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Marilyn Monroe: The mystery at the heart of an icon

Marilyn Monroe would have turned 90 this week. In the 54 years since her death, she has become one of the most talked-about celebrities of all time, but there was always something unknowable about her, writes Emily Hourican

Published 04/06/2016

A print of Marilyn Monroe by Milton H Greene, which will feature in a pop-up exhibition celebrating what would have been the Hollywood star's 90th birthday (OnGallery/Milton H Greene)
A print of Marilyn Monroe by Milton H Greene, which will feature in a pop-up exhibition celebrating what would have been the Hollywood star's 90th birthday (OnGallery/Milton H Greene)
Marilyn Monroe on the Los Angeles set of her last movie, Something's Got To Give, in 1962 (AP)

There has never been another Marilyn Monroe. It is a name, an image, that gets invoked from time to time. Any young celebrity who qualifies as 'troubled' (Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, even Amy Winehouse), gets the nod, but the comparison doesn't take.

No matter how beautiful, how messed-up, how fragile, they might be, there was only ever one Marilyn. Hers was a unique combination of vulnerability, wistfulness, difficulty and unashamed provocation.

The fascination is obvious - it's the way she looks, the way she smiles, the expression of those eyes, the wry, funny, self-aware things she says, the hourglass figure and perfect blonde curls, the tragic love stories and even more tragic life story. It's also the fact that our appreciation of her talent only grows. In the 54 years since her death, it is now obvious to all that Marilyn, who never got close to an Oscar nomination, was a very fine and subtle actress.

Her performances in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot have set the bar forever for a certain type of role; the overt come-hither look that hides an inner layer of innocence, at the core of which there is a whole other kind of knowingness.

It's also the fact that, despite the films, the interviews, the thousands of photographs and scores of books and articles, there is still something fundamentally unknowable about Marilyn. For all that she was the most exposed star of her generation, she managed to keep enough back to remain elusive. Even, it seems, to herself.

"Its not to much fun to know yourself too well or think you do - everyone needs a little conciet to carry them through and past the falls," she wrote in an ill-spelt, often rambling but conscientiously honest diary discovered among her effects and published for the first time in 2008. Marilyn had more than a little 'conciet' in fact, she probably created around herself the most irresistible iconography ever, one that was forever sealed when she died, of a prescription drug overdose, at the age of just 36 in 1962. And yet, even though she knew so much about camera angles, she knew so little about the inner workings of her delicate psychology that at one stage she had three different psychiatrists on the go, often spending sessions of four or five hours with them.

In the years since Marilyn died, she has begun to escape the 'dumb blonde' persona that constrained her during her life. Thanks to a steady drip of candid rather than studio-staged photographs, interviews and films clips, we have seen Marilyn alone, absorbed in Ulysses or the poetry of Heinrich Heine, walking along a beach at sunset, asleep on set or silently musing. And Marilyn still looks fresh and modern, a star for any age.

The New York Times obituary at the time of her death read that her life "ended as it began, in misery and tragedy", and although she wasn't always truthful about her early years, it is pretty clear that she did indeed know plenty of 'misery and tragedy'.

Marilyn started life as Norma Jeane Mortenson, then Baker, born in Los Angeles in 1926, to Gladys Baker. Gladys suffered badly with mental illness, as did many of her family. Diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia, she was unable to care for her baby. Her father had left Gladys before the birth, and Marilyn was never sure exactly who he was.

She spent her childhood in many different foster homes. In one, she was sexually abused, by a lodger, at the age of 11. When she told her foster mother what had happened, the woman apparently slapped her. Much later, Marilyn would write about the trauma: "I will not be punished for it or be whipped or be threatened or not be loved or sent to hell to burn." Eventually Norma Jeane was sent to an orphanage; in a young life of many low points, that was pretty much rock bottom. She later said: "The whole world seemed sort of closed to me, [I felt] on the outside of everything, and all I could do was to dream up any kind of pretend-game."

One of the pretend-games she dreamed up was marriage, at the age of 16, to Jim Dougherty, five years older, a football star at the local high school she attended. They married in 1942, and divorced in 1946. Dougherty apparently liked the idea of rescuing this shy, pretty girl who left high school to marry him, but perhaps failed to communicate it. Marilyn later said: "My relationship with him was basically insecure from the first night I spent alone with him."

When Jim went off to war, Marilyn began working as a model. Those early photos, which mainly appeared in military magazines, show the young Marilyn entirely unsophisticated, with a wild tangle of reddish-brown hair falling below her shoulders, but with the same wide open, wondering smile that made her famous. There is, in that smile, so much hope that it is irresistible. Later, Arthur Miller, her third husband, described it: "The extraordinary thing about her is that she always sees things as though for the first time."

She was already, instinctively, a natural in front of the camera. The first man to see her on screen, cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who shot her screen test in 1946, in which she did nothing more than walk in, sit down and light a cigarette, later claimed: "I got a cold chill. Every frame of the test radiated sex."

