Saint Marilyn
By David Dalton

From Gadfly March/April 2000


You can't talk to it. It can't talk to you. All you can do is stand back and be awed by it. It is a phenomenon of nature, like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.
—Screenwriter Nunally Johnson

That face!—indelible as a kabuki mask—we are in the presence of a pop icon—a blowzy, blonde, dime-store harvest goddess, ripe and overflowing with American chutzpah—vulgar, brash, vulnerable, slinky, salacious, innocent—spilling out of a sheath dress. Pure high-octane Hollywood flash and over-amped sexuality beam out at you from her photographs, promising you everything you could possibly imagine. But an instant later, something odd happens. The little electric god in the photograph... has shut off. That immaculate face, frozen into an image as formal, hieratic and distant as a Novgorod Madonna.

Marilyn Monroe, like Warhol's silkscreens of her, was already a kind of photograph of a photograph by the time she became a star. It's a trick Marilyn did with cameras, a kind of alchemy of the flesh whereby she could transmute everything she wanted you to know about her into the two-dimensional flatland of the photograph. It was something she knew how to do well because she'd practiced it all her life: identity as a sleight-of-hand card trick. She understood personality itself as a role, a child's invented self.

The Hallucinated Other
There must have been a lot of little girls with far unhappier childhoods than Marilyn's growing up in Los Angeles in the '30s, all of them dreaming of becoming movie stars—many just as pretty or prettier. So why Marilyn? Early on, she intuitively grasped the dream-life logic of pop culture—you are what you seem to be—and created a fantastic creature who would help her break out of her sad state (and the foster homes and orphanages) of her childhood. "At night, when all the kids were asleep, I'd perch on the dormitory window sill and look across at the RKO water tank, with RKO in big letters, and lights shining like a Hollywood premiere. 'My mother used to work there,' I'd whisper. 'Someday I'd like to be a star there.'"

During her troubled childhood, "Marilyn Monroe" slowly developed in the mind of Norma Jeane, child of Gladys Mortensen, a mentally unstable Hollywood filmcutter. Her little girl voice was always a clue to the element of make-believe in Marilyn—the child dressed up in her mother's clothes.

Like Jack Kerouac's "Writer-Director of Earthly Movies Sponsored and Angeled in Heaven," she wrote her own fairy tale script and cast her re-invented self as the star of a frothy, glamorous life. This might have remained another unfulfilled teenage daydream had it not been for Norma Jeane's ferocious lust for vengeful and redeeming Fame. Fame is a form of revenge: evening the odds, righting wrongs and rewriting one's self—a way to show them all. But Marilyn, like everyone else who makes this reckless bargain, forgot that when you make a deal with the bitch goddess, sooner or later she's going to come back and bite you on the ass.

In her act of parthenogenesis, she gave birth to a new self, a daydream chimera, Marilyn Monroe, for whom Norma Jeane sacrificed her life. An avenger in platinum and rhinestones, a child's idea of adult sexuality—sweet innocence fused onto an impersonation of a pornographic idea of sex. A lethal hybrid identity that the more successful she became, the more it would consume her. Becoming someone else—often the opposite of the person you started out as—is in itself a kind of suicide, which is why changelings like Marilyn ultimately come to hate their doppelgūngers and often end up destroying themselves.

In the HBO movie Norma Jean and Marilyn (the correct spelling, as indicated on the birth certificate, is Norma Jeane), the split in Marilyn's personality is almost too diagrammatically portrayed—with Ashley Judd as the pushy Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as the lost Marilyn. In its (often hilarious) dualism, it discounts the overlap of selves. "Marilyn Monroe rises to film stardom," reads the TV Guide blurb, "but insecure alter ego Norma Jean Daugherty won't allow her happiness."

Marilyn Monroe was almost literally the child of Hollywood, a ward of the county of Los Angeles for most of her early years. The orphan brought up by the movies, offspring of celluloid parents Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. When her reality became unbearable, she retreated into illusion. Movies inflated the Katchina doll of herself until it filled the screen. Her alter ego was now realized with such hallucinatory conviction that it could begin its own parallel life. When, later on as an aspiring starlet, her face and body didn't conform to this self-image, she sculpted her body to fit it, straightening and bleaching her hair, pushing back her hairline, dieting compulsively and having plastic surgery done on her nose and chin.

This is the American way. The image, an almost Platonic ideal of the self, supersedes everything. Marilyn once objected to being thought of as a sex object "because a sex object is a thing and I don't want to be a thing." But stars and things are inseparable in American life, the fabricated self of the star and the manufactured object fusing into a single unit. By the time we hear of them on TV or in the newspaper, they are already tintypes. They have mastered the look, and the planted item in the gossip column—"Blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe seen painting the town red with Slugger Joe DiMaggio"—teases us with dreams of a glamorous lifestyle or scandalous behavior. Our saints are all mass-produced readymades that can be stamped out on t-shirts, ashtrays, trading cards, coffee mugs and posters.

Her fantasy creature "Marilyn Monroe" was not only blindingly gorgeous, it had the one indispensable quality of the star: it was an icon, a telegraphic personality that was instantly recognizable. Like the cartouches of the pharaohs, the icon, as the sign of the star, is a graphic shorthand, a form of energy made concrete—whether it's Elvis, a Coca-Cola bottle, Mickey Mouse or a Thunderbird. The platinum blonde wave of hair, the full blood-red lips, the arched eyebrows—the universal hieroglyph for her teenage waif eroticism, innocence and Hollywood glamour. Norman Mailer's "angel of sex."

Celebrity cartouches catch the stars in their classic poses—Elvis with legs splayed, Marilyn with her dress blowing up and James Dean slouching against a wall—biographic encapsulations that tell us what the star stands for and eventually take the place of words altogether. Marilyn's picture is her story. When we see a picture of Marilyn Monroe, everything we know about her spills out. Initially, her own codes and movie magazine gossip. Later, we'll add the scandals and rumors ourselves—monstrous conspiracy theories linking her with the Kennedys and other powerful forces.

Because stars deal not in facts but illusion, traditional biographies of Marilyn Monroe miss the point to some extent. What matters is not so much the details of a life, but the gossip—often apocryphal stories, the more fantastic and lurid the better—which is why scandalographies, hagiographies and conspiracy-addled "investigations" are so well suited to their subjects.

Who Killed Marilyn Monroe?
An air of unreality hangs even over her death. Marilyn's end, while tragic, fulfilled all the melodramatic requirements of her make-believe story. She might have written it herself. But even if (as has been suggested) her death was someone else's idea, it would still have followed Marilyn's script. The detective present the night of her death believes the scene they found in her bungalow was a tableau concocted by the people who killed her, arranged to look like a suicidal star's last moments—the hand clutching the phone, the empty pill bottle, the nude body sprawled on the bed—the noirish aura of a B-movie murder mystery.

Sad Child, Unhappy Star; Help She Needed to
Find Self Eluded Marilyn All Her Life.
When they found Marilyn Monroe, one of her hands grasped a telephone. Perhaps she was calling for help. She had been calling for help all her life. Three husbands didn't help. She had carried her problems to psychiatrists. Marilyn—Hollywood's most famous blonde since Jean Harlow—was born into insecurity and never escaped it.
Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1962

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 by Marilyn.)

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 body.

Conspiracy theories, 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 achieved nothing.

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 Leg-acy
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.

Marilyn spawned 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 voice.

Marilyn's self-generating 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.

Marilyn Monroe, 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 device.

Gloria Steinem, 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.

Abraham 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 the '60s.

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.

Marilyn's blonde 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 longing.