Marilyn. Return of the Silve Witch. On the eve of her birthday, here's my piece from last year for the LA Review of Books. Happy Birthday, Marilyn.
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 merciful 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 qualities and feelings onto her. 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. It seems silly at times, this obsession, this rendering, this exorcism: she’s just a movie star. 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.
2012's Marilyn deluge found her gracing magazine covers from Vanity Fair to Playboy, and starring in a new documentary (Love, Marilyn, which recently showed on HBO) as well as several new books (Marilyn by Magnum, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, and a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s brilliant Marilyn, with photographs by Bert Stern from her last sitting). She inspired a storyline on the TV series Smash, a line of MAC makeup (the color collection was referred to as “distinctly Marilyn”), and starred as ghost spokeswoman for a lovingly crafted, surprisingly moving Chanel No. 5 commercial, which used her famous, provocative answer to the question of what she wore to bed: “Just a few drops of Chanel no. 5.” Chanel surprised viewers with Marilyn’s own voice, taken from an interview conducted soon before her death, as if she were speaking from the grave. And Marilyn loomed large, quite literally, when, last May, a 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound statue, “Forever Marilyn,” was moved from Chicago to downtown Palm Springs, her white Seven Year Itch dress fluttering and enormous. Marilyn was not only everywhere last year: she was elevated, in stature and in sophistication.
Now that the anniversary has passed, the flood has slowed but not let up. In March 2013, a 33-page comic book titled Tribute: Marilyn Monroe, written by Dina Gachman, illustrated by Nathan Girten, and colored by Dan Barnes, was released through Bluewater Productions. The comic covers the star’s sad, glamorous and tumultuous life: her humble, heartbreaking beginnings when she was shuffled through foster homes, her young marriage to Jim Dougherty at age 16, her divorce, her early modeling career, her struggle and rise in Hollywood, her famous marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her movie roles, and her eventual downfall. It’s a sensitive, celebratory ode to Monroe, with some charming, unexpected details that prove Gachman did her homework: for instance, the fact that teen Norma Jeanne cooked peas and carrots because she liked the colors (something ex-husband Dougherty relayed in an interview), and the story of how Marilyn and her early roommate, Shelley Winters, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, who then crashed into Charlie Chaplin’s tennis court.
I was worried, for a moment, when I read Gachman’s Indiewire essay, in which she admits that, upon receiving the assignment to write about Marilyn Monroe, she didn’t have a “huge amount of respect for her.” But, predictably, extensive reading and research resulted in a newfound appreciation and admiration of her intelligence and talent. In Tribute, you can sense Gachman wanted to do Marilyn justice, and with the fresh, excited perspective of a newly christened devotee. “I really fell in love with her,” she writes.
And new love is refreshing. One would think that this woman — the woman 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, bless him, catapulted Marilyn into the modern era after she lost the ability to do it herself (and, rest assured, she would have).
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. 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, and offers new gifts, like that cheap blanket I encountered in the middle of nowhere.
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.