), and he says that a percentage of the night’s take will go to support Hollygrove, which he calls “Marilyn’s orphanage.” There is an immediate frisson of understanding, and a reverent, pained murmur runs through the crowd. He says that one important thing to know about Some Like It Hot is that Marilyn was pregnant during filming, and this fact produces another excited, anguished murmur. Everyone knows that these two themes—the desperate childhood, and its answering adult desperation, the wish to make it all right with a magical baby of her own—were the two central sorrows of the passion. That there are no more orphanages in Los Angeles, or anywhere else in America—that the old Hollygrove, no longer a residential facility, is now one component of a vast California social-services agency, the grounds transformed into the campus of a trendy charter school with an Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard and a bevy of wealthy entertainment executives in its parent body—is immaterial. Ditto that Monroe’s desire for a baby was matched by an equally fierce ambivalence about the prospect. What matters is the idea of a little girl, age 9, showing up at an institution for unwanted children, staring at the blinking red light of RKO Studios, and dreaming her way into movie history.

And then the emcee introduces Cooper Hefner, Hugh’s youngest son, who has been charged with reading a longish movie note that the old man wrote years ago about Some Like It Hot.

(How do we feel about Hef? What should be our collective response to his emissary? It’s too complicated a question to answer, as a crowd, in these few seconds. For example: Are any of us feminists? If so, are we second-wavers? This would mean we see him as the brute face of male sexuality, the force that stripped and exploited Marilyn Monroe, that hounded her down to her terrible, frantic death, nude under the sheet, one hand resting on the telephone, as though to send out one last message to the world: Rescue me. Or are we third-wavers, who see Marilyn as a feminist icon, using her sexuality as a powerful tool with which to dominate men, a person whose ideas about sexual liberation dovetailed with Hef’s and who took Playboy for a ride of her own making—her last telephone call: Check the foreign gross on Showgirl. There is nothing for us to do but sit tight and see what happens next.)

Serious books about Marilyn describe the transformation of a ’50s sex symbol into something shockingly urgent.

Cooper eagerly approaches the microphone, and he turns out to be both very young and very handsome, and also to be a man in possession of an evident, touching, and boyishly uncritical respect for his father. (“Heading over to my dads for an early breakfast,” he had tweeted the previous month, and—two weeks later—“Setting up a lemonade stand tomorrow at the back gate of my dads to celebrate the beginning of summer. Come if you’re free.”) In addition, he turns out to be someone with significant difficulty reading aloud to a large audience. He stumbles over several words and mispronounces others, and his reading of the too-long-for-the-occasion essay starts to become uncomfortable, an embarrassment.

Cooper is, in short, exactly the sort of person—a good-looking kid with a complicated past, unraveling in public and on the ugly verge of becoming a joke—to whom Marilyn would have attached her greatest sympathy and encouragement. For all his wealth and privilege, he seems destined to be a person whose pursuit of his father will be largely composed of early breakfasts and back gates: Marilyn’s kind of person, all the way. You could imagine her sitting attentively on the edge of one of the theater’s seats and fixing him with her marshmallow-moonbeam glow, transfixed, as though listening to him deliver a canned and unenlightening movie review were on par with hearing Cicero delivering his speech against Catiline. You could imagine her getting him through it.

Not so the audience at the Marilyn Monroe Film Festival. When Cooper mispronounces Pauline Kael’s name, there are giggles, and for a bad moment it seems he might actually get laughed or even booed off the stage, but then the reading comes to its blessed end, and he scurries away up a side aisle, deflated. It’s a tough Hollywood crowd, and no one wants to get dicked around by an amateur.

And so it is the start of a perfect Marilyn evening: tender, beautiful youth making a go of it against Hollywood the destroyer, starting out hopeful, ending up humiliated, and leaving behind only a monument: Some Like It Hot.

The new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, is the work of Lois Banner, a historian at the University of Southern California who writes that she was propelled toward her subject because it had never been tackled by someone like her: “an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender.” The book took her 10 years to write, which is about how long it takes to read, albeit for the best possible reason: it is rigorously, at times obsessively, well researched. More appealingly, Banner’s academic orientation did not preclude her from going native. In the course of her work, she joined a Marilyn fan club, became a major collector of the star’s artifacts, contributed to a fund that paid for a new bench outside the Westwood crypt, and published a coffee-table book devoted to items from Marilyn’s personal archive. For those of us who love Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox constitutes an invaluable resource, a compendium of the latest discoveries, a settling of long-festering questions, and a thoughtful and thorough revisiting of the subjects we love most. For the general reader, however, the book will be overwhelming and impossible. How can a civilian be expected to care about the details of a real-estate deal that led to the 1910s development of the Whitley Heights tract in the Hollywood Hills? An introductory note is addressed, casually, to those “familiar with the biographical tradition on Monroe”; indeed, it is this tradition itself, more than any freshly excavated facts about the life, that demands a reckoning. Serious books about Marilyn number in the high hundreds, possibly the thousands; together they describe not just the transformation of a poor California girl into an international sex symbol but also the posthumous transformation of that sex symbol into something shockingly urgent, completely contemporary, and forever bankable.

