Inventing Marilyn

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

Few adults have had less impetus to become serious readers—her people rarely ventured beyond Science and Health; a studio doctor once diagnosed her as dyslexic—but she tried again and again to read the great books, holing herself up in bedrooms with Dexedrine and champagne and willing herself through Antigone. She may have rarely finished the volumes she attempted, but she thought reading was an important and ennobling enterprise, and she gave it her all. When she died, her possessions included—along with a famously meager assortment of battered kitchen utensils and down-at-the-heels Ferragamos, a broken Golden Globe, some pottery and serapes she’d hauled back from Mexico with the vague idea of decorating her last house in the hacienda style—an astonishing collection of books. She had Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Robert Frost and William Blake, a book on snobbery and the 1836 album of the Garrick Club. She was the stroke-book queen of the 1950s, stretched nude and willing on red crushed velvet, and yet she was the Hollywood actress most interested in intellectual life and in intellectuals, committing herself to method acting and psychoanalysis, plugging away at Crime and Punishment, and marrying (I don’t mean to imply she had some kind of native genius for all this) Arthur Miller. She loved dogs and cats and children, and all her life she had the foster child’s animal craving for family, so she was forever inserting herself into other people’s stable households—moving in with her drugs and her sexual eagerness, her kitten sweetness and her blinding anger, her father fixation and her nighttime wanderings—and wreaking havoc on them. With the trembling lip and laughably bad line readings of her earliest days, she should have been washed‑up from week one. What would she do, an early pal earnestly asked her, if 50 percent of the experts in Hollywood told her she didn’t have any talent? “If 100 percent told me that,” she replied, “100 percent would be wrong.”

Almost as soon as Marilyn choked down the Nembutal, the culture turned away from everything she represented.

And then, just like that, a few months after her 36th birthday, she was gone—the brilliant platinum head yanked back down the hatch forever. Never has death been so good for the back catalog. Billy Wilder was correct in the one compliment he reliably paid her: she really did have perfect timing. Almost as soon as she’d choked down the last of the Nembutal, the culture took a sharp turn away from everything she seemed to represent. Think of it this way: at the time of her suicide, the Rolling Stones had just played their first gig; Timothy Leary was two years into his experiments with LSD; and the Vietnam War was about to turn a pinup girl’s visit to the troops into a sexually reactionary act, so there would have been only a slow, ugly death coming for her if she hadn’t cashed out when she did. The next few years made a mockery of women like her, banishing them to television variety shows and gag roles: the bottle blonde with the chinchilla stole and the sugar daddy, stuck like a La Brea Tar Pit mammoth in the hardening pastel Bakelite of ’50s populuxe. Only a veterinary-level dose of barbiturates stood between Marilyn and a second callback for Eva Gabor’s role on Green Acres. Maybe she even saw it coming: “Please don’t make me a joke,” she is supposed to have said, not long before the end.

And so began the hibernation of Marilyn Monroe, starting off with a New York Times obituary printed the day after her death that clearly understood she was a phenomenon—the “golden girl of the movies”—but casually listed her measurements as a relevant matter of public record, marveled at her “flesh impact,” and mentioned by name only four of her movies: one she’d been fired from, one in which she’d had a tiny part, one that was apparently significant only because it had led a deranged Turk to slit his wrists while watching it, and one bona fide stinker, which she’d caused to go $1 million over budget. In essence, the obituary correctly identified her—as Gloria Steinem, conducting a very different bit of business, would also later identify her—as a minor American actress.

And so she slept, the minor actress, while the country began its forgetting of her and DiMaggio’s roses wilted, week after week, out in the Westwood sun. Elizabeth Taylor ballooned into sexual irrelevance and Eva flattered Arnold the pig, and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” offered up a kind of sexuality that seemed, on the surface of things, completely foreign to the one Marilyn had purveyed. Better, too, that she missed the moldering decline of those with whom she had been young: Joltin’ Joe putting on a cardigan and turning into Mr. Coffee; Jane Russell tugging at her giant Playtex bra as the full-figured gal; Arthur Miller becoming even more Arthur Miller than ever. Time passed and passed, until the strange and wonderful year of 1973 rolled around, and Marilyn Monroe was located by the strangest search-and-rescue team in history: Norman Mailer and Elton John.

Mailer appoints himself, in Marilyn: A Biography, the “psychohistorian,” which was one of the few job openings available on the project, given that he had brazenly—and, as it would turn out, scandalously—farmed out the role of actual historian to Fred Guiles, the author of the one significant biography that had been published since the star’s death, Norma Jean. That book is an old-school movie-star bio, and a generally excellent one; what a pity that it’s rarely read. Nonhysterical, unburdened by the notion that the subject was anything more or less than a Hollywood star with a singularly interesting life, Norma Jean is mostly right on the big things while always fascinating on the small ones. It was written at a time when many of the players were not yet wary of the press, and were in fact eager to tell their stories. Come across some interesting fact about Marilyn Monroe’s life nowadays—that her first groom’s white jacket got splashed with tomato soup at the reception, or that her mother used to pick her up from her boardinghouse on the weekends to go to Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte—and nine times out of 10, you can trace it back to Guiles. Or, as Mailer would have it, Guiles’s work is “of much estimable value for verifying the events of her life,” surely the loosest interpretation of the term verifying on record. “The final virtue of Norma Jean,” says Mailer, “is that a great biography might be constructed on its foundations.” What is a “great” Marilyn biography? One that dwells on the similar letters in the subject’s name and his own (“If the ‘a’ were used twice and the ‘o’ but once,” he ponders, they would spell out his own name, “leaving only the ‘y’ ”); that vets the nutty possibility that she had been killed by the Kennedys, in a sort of single-Nembutal conspiracy theory; and that stirs everything together with a heaping helping of Norman Mailer deep-think:

In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the Fifties, and left a message for us in her death, “Baby go Boom.”

