In the death of
famous people—especially someone as young,
beautiful and well-known as Marilyn—the folk
mentality automatically sees complicity. Why would
someone who had everything kill herself? By the
'80s, this question had mutated into a number of
full-blown and increasingly byzantine conspiracy
theories. A quest for motives, the hidden story,
plots. The most prevalent paranoia involves those
squirrelly Kennedys. According to this scenario,
Marilyn had carried on an affair with JFK or RFK
or both, and she was murdered because their association
with her was beginning to imperil their dynasty—or
being privy to dirty dealings, she knew too much.
A great deal is
made of Marilyn's missing red diary. This presumably
contained material incriminating the Kennedys or
the people who assassinated the Kennedys, the FBI,
the mob, Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, Peter
Lawford, "Tom from Cleveland," Eunice
the maid, the CIA, Jimmy Hoffa—all of them
stumbling over each other on the night of her death
to wipe out the dark secrets she had overheard.
In an attempt to
top these fantastic theories, the tabloids, like
rabid dogs, vaulted into the realm of high nuttiness.
They had proof positive, they said, that Marilyn
Monroe was a Russian spy, the secret wife of Fidel
Castro or, my favorite, that her death had been
faked by RFK who smuggled her into Australia where
she now lives as a sheep rancher's wife. (JFK, by
the way, is living in Poland with his love child
It's true that there
are enough discrepancies about the circumstances
of her death to ignite any number of paranoid theories.
The three-hour delay in calling the police (so the
studio flacks could put their own spin on it), the
presence of RFK snooping around the death scene
(was he removing evidence?), not to mention such
arcana as the pharmacology and autopsy of her dead
in any case, have more to do with celebrity mythology
than any facts in the case. The folk worldview feels
the death of someone as famous as Marilyn should
involve luminaries of equal stature; hence the Kennedys
and the cast of other fantastic characters supposedly
out to do her in.
Here was the most
famous woman in the world dead at 36. The only people
she'd seen the day of her death were a psychiatrist,
a press agent and her maid. The poignancy of her
death encourages over-explication, but she had enough
personal reasons for wanting to end it all. Marilyn's
private life was a mess. She was addicted to a lethal
mix of pills and vodka, she'd alienated the Kennedys
and Arthur Miller (whom she'd divorced a year earlier)
had recently married the photographer Inge Morath,
reminding Marilyn of her failure to sustain any
kind of stable relationship.
She'd had the really
bad luck to marry two cold, unresponsive creeps
in a row (DiMaggio and Miller), guys who would punish
her by going through days at a time without even
speaking a word to her. DiMaggio could be violent
(he and Frank Sinatra had broken down the door of
an apartment where DiMaggio believed Marilyn was
carrying on a lesbian affair—the wrong apartment
as it turned out), but at least he was passionate.
Miller, the supreme middle-brow, took out his spleen
by humiliating her for her lack of education—and
worse (given her family history of mental illness),
makes her out to be a lunatic.
One of Marilyn's
more unfortunate ambitions was to be a "serious"
actress. And, in no time at all, she fell into the
clutches of Lee Strasberg, the cynical Method huckster
who told her she was nothing, knew nothing and had
When she was fired
from Something's Got to Give, her career
seemed to be at a dead end. She was at the mercy
of doltish studio executives whose only thought
was to cast her one more time as a cheap, dim-witted
floozy in another inane romantic comedy (and a remake
at that). Her talent was sabotaged by imbecilic
screenwriters. Walter Bernstein, who co-wrote Something's
Got To Give, made her character into a loud, brassy,
pushy, Bette Midler type B. She was also misused
by an unsympathetic director (George Cukor). And
what is worse, even she had come to despise Marilyn
Monroe—her greatest creation. Meanwhile, Fox
(despite firing Marilyn from her last movie) was
about to offer her $1 million a picture to continue
being precisely that character.
"Just as harmful
as the studios," Donald Spoto wrote in his
biography of Marilyn, "and in ways more tragic,
she had become unwittingly trapped in the pop-Freudian
circle that urged her continually to consider her
childhood—the worst possible for the orphan's
unending adsorption with self. But her parent surrogates—Strasberg,
Miller, Kris, Greenson—suggested it, demanded
it. And so to please them, she underwent Freudian
therapy. Instead of freeing her, it froze her. In
the end, it was wondrous that she did not break
down sooner, for each time she tried to go forward
there were those whose advantage it was to keep
her the subordinate child."
And not the least
of her demons was her (unfounded) fear that the
insanity she believed she had inherited from her
mother and her grandmother was beginning to eat
away at her brain.
She had a horror of ending up like them (Gladys
died in a mental institution and Della Mae Monroe
in a straight jacket).
"It might even be possible that Marilyn's efforts
to dispel America's fears about sex," Andrew
O'Hagan recently wrote in the London Review of
Books, "were somehow related to
her attempts to dispel her own fear of madness."
Marilyn's first disciples were the copycat blondes:
Jayne Mansfield, Diana Dors, Mamie Van Doren. But
compared to Marilyn, they were monolithic and unnuanced
caricatures. They lacked her vulnerability and essential
sweetness, qualities that transcended and undercut
the sexpot image.
a long line of impersonators, both male and female
(among them a Soviet soldier), some of them taking
their portrayals to the extreme. The British model
Kay Kent began by Marilynizing herself through plastic
surgery and ended up killing herself in a copycat
suicide involving pills and vodka. As if taking
off from this macabre cue, the performance artist
Peter Stack impersonates the posthumous star. In
Dead Marilyn, he dresses as her decomposing corpse
while stridently singing about conspiracy theories
and haranguing the audience for their complicity
in her death.
