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.

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.