"Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time." --Albert Camus
One of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen of Marilyn Monroe came not from a movie or newsreel footage or one of her many photographs. It came from a blanket.
Driving through Death Valley on a long road trip, I stopped in a tiny town for gas and a cold drink. Few seemed to live in this town: it served as a pit stop, a place to either check your radiator or check your mind (or, in my case, both) — one of those locales that offers such a bare minimum of services that a candy bar has never tasted so good. Delirious from hours of 70 mph signposts, I stumbled back into my car, feeling as if modern civilization had melted around me. For months, I’d been working on a piece about Marilyn (a cover story for Playboy, to honor their first, and most famous, cover girl and centerfold), and she had been on my mind nearly every day.
And then … there she was. Driving away, I spied Marilyn on the side of the road, 20 feet from the gas station. With a mixture of excitement and a strange sadness, I jumped out of the car and stared. Her face was hanging from clothespins, blowing in the breeze, next to an open garage. A warm blanket in the hot sun, set against the blue sky, flapping and undulating in the wind, her face changing shape and expression. This desolate desert Marilyn, so frank and alone, just hanging there, cleared away all the clutter of so many T-shirts, stickers, shower curtains, pillows, purses, wall clocks, and coffee mugs — all those Marilyns you walk right past in any given gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard. A little hypnotized and maybe a little crazy, I thought of how Marilyn described herself, as the woman who “belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.”
That was the summer of 2012, the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s passing, a year when Marilyn was on many people’s minds, whether they wanted her there or not. I did want her there, so much so that I was flooding my mind with all things Marilyn, which, given the seemingly infinite amount of material out there, isn’t hard to do. Reading and rereading the books and biographies, rewatching her movies, staring at her photos, and visiting the Hollywood Museum’s Marilyn exhibit (where, among other personal effects, dresses, shirts, telegrams, prescription pill bottles, and notes to Dr. Greenson were on display), I became consumed, as so many have before me.
Why is this so? Why Marilyn? I’m not entirely certain, unless it’s because she’s so ever-present that you start to project your own feelings onto her. 2012 was a year of transition for me -- I'd driven across the country more than once, from Los Angeles to Winnipeg and back. I'd lived in Paris for the first part of the year, working on what would become a movie, putting on dresses and playing a dead wife, a prostitute and a woman in a loony bin. I returned to Los Angeles, trying to settle down. But it's hard to settle down. Why is that so? I kept thinking of her trying to settle down, back in Los Angeles, in that house, while writing my piece about her. And so, the more you study her, the more you excavate her history and personae, the more you find yourself using her as a mirror, and the more you find that she reflects something back at you, either directly or indirectly. (We share the same birthday, something I have been superstitious about ever since I was a little girl). Sometimes you don't know what it is about her. It seems silly at times, this obsession, this conjuring, this exorcism: she’s just a movie star. And we've seen her so much, we (I) should almost be sick of her. Yet “her story continues to grow,” as S. Paige Beatty reflects in American Monroe: The Making of the Body Politic (1995):
"And as it grows it assumes new meanings and possibilities. Those who tell Marilyn’s tale negotiate myriad ways of being in America past and present. The dreams, conspiracy theories, photos, tributes, postcards, and refrigerator magnets run together with increasing speed only to crash in a heap of detritus at the feet of the angel of history. Looking back over her shoulder, Marilyn rushes forward, compelled by the wreckage piling in her wake."
Beatty wrote this beautiful passage almost two decades ago, and Marilyn’s still rushing forward, still looking over her shoulder nearly 20 years later. It’s doubtful she’ll ever stop.
One would think that this woman — the woman Norman Mailer so eloquently called “more than the silver witch of us all” — had already been represented to death. And yet, she remains, decades after her death, enthralling. Ubiquity may cause some to take Marilyn for granted, or even to become tired of her, but it will never, ever diminish her. Andy Warhol, the first artist to put her in what was, essentially, a comic-book setting, knew it right away. His Marilyn Diptych (1962), created weeks after her death, with its rows of colorful Marilyns juxtaposed with the inkier, moodier black and white Marilyns, is a prescient, powerful work. Placing a picture that already seemed like a relic (a va-va-voom publicity shot from Niagara) into a modern pop art tableau, he exposed her timelessness and her versatility. Each of the 50 duplicate images, on closer inspection, are different.
It’s easy to say that the two halves of the picture represent the two sides of Marilyn: one side the bright star, the other the darker, moodier Marilyn who is fading away. But the work is more surreptitious than that. Warhol seemed to know instinctively that the viewers would project their own thoughts on her image. Helpless victim, powerful sex goddess, movie star, beauty icon, camp icon, cartoon — we take her in many ways, positive, negative, or a mixture of both. Warhol catapulted Marilyn into the modern era after she lost the ability to do it herself.
What did Marilyn want us to see? Well, of course we’ll never really know, and that is an enormous part of Marilyn’s power. Her strength. You can see this in her work in front of the camera, as a brilliant, creative photographer’s model, with, among other greats, Andre de Dienes, Eve Arnold, Milton H. Greene, Bruce Davidson, Richard Avedon, Erich Hartman, George Barris, Bert Stern, Phil Stern, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dennis Stock, Philippe Halsman, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Kirkland, and Inge Morath (who shot some of the more powerful photos of Marilyn alone and with her husband Arthur Miller as their relationship was disintegrating — and, who, interestingly, became Miller’s next wife). Morath loved photographing Marilyn. Most photographers did. As Eve Arnold said:
"I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects."
Marilyn died young and beautiful, but she still inspires, beguiles, maddens and offers new gifts, like that cheap blanket I encountered in the middle of nowhere. It's too simple to see her as the "lost child," she was a complex woman, she was sweet and tender, but she was not always a "nice" woman. How could she be? Why should she be? She had shitty people around her, and she also had wonderful people around her. She had those who moved her and then, those who let her down (she once yelled at husband Arthur Miller that he didn't understand women). She made people wait.
Norman Mailer, who never met her, wrote that she was "a female spurt of wit and sensitive energy who could hang like a sloth for days in a muddy-mooded coma; a child girl, yet an actress to loose a riot by dropping her glove at a premiere; a fountain of charm and a dreary bore…"
Montgomery Clift, who did know her, said this of her, “She listens, wants, cares. I catch her laughing across a room and I bust up. Every pore of that lovely translucent skin is alive, open every moment-even though this world could make her vulnerable to being hurt. I would rather work with her than any other actress. I adore her.”
But back to that blanket... I hope that blanket is keeping someone warm at night, as Marilyn famously claimed her work failed to do: “A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night.” But thank God for that career — the movies, the photographs, the life. Even after tragically expiring on that lonely mattress, nude, in her rather humble Beverly Hills hacienda, she never lost her mythic power. In her last picture, The Misfits, Montgomery Clift’s cowboy poignantly and revealingly tells Marilyn’s Roslyn, “Don't you let them grind you up. Hear?” Decades later, we still hear you, Monty.
Extended from a portion of my piece, "Marilyn. Return of the Silver Witch," at the LA Review of Books.
Here's the little film I shot of Marilyn on that blanket in Death Valley... Wonder if she's still there?