Marilyn was always doing something to align herself with part of the culture.

Two years ago, moviegoers were made aware of an obscure account of a brush with Marilyn. The Prince, the Showgirl and Me is the diary of a young Englishman who signed on as an assistant for a Monroe film shooting outside London in 1956. A minor bit of business, it contains some wickedly apt observations—the author was the son of Lord Kenneth Clark—among them this hideously precise description of the young man’s first glimpse of the star: “She looked absolutely frightful … Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye.” The experience became the movie My Week With Marilyn, the critical success of which was grounded not just in Michelle Williams’s much-admired portrayal of the star but also in the general assumption that the source material provided something rare and therefore precious. Certainly there can’t be many firsthand reports of private time spent with an unguarded Marilyn Monroe? In fact, there are too many to count. The “Marilyn and me” genre is a significant one in this field; to have once teased the woman’s hair or hand-waxed her car was justification for running a few eager pages through the typewriter and seeing if anyone would bite. That the deeply personal revelation vouchsafed to the nearest stranger was her preferred mode of pleasantry eluded her confessors: each thought that he or she had been specially selected as kindred spirit; each felt anointed as a person of particular understanding of the mysterious and private woman. There are Marilyn memoirs written by her cook; her masseuse; her call-girl neighbor; the half-sister whom she met as a teenager; Lili St. Cyr’s fifth husband, who claims he brought the two women together in a three-way; Lee Strasberg’s jealous daughter; several of the photographers who shot her; men who claimed to be former lovers; former husbands—the list is endless. She lived in the days before the nondisclosure agreement became commonplace in Hollywood, and the trail of “As I remember her” dispatches (many of them legitimate, some of them surely hoaxes) reveals as much, to say nothing of the hundreds of detailed interviews granted over the years to players big and small. But this is just one branch of Marilynology. Also to be considered are the doorstop biographies and the pop bios, the luxe books of photographs and quotations, the novels inspired by her legend, the “What can it all mean?” reveries. Hers is the original True Hollywood Story, and that writers keep writing it and readers keep reading it, that studios keep optioning it and adapting it, that magazines keep telling it, while all around the world millions of people do their part to keep it alive—all of this reminds us that the life was not mere, that the scope of the legend is not preposterous. Anyone who thinks the story of Marilyn Monroe doesn’t warrant attention doesn’t know much about it; at every turn and in every moment, she was doing something either to align herself with an important part of the culture or to impress herself imperishably upon it.

Marilyn Monroe was baptized by Aimée Semple McPherson, analyzed by Anna Freud, befriended by Carl Sandburg and Edith Sitwell, romanced (if you can call it that) by Jack and Bobby Kennedy, painted by Willem de Kooning, taught acting by Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg, photographed by Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She managed—on the strength of limited dramatic talent and within a studio system that paid no attention to individual ambition—to work with some of the greatest directors in movie history: twice with John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, and once each with George Cukor, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Laurence Olivier. She was the first Playboy centerfold and one of the first women to own her own production company; she was a nudist and a champion of free love long before these concepts emerged into the national consciousness. She maintained a deep association with the American military that, all on its own, lent her a mythic stature. When the Second World War broke out, she became both a teenage war bride and an actual Rosie the Riveter (long days spent working in the fuselage-varnishing room of the Radioplane plant in Burbank); her first cheesecake photographs were taken in the spirit of “morale boosters” for the boys overseas; her famous appearance in Korea—wriggling onstage in her purple sequined dress, popping her glorious platinum head out of the hatch of the camouflaged touring tank rolling her to the next appearance—remains the standard against which any American sex symbol sent to entertain the troops is measured. She was the first celebrity to talk openly about her childhood sexual abuse, a kind of admission that has become so common today that we hardly take notice of it. But to tell reporters in the 1950s that you had been raped as an 8-year-old—and to do so without shame, but rather with a justifiable sense of fury and vengeance—was a breathtaking act of self-assurance.

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Caitlin Flanagan’s most recent book is Girl Land. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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