A Tale of Two Marilyns

Fifty-one years after Marilyn Monroe's death, revisiting two Atlantic pieces showing the complexity of an icon

AP / Matty Zimmerman

On this day in 1962, Marilyn Monroe died in her Brentwood, California home. She was 36 years old.

An American icon, Marilyn Monroe has been immortalized by one image: Wearing a low-cut white dress, red lipstick, and high heels, she's smiling -- ever so coyly (she's giving the cameraman a stellar view of her legs, and she knows it) -- as wind billows up from under her.

We've got this picture of Marilyn, but what's behind it? One of the most written-about figures in American history, Monroe has been scrutinized and glorified, pumped up with air and brought back down to earth. For generations, the American public has been fascinated by her story, a story whose contradictions are embodied in two articles published four decades apart in the pages of The Atlantic.

In 1973, 11 years after Marilyn died, Norman Mailer released Marilyn: A Biography. The book became an instant bestseller and, in August of 1973, The Atlantic ran an excerpt. Forty years later, in March of 2013, Caitlin Flanagan tried again to explain the actress' life and character in her Atlantic article, "Inventing Marilyn." In Marilyn: A Biography, Mailer recreates Monroe's 1956 trip to England, where she filmed The Prince and the Showgirl. In the following passage, Mailer describes Marilyn as royalty: a kind of untouchable "Jewish princess." He shows her living a fantasy life that the vast majority of the American public can only imagine.

Marilyn travels as her own kind of queen. Shades of Zelda! The Millers fly to England with twenty-seven pieces of luggage (of which three are Arthur's - like Barry Goldwater, he is ready to hold on to his socks!). There is $1500 in overweight luggage, of which $1333.33 is her share, and they are deluged by hundreds of press at the airports in New York and London. One of her biographers, Fred Laurence Guiles, reports Miller in a near state of shock as they are conducted from terminal to plane, "strange arms under their elbows...no air to breathe...voices become a muffled roar...a little like drowning." Miller shows just such torture in his expression for photographers. The corners of his mouth have become the creases in the smile of a stone dragon. Given the dragon's stern principles, this wrack of publicity will never end. Perhaps he will suffer most when he finds himself trying to enjoy it. There seems a will to torture himself reminiscent of Richard Nixon being jovial on command.

At London airport they are met by Sir Lawrence Oliver and wife Vivian Leigh. A photographer is trampled in the crush. Off they go with a thirty-car caravan to a "large rented estate" at Egham in the royal grounds of Windsor Park. They have been expecting a "cottage" but find an English country mansion. All one-family homes in England, they are assured, are cottages.

Gaga is the prose of the English press. One London weekly prints a special Marilyn Monroe edition. That is an honor given to no human since Queen Elizabeth's coronation. "She is here," says the London Evening News. "She walks. She talks. She really is as luscious as strawberries and cream." The Seven Year Itch has had exactly the kind of success one would expect in England, where many an Englishman can identify with Tom Ewell. Miller is naturally expected to be clever, superb, well-spoken, and romantic - a tall knight who has been ready to go to war with bloody McCarthy. England offers its oyster.

But while Marilyn clearly did live the life of a superstar, somehow the gulf between her and us doesn't seem too big to cross. She was very open about her background -- the loneliness of moving from family to family, and the pain of experiencing sexual assault as a child. In her article, Flanagan shows us how she related to Marilyn: flipping through pictures and realizing that the two of them weren't so different.

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?

Was Marilyn Monroe the glitzy, unattainable American queen or just a regular girl trying to escape her broken family? Maybe, after 51 years of trying to figure it out, we should just accept that she was both: simultaneously someone we can't understand, and someone we can.