One of the oddest
Marilyn impersonators must be Norman Mailer, Mr.
Macho himself, who on a number of occasions has
tried to identify himself with Marilyn (Norman,
we hardly knew ye!). In his erotobiography Marilyn,
Mailer, "a man with a cabalistic turn of mind,"
tortuously attempts to make her name an anagram
for his own: "If the 'a' were used twice and
the 'o' but once... leaving only the 'y' for excess."
Sure, Norman. In Of Women and Their Elegance,
he went a step further, speaking as Marilyn in her
act was not simply a dazzling erotic display for
men only; it was (and is) an ongoing parable for
women as diverse as Gloria Steinem, Janis Joplin
and a Hong Kong stripper. How universal the identification
with Marilyn is can be seen in everything from Bombay
Marilyns in saris to platinum geishas in Japan.
Marilyn Monroe might, at first glance, seem an implausible
model for someone as unconventional as Janis Joplin.
Janis did not want to be branded "a hippie
chick lead singer" but aspired to "real"
stardom, and that meant Marilyn.
the quintessential sex object, may seem like an
unlikely heroine for feminists as well, but her
conflicted nature supplied an ingenious answer to
the paradoxical situation of women. Sexual impersonation
as a Trojan horse, escapist fluff seen as a radical
in her book Marilyn/Norma Jean, links the
rise of feminism with the increasing interest in
Marilyn among women in the decade following her
death. It wasn't just Marilyn, the glamorous dream
self, emerging from Norma Jeane, the plain girl
next door, but the implications of her act and the
ironic twist that Marilyn put on the blonde bombshell
stereotype. Looked at from another point of view
(actually Marilyn's own), her self-invention could
serve as an inspiration and a model that women could
use to be themselves.
Pop culture sees
no distinction between self-help and parody. So
it's hardly surprising that, whereas feminists read
Marilyn's life as both an exemplary model and a
cautionary tale, Madonna, "the Queen of Seeming-as-Being
herself," would take the imitation of Marilyn
to its ultimate conclusion by fusing copy cat sexpot
onto blonde ambition and bringing Marilyn to life
in a literal put-on.
Madonna treats Marilyn
as if she were a work-in-progress—with herself
as self-appointed, ritually mutilated high priestess.
With the quixotic fervor of a disciple, Madonna
carries her unfinished work—the Monroe Doctrine,
as it were—into the future, acting out Marilyn's
implied life, the life her story presupposes,
by uncannily superimposing herself over Marilyn
in a blonde-on-blonde effect.
Lincoln Was My Father
If fetishism is a sign of divinity, the auction
of Marilyn's personal possessions at Christie's
in October 1999 was the proof of her canonization
as the supreme goddess of pop. Anything she had
touched, worn or owned acquired a sacred value.
Nothing was too trivial to be cherished—a
plastic cup, a dog tag ($63,000!) and a plexiglass
tissue-box cover were among the 576 lots auctioned—and
no amount of money seemed exorbitant for the truly
symbolic items. The dress she wore to sing "Happy
Birthday" to John Kennedy went for $1 million.
It's well known
that Marilyn was far from the dizzy, dim-witted
floozy she played in the movies (and came to hate).
She was very savvy, a complex, contradictory and
conflicted personality—among other things,
a sort of beatnik, a secret intellectual, a reader
of Rilke, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. She was a cultural
stowaway who—in her disdain for bras and girdles
and her refusal to feel ashamed for posing naked—prefigured
Unlike, say, Marlene
Dietrich or Jean Harlow, she never confused herself
with her creation. If, acceding to F. Scott Fitzgerald,
the sign of first-class intelligence is "the
ability to hold two opposing ideas in the head without
losing the capacity to function," Marilyn's
ability to juggle her twin identities was a feat
of supreme psychic prestidigitation.
Perhaps her most
radical act was to use her own ambivalence to create
a doppler effect in our perceptions. Whenever we
see a picture of Marilyn, we are looking not only
at her, but from her, point of view.
Not only is this "the way I want you to see
me," but it is the way we now see things.
Our reality has been somehow Marilynized.
To a certain degree,
Marilyn Monroe is a schizophrenic's idea of America.
On the surface, she seems to be the American dream
girl come to life—a symbol of the American
assembly line, grain-fed abundance, whore, Madonna
and libertine Statue of Liberty. But something is
troubling that surface, and on second thought, the
dumb blonde put-on starts to look more like a recrimination,
a disturbing parody where everything is just fractionally
off kilter, as if we were listening to the history
of sex goddesses in Hollywood as told by a cat.
bombshell creation, by presenting a ravishing image
of our unspoken yearnings, often seemed a denunciation
of American too-much-ain't-enoughness, the skin-deep
erotic embodiment of the fat dream '50s, the rocket-finned,
V-8, solid-gold Cadillac of American High at full
throttle. Hers is a winking reflection, the USA's
narcissistic self-portrait seen in a convex mirror,
as if to say, "This whatcha lookin for, fellas?
Well, think again!"
There was an eerie
otherness to Marilyn's salacious shekinah, an unsettling
metaphor for America's troubled self: the lost orphan
child of Europe and platinum ghost girl of New World