That screen test got her a studio contract, for $75 a week, and a new name - Marilyn Monroe - but little by way of a career. She had bit parts in a series of forgettable films, and began a series of cosmetic procedures, including having her hairline lifted, her overbite corrected, a prosthesis put into her jaw and a nose job, that created the finished product that was Marilyn Monroe.

Eventually, a small but good part in All About Eve started the ball rolling. At the time, she was pretty much sleeping her way to the top, in traditional Hollywood fashion. Her boyfriends included Fox executive Joseph M Schenck, Johnny Hyde who was vice president of the William Morris Agency, directors Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray.

When Marilyn met Joe DiMaggio, her second husband, he had just ended his legendary career as a New York Yankee, and hers was finally on the cusp of full-blown stardom. She was 25, he was 37, and, at first, exactly the kind of assured, protective father figure she was desperate for.

One of her friends described the relationship: "Here was a father figure with whom she could have sex. And the sex was pretty damn good, if she had to say so herself."

But what started as reassuring quickly became stifling. DiMaggio demanded that she wear high-cut blouses and long skirts, he wanted her at home, cooking his dinner, not out forging a career. Within weeks of the marriage, DiMaggio felt out of his depth and sidelined. He responded violently. Their rows were vicious - DiMaggio's son by his first wife recalls being woken by the sound of Marilyn screaming, and seeing her being dragged by Joe into the house by her hair. The next day, both DiMaggio and Marilyn would pretend that nothing had happened.

The violence became more frequent and Marilyn began drinking heavily and taking a cocktail of pills. After nine months, she filed for divorce, citing 'mental cruelty'. Even so, the two remained close until her death.

She frequently borrowed money from DiMaggio and turned to him in bad times. When she died, it was DiMaggio who organised the small funeral and designed her simple headstone. Twice a week, for the rest of his life, he arranged for roses to be delivered to her grave, and when he died, his last words were apparently: "I'll finally get to see Marilyn again."

The marriage to Arthur Miller wasn't violent, but that divorce, after four years, didn't leave behind the kind of closeness she managed with DiMaggio. And yet, it was love at first. "I love him and he is the only person I have ever known that I could love, not only as a man, but that I trust as much as myself," she wrote in 1956, shortly after the wedding, for which she converted to Judaism. Miller was, again, a kind of father figure, older, an intellectual heavyweight and Pulitzer Prize winner.

And yet Miller, although initially smitten, couldn't seem to remain in love and within a couple of years his affection seems to have faded. While in the UK filming The Prince and the Showgirl, she found a diary entry of Miller's in which he writes that he was "disappointed" in her, and sometimes embarrassed by her in front of his friends. Marilyn was devastated. His betrayal confirmed what she'd "always been deeply terrified" of.

She wrote: "I know from life one cannot love another, ever, really. I see myself in the mirror now, brow furrowed ... tension, sadness, disappointment, my eyes dulled, cheeks flushed with capillaries ... hair lying like snakes. The mouth makes me the sadd[est], next to my dead eyes."

Among the many men in Marilyn's life - Yves Montand, Marlon Brando, Yul Brynner - John F Kennedy looms large, although the affair was brief. They met through his brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, at a time when Marilyn was starting to show the intolerable strain of her inner life.

She was unhappy, drinking too much, spending too much money, taking too many pills and chronically late for work; she had been fired from the set of her last film, Something's Got to Give, for her lateness and unreliability. She was increasingly unhinged, frightened and neurotic. An affair with the President seemed to her something serious, something with potential. For JFK she was undoubtedly just another conquest, but for her, this meant something more.

Marilyn would dress up in a dowdy brown wig and glasses, and pose as a secretary in order to be smuggled into the Carlyle Hotel in New York, to meet Jack, for what the FBI alleged were 'sex parties' with Jack and Bobby.

So much faith did Marilyn have in the future of her affair with Jack, that she rang his wife Jackie one night, drunk, and told her they would be married. To which Jackie apparently responded: "Marilyn, you'll marry Jack, that's great ... and you'll move into the White House and you'll assume the responsibilities of first lady, and I'll move out and you'll have all the problems."

What put an end to the affair was Marilyn's performance at Madison Square Garden for the President's 45th birthday in May 1962. Wearing a skin-tight, flesh-coloured dress encrusted with rhinestones, Marilyn was noticeably high as she breathed her way through the world's most iconic rendition of Happy Birthday. One columnist described her as "making love to the President in the direct view of 40 million Americans". For Jack, the performance was far too close to public exposure. It was the end of the affair.

It was also the end of Marilyn. On the night of August 4 she took a fatal dose of sleeping pills, mixed with alcohol, and was found dead around 4.30am. The speculation started instantly - suicide? accident? murder? - and has never really stopped. In her last interview, for Life magazine, she said: "I was never used to being happy, so that wasn't something I ever took for granted. It might be kind of a relief to be finished. It's sort of like I don't know what kind of a yard dash you're running, but then you're at the finish line and you sort of sigh - you've made it! But you never have - you have to start all over again."

Marilyn started over many times; by the age of 17 she had lived several lives. For the rest of us, there is no 'starting over', there was only one Marilyn.

Belfast Telegraph

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