The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


Marilyn Monroe

She sauntered through life as the most delectable sex symbol of the century and became its most enduring pop confection
By PAUL RUDNICK for Time Magazine

How much deconstruction can one blond bear? Just about everyone has had a go at Marilyn Monroe. There have been more than 300 biographies, learned essays by Steinem and Kael, countless documentaries, drag queens, tattoos, Warhol silk screens and porcelain collector's dolls. Marilyn has gone from actress to icon to licensed brand name; only Elvis and James Dean have rivalled her in market share. At this point, she seems almost beyond comment, like Coca-Cola or Levi's. How did a woman who died a suicide at 36, after starring in only a handful of movies, become such an epic commodity?

Much has been made of Marilyn's desperate personal history, the litany of abusive foster homes and the predatory Hollywood scum that accompanied her wriggle to stardom. Her heavily flashbulbed marriages included bouts with baseball great Joe DiMaggio and literary champ Arthur Miller, and her off-duty trysts involved Sinatra and the rumor of multiple Kennedys. The unauthorized tell-alls burst with miscarriages, abortions, rest cures and frenzied press confuerences announcing her desire to be left alone. Her death has been variously attributed to an accidental overdose, political necessity and a Mob hit. Her yummily lurid bio has provided fodder for everything from a failed Broadway musical to Jackie Susann's trash classics to a fictionalized portrait in Miller's play After the Fall. Marilyn's media-drenched image as a tragic dumb blond has become an American archetype, along with the Marlboro Man and the Harley-straddling wild one. Yet biographical trauma, even when packed with celebrities, cannot account for Marilyn's enduring stature as a goddess and postage stamp. Jacqueline Onassis will be remembered for her timeline, for her participation in events and marriages that mesmerized the planet. Marilyn seems far less factual, more Cinderella or Circe than mortal. There have been other megablonds of varying skills, a pinup parade of Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren and Madonna — but why does Marilyn still seem to have patented the peroxide that they've passed along?

Marilyn may represent some unique alchemy of sex, talent and Technicolor. She is pure movies. I recently watched her as Lorelei Lee in her musical smash, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." The film is an ideal mating of star and role, as Marilyn deliriously embodies author Anita Loos' seminal, shame-free gold digger. Lorelei's honey-voiced, pixilated charm may be best expressed by her line, regarding one of her sugar daddies, "Sometimes Mr. Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me." Whenever Lorelei appears onscreen, undulating in second-skin, cleavage-proud knitwear or the sheerest orange chiffon, all heads turn, salivate and explode. Who but Marilyn could so effortlessly justify such luscious insanity? She is the absolute triumph of political incorrectness. When she swivels aboard a cruise ship in clinging jersey and a floor-length leopard-skin scarf and matching muff, she handily offends feminists, animal-rights activists and good Christians everywhere, and she wins, because shimmering, jewel-encrusted, heedless movie stardom defeats all common morality. Her wit completes her cosmic victory, particularly in her facial expression of painful, soul-wrenching yearning when gazing upon a diamond tiara, a trinket she initially attempts to wear around her neck. Discovering the item's true function, she burbles, "I always love finding new places to wear diamonds!" Movies can offer a very specific bliss, the gorgeousness of a perfectly lighted fairy tale. Watching Marilyn operate her lips and eyebrows while breathlessly seducing an elderly millionaire is like experiencing the invention of ice cream.

Marilyn wasn't quite an actress, in any repertory manner, and she was reportedly an increasing nightmare to work with, recklessly spoiled and unsure, barely able to complete even the briefest scene between breakdowns. Only in the movies can such impossible behaviour, and such peculiar, erratic gifts, create eternal magic — only the camera has the mechanical patience to capture the maddening glory of a celluloid savant like Monroe. At her best, playing warm-hearted floozies in Some Like It Hot and Bus Stop, she's like a slightly bruised moonbeam, something fragile and funny and imperilled. I don't think audiences ever particularly identify with Marilyn. They may love her or fear for her, but mostly they simply marvel at her existence, at the delicious unlikeliness of such platinum innocence. She's the bad girl and good girl combined: she's sharp and sexy yet incapable of meanness, a dewy Venus rising from the motel sheets, a hopelessly irresistible home wrecker. Monroe longed to be taken seriously as an artist, but her work in more turgid vehicles, like "The Misfits," was neither original nor very interesting. She needs the tickle of cashmere to enchant for the ages.

