As a matter of coincidence, many Golden Jubilees are being celebrated in 2012. We have already touched upon one of them, the Rolling Stones celebrating their 50th anniversary since their first live gig, and this week we look upon another iconic figure, Marilyn Monroe, this time as a tribute to the 50 years of her death.
Except, little can be said of Marilyn that hasn’t been said already at least a hundred times. Born in 1926 as Norma Jean Baker, her story is fashioned from the stuff of the most unlikely, also most tragic, fairytales, worthy of the Grimm brothers, or of Hans Christian Andersen. Daughter to a single, mentally unstable and insolvent mother, her childhood was spent from one foster home to the next, where episodes of violence and abuse were not infrequent. While living with her aunt in Los Angeles, she married her neighbor at age 16. He was sent to the war and she began to work at the Radioplane Munitions Factory, where she was spotted by the magazine Yank, the Army Weekly. On their suggestion she joined the Blue Book Modeling Agency in 1945. Still a teenager, her life was about to take a drastic turn for the better.
As a model, Norma Jean dyed her dark curls bleach blonde and became an instant success. Which led to the next step in her career: adopting her mother’s maiden name of Monroe and picking out the “Marilyn” from the thinnest blue to acquire the identity by which she remains one of the most emblematic idols of Western culture. By 1948, Marilyn had signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and had been landed her first main role in Ladies of the Chorus. Contrary to popular belief, however, Monroe’s rise to stardom was not immediate—then again they say overnight success takes five years. Which is roughly what it took her to get through the ranks of Hollywood, not without setbacks, until she made it to the front cover of Life magazine in 1952, partly thanks to the publicity generated by the publication of some nude photographs of her taken by the photographer Tom Kelley in 1949.
Monroe’s first top billing came in 1952’s Clash By Night, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Barbara Stanwyck. By then, she was already having an affair with Joe DiMaggio, baseball’s—scrap that—America’s favorite hero. Lanky, with a long equine face and soft eyes too far apart from one another, DiMaggio was nearing the end of his illustrious career as the Yankees’ star center fielder and main threat at the heart of a lineup that was out of this world, when he turned up to woo Marilyn Monroe. This added to her mystique, in that, while she was still far from a Hollywood star in her own right, she was in everyone’s lips. Before the end of 1952 she had starred in two other films (Don’t Bother to Knock and We’re Not Married), had worked with Howard Hawks in Monkey Business, and was well on her way to stardom.
By the time she appeared in the cover of Playboy magazine, in December 1953, again thanks to the nude photos Kelley had taken of her in 1949, she had already become America’s sweetheart. Niagara (1953) established her as the sexiest act in Hollywood, even if many dubbed it merely vulgar, and her next collaboration with Hawks saw her co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. DiMaggio’s wooing of Monroe finally came to a fruitful, if not entirely happy, end in 1954, as the couple married and then divorced, all inside one calendar year. Professionally, Monroe landed the role that, to this day, epitomizes all that mesmerized the country and, indeed, the world about this blatantly fake platinum blonde: Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch.
What followed could well be a Who’s Who of American society in the 1950s, from the groundbreaking playwright Arthur Miller, whom she married in 1956, to a string of stars with whom she appeared in movies such as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, Lawrence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, and John Huston’s The Misfits, starring Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. As it turned out, Huston’s adaptation of Miller’s play would be both Gable’s and Monroe’s final film. It also spelled the end of her marriage to Miller, as her health, both physical and mental, spiraled into a desperate state.
There is little point in speculating what may have caused Marilyn’s progressive downturn into the pits of depression, despite the apparent success of her “fairytale”. She was certainly psychologically frail, insecure of her acting, famously hard working and, at the same time, equally famously unreliable. She had at least two miscarriages while married to Miller, and though undeniably stunning, she was well aware when she performed her by-now iconic rendering of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” on the eve of JFK’s 45th birthday that she herself would soon turn 36.
Needless to say, Marilyn’s fame hinged primarily on her looks and her sex appeal, but she was evidently not just another pin-up girl. As a matter of fact, she was not even the pin-up girl of all pin-up girls. Marilyn was much more, and therefore she has prevailed to this day. Marilyn was—is—to a certain look and a certain attitude what James Joyce is to the internal monologue or Andy Warhol to pop culture. She did not invent it—reputedly she was very keen to follow on the steps of Jean Harlow—but she certainly had the final word on it. Hence, nothing, not even Madonna or her sidekick, Lady Gaga, can compete or compare, they can only pay tribute to Marilyn.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of her tragic, perhaps even inexorable, death, she has hit the front pages of newspapers and sites all around the world, even if Google could not afford a bracket in their celebration of the Olympics with a suitable doodle for her. This minor detail notwithstanding, walking the streets of Madrid, and of many other major cities in Europe, you cannot help but notice the flood of stencils and graffiti that have swarmed public areas with her comely figure in recent weeks. This, more than anything, tells you that in spite of everything, Marilyn lives on. Happily!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY AUGUST 11, 2012.