In short, Mailer’s book was brilliant stuff because, in its incomprehensible badness, it performed a bit of wizardry: it turned the life and times of Marilyn Monroe into weighty material. In her New York Times review, Pauline Kael writes that Mailer “pumps so much wind into his subject that the reader may suspect that he’s trying to make Marilyn Monroe worthy of him, a subject to compare with the Pentagon and the moon.” It’s the moon-size Marilyn, brought to us by the periphrastic bard of Provincetown, whom we have inherited.

For its part, “Candle in the Wind,” in which Elton John inhabits the lyrics of Bernie Taupin, performed the next important bit of work: repackaging Marilyn as someone deeply relevant to young people—not just a moving-picture idol from their parents’ drippy, musty past, but someone whose life was a blank canvas of unjust suffering onto which angry teens could cast their own ’70s-size collections of slights and sorrows. Taupin has said that the inspiration for the song came from a remark he heard after Janis Joplin’s death—that she was like a “candle in the wind”—but he had probably also read the Guiles book, a chapter of which is called “Goodbye, Norma Jean.” The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Just don’t watch the movies! She has her moments in The Misfits, and she does something interesting and often affecting in Bus Stop—but no one could call those great films. And there’s an awful lot of rotten tomatoes in the oeuvre, pictures she tried her best to save but didn’t know how. Have you ever seen her wandering around in Niagara, with her pastel suits and zombie stare, like a My Little Pony on Thorazine? Or mewing her kitten mew in The Seven Year Itch? But all is redeemed with Some Like It Hot, which I first saw a very long time ago and which converted me forever.

When I was 13, I owned a copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which my sister had given me as a Christmas present, and a copy of Marilyn: A Biography, which friends had given my parents as a gag gift and I had promptly liberated from the coffee table, not seeing it as ridiculous at all, but rather as deep and tragic and life-changing (the book’s ideal reader, it turns out, is the 13-year-old girl). I can remember sitting on the nubby brown couch in the living room, listening to “Candle in the Wind” over and over, and turning the pages of the book to look at all the portraits of my new heroine: the ballerina sitting, the Something’s Got to Give nudes, the preposterous pictures from her early teenage years, when she didn’t look any more beautiful than I did, which was not very beautiful at all. Maybe there was hope for plain girls everywhere; maybe magic could happen to anyone. So I was already enchanted, already on the road to losing my heart to her, when I came home from school to an empty house one day, clicked on the TV, and lo and behold: Some Like It Hot.

She was at her worst making that movie: late as hell, unprepared, incapable of remembering her lines, sick from pregnancy, and tanked up on vodka and pills, all the time willing to tease and taunt people until they were on their last nerve. Billy Wilder told Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon that they’d better keep their fingers out of their unmentionables whenever they were on camera, because “anytime she gets it right, I’m going to print it.” But it’s the only movie she ever made that fires on all cylinders: a perfect script, co-stars who were better than she was, a role that let her play dumb without in any way giving a dumb performance. The part also came with a sad past, as had so many of her signature roles, but this was the only past set in the midst of not a drama but a comedy, which was a fair approximation of the whole Monroe enterprise: It’s been a kick in the head, this sorry life, but why not have another drink and laugh about it?

This was also the movie that most directly benefited from her association with Lee Strasberg, because for once in his life the old windbag gave an actor a specific bit of advice about a particular role, one that could carry her through the whole picture. The reason Sugar Kane latches on so quickly to Josephine and Daphne, he told her, is because they’re nice to her; they want to be her friends. The defining aspect of Sugar’s existence is her terrible loneliness, the raw injustice that such a sweet and trusting person should be cut off from human friendship and affection. From the minute she first encounters Curtis and Lemmon, who do not mean her well, she turns to them; she’s like a pure light pouring over the screen, her radiant happiness at their friendship an illuminating force. “I got a cold chill,” said the first man who ever saw Monroe on film, the cameraman who shot her first screen test. “This is the first girl who looked like one of those lush stars from the silent era.” More than any other role she ever played, Marilyn Monroe was Sugar Kane: manipulative and kind, innocent and mercenary, madcap and melancholy, and most of all desperately lonely. I remember watching her that school-day afternoon and falling a little bit in love with her. “She was so seductive,” Strasberg’s son said of her, “that she made you feel like you were the only person who could save her.”

That was Marilyn Monroe’s shtick and her truth, and it’s still selling books and calendars and posters, still filling up Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She was the girl who always got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, the abandoned baby and the mean foster kid and the woman who took off her clothes for the camera when she felt like it. I drive past the old Hollygrove orphanage two or three times a week, and usually I don’t give it a second thought. But sometimes I think of that 9-year-old girl, dropped off screaming but forced to stay, and I think of the astonishing fact that somewhere between Hollygrove and the Hollywood Studio Club, which she moved into at 20, she dried off her tears and stopped believing in the realities of this ugly old world, made up her own set of rules and played by them. If 100 percent of the men in movies told her she had no talent, she decided, 100 percent of them would be wrong.

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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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