Movies have lent the most perishable qualities, such as youth, beauty and comedy, a millennial shelf life. Until the cameras rolled, stars of the past could only be remembered, not experienced. Had she been born earlier, Marilyn might have existed as only a legendary rumour, a Helen of Troy or Tinker Bell. But thanks to Blockbuster, every generation now has immediate access to the evanescent perfection of Marilyn bumping and cooing her way through that chorine's anthem, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Only movie stars have the chance to live possibly forever, and maybe that's why they're all so crazy. Madonna remade Diamonds in the video of her hit Material Girl, mimicking Marilyn's hot-pink gown and hot-number choreography, and the sly homage seemed fitting: a blond tribute, a legacy of greedy flirtation. Madonna is too marvelously sane ever to become Marilyn. Madonna's detailed appreciation of fleeting style and the history of sensuality is part of her own arsenal, making her a star and a fan in one. Madonna wisely and affectionately honours the brazen spark in Marilyn, the giddy candy-box allure, and not the easy heartbreak.

Marilyn's tabloid appeal is infinite but ultimately beside the point. Whatever destroyed her — be it Hollywood economics or rabid sexism or her own tormented psyche — pales beside the delight she continues to provide. At her peak, Marilyn was very much like Coca-Cola or Levi's — she was something wonderfully and irrepressibly American.


The film actress Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) epitomized the Hollywood sex symbol with her provocative clothes, champagne blond tresses, and breathless, whisper-voiced manner of speaking.

Norma Jean Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, experienced a disrupted, loveless childhood that included two years at an orphanage. When Norma Jean, born on June 1, 1926, was seven years old her mother, Gladys (Monroe) Baker Mortenson, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and hospitalized. Norma was left to a series of foster homes and the Los Angeles Orphans' Home Society. She opted for an early marriage on June 19, 1942, and her husband, James Dougherty, joined the U.S. Merchant Marine in 1943.

During the war years Norma Jean worked at the Radio Plane Company in Van Nuys, California, but she was soon discovered by photographers. She enrolled in a 3-month modelling course, and in 1946, aware of her considerable charm and the potential it had for a career in films, Norma obtained a divorce. She headed for Hollywood, where Ben Lyon, head of casting at Twentieth Century Fox, arranged a screen test. On August 26, 1946, she signed a $125 a week, one-year contract with the studio. Ben Lyon was the one who suggested a new name for the fledgling actress - Marilyn Monroe.

During her first year at Fox Monroe did not appear in any films, and her contract was not renewed. In the spring of 1948 Columbia Pictures hired her for a small part in Ladies of the Chorus. In 1950 John Huston cast her in Asphalt Jungle, a tiny part which landed her a role in All About Eve. She was now given a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox and appeared in The Fireball, Let's Make It Legal, Love Nest, and As Young as You Feel.

In 1952, after an extensive publicity campaign, Monroe appeared in Don't Bother to Knock, Full House, Clash by Night, We're Not Married, Niagara, and Monkey Business. After this the magazine Photoplay termed her the "most promising actress," and she was earning top dollars for Twentieth Century Fox.

On January 14, 1954, she married Yankee baseball player Joe Di Maggio. But the pressures created by her billing as a screen sex symbol caused the marriage to founder, and the couple divorced on October 27, 1954.

Continually cast as a dumb blond, Monroe made Seven Year Itch in 1954. Growing weary of the stereotyping, she broke her contract with Fox and moved to New York City. There she studied at the Actors Studio with Lee and Paula Strasberg. Gloria Steinem recalls a conversation with Monroe during that time in which Monroe referred to her own opinion of her abilities compared to a group of notables at the Actors Studio. "I admire all these people so much. I'm just not good enough."

In 1955 she formed her own studio, Marilyn Monroe Productions, and re-negotiated a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. She appeared in Bus Stop in 1956 and married playwright Arthur Miller on July 1, 1956.

Critics described Monroe in the film The Prince and the Showgirl, produced by her own company, as "a sparkling light comedienne." Monroe won the Italian David di Donatello award for "best foreign actress of 1958," and in 1959 she appeared in Some Like It Hot. In 1961 she starred in The Misfits, for which Arthur Miller did the screenplay.

The couple was divorced on January 24, 1961, and later that year Monroe entered a New York psychiatric clinic. After her brief hospitalization there she returned to the Fox studio to work on a film, but her erratic behaviour betrayed severe emotional disturbance, and the studio discharged her in June 1962.

Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles bungalow on August 5, 1962, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her side.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008