Marilyn Monroe forever young
With Marilyn Monroe it was melodrama all the way, with a mentally ill mother, a string of abusive foster homes and several marriages and flings. As the 50th anniversary of her death approaches, Donal Lynch looks back at the life and loves of Hollywood’s most enduring icon.
How much more analysis can one blonde take? Everyone has had a crack at Marilyn Monroe. In half a century, there have been thousands of biographies, essays by the likes of Gloria Steinem, Broadway plays, Hollywood homages, silk screens by Warhol, ballads, drag queens, place mats, collector's dolls and postage stamps. Her lore has only grown with time.
Last year, her Seven Year Itch dress sold for $4.6m. She is a product, an idol and an American archetype, simultaneously beyond deconstruction and an endless font of inspiration. And yet, as we approach the 50th anniversary of her death, it seems pertinent once more to ask: how could a woman, who apparently took her own life aged just 36, who only starred in a handful of movies, have become such an enduring icon?
The first clue is in the question itself. The tragedy of Monroe is perhaps the most alluring part of her enigma. Had she survived, as Bette Davis survived, as Marlene Dietrich survived, she would probably not have lasted as quite the same calibre of legend. It's a cliche to say that, like James Dean or Elvis, Marilyn left a beautiful corpse, but the description of her naked, in her pearls, an empty bottle of barbiturates at her elbow, combined lurid images of desire and death in a way the world had never experienced. In a way, it seemed a fitting, if horrific, finale.
Marilyn had always been such an absorbing melodrama of a girl: the history of abusive foster homes in her early life; the shadowy studio svengalis who “whispered into her brain” as Elton John sang it; the sensational marriages to baseball icon Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller; the clandestine flings with Sinatra and JFK.
Interspersed with these were the pregnancies, the miscarriages, the pills, the breakdowns, the comebacks, and finally, the desire to be left alone. Other icons of the age, such as Jackie Onassis, were defined by the things they did. But Marilyn's back-story and her sexual persona elevated her above other famous women of the time. She was also the most modern of stars.
It wasn't just the pulp fiction sideshow that hypnotised the world. She had other gifts too. Time summed them up as “some unique alchemy of sex, talent and Technicolor ... pure movies.”
As an actress she specialised in warm-hearted bimbos — always fragile, always funny, an electric mix of good girl and bad.
As Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was the seminal gold digger, her little girl voice frothing with coquettish charm as she cooed “sometimes Mr Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me”. It's a line that wouldn't make it into a film today.
Some things, it must be said, were politically incorrect even at the time. Steinem wrote of storming out of that particular movie in protest. Quentin Crisp noted that Monroe offered her sexuality with “all the innocence of a retarded child”. But for Marilyn this didn't matter. She was beyond offence. The writer Paul Rudnock vividly describes the moment she “swivels aboard a cruise ship in a 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 movie stardom defeats all common morality.”
It's been said that the defining difference between Madonna and Monroe is sanity. In later years this was true. Monroe was said to suffer from schizophrenia. But from the very start mental illness dominated the actress's life. She was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, named after Twenties screen idol Norma Talmadge. Her mother Gladys, a film cutter at Consolidated Film Industries, a Hollywood-based studio, suffered most her life from mental illness. Several biographers have speculated that she was manic depressive. Monroe's father, who was also a film cutter, abandoned Gladys when he learned of the pregnancy and the little girl grew up believing Gladys's second husband, Edward Mortenson, was her father. When Norma Jeane was only seven, her 13-year-old half-brother Jackie died of kidney failure while staying with relatives. Her mother was devastated. “Why wasn't it you?” she screamed at Norma Jeane.
Eventually the little girl was put into foster care and ended up living at the home of Ida and Wayne Bollander, a devoutly religious couple from Hawthorne in California. Gladys eventually took Norma Jeane back but after she was permanently institutionalised the child was fostered out again, this time to an English couple, before being placed in an orphanage.
Marilyn would go on to claim that she was a skivvy in the orphanage but officials would later dispute that account. She would later get her wish to leave the institution, but life did not improve. She again found herself in a succession of foster homes and in one of these, when she was about nine, she was molested, although she never publicly identified the abuser. Her foster mother at the time slapped her face when she reported the incident. The anxiety suffered as a result of this incident left her with a stutter.
In childhood she had been teased as “Norma Jeane, the human bean” but in adolescence she exploded into womanly bloom, causing male heads to turn wherever she went. The stammer melted away. By now she was living with a couple called Grace and Doc Goddard, near to the home of her biological aunt, Ana Lower. When Doc's job was relocated to West Virginia, it was decided that Norma Jeane would stay behind. Chiefly to avoid being returned to the orphanage, she married a local boy named Jim Dougherty.
The young man would go on to enlist in the merchant marine, where he worked alongside a young Robert Mitchum, who 12 years later would star in a movie with Marilyn Monroe. While Dougherty served overseas, Norma Jeane worked in a munitions factory, mainly spraying aeroplane parts and inspecting parachutes. During this period, David Conover, a US army photographer, was sent by his commanding officer (future American president Ronald Reagan) to photograph young women who were helping with the war effort. Conover was enthralled with Norma Jeane's look. “Her eyes held something that touched and intrigued me,” he said. He encouraged her to sign with a modelling agency.
This was the point at which the Marilyn Monroe effigy began to be carved from the block of marble that was Norma Jeane. The blonde Doris Day look was in vogue at the time and it was decided the new model's hair should be lightened and her name given a more sophisticated slant — the agency christened her Jean Norman.
In his 1976 book The Secret Happiness Of Marilyn Monroe, Dougherty remembered the idyllic time in their marriage prior to his overseas assignment and recalled returning to find his wife, suddenly gimlet-eyed with ambition and demanding a divorce. If there was a third party it could be called ‘America'. Peace had broken out and though neither tall nor willowy enough to be a fashion model, Norma Jeane became one of the brightest stars in the burgeoning market in ‘pin-up magazines'.
By today's standards, the pictures showing women in titillating states of undress seem charmingly quaint. But in those post-war years, the models sailed a thin line between patriotism and seediness.
Whatever doubts there were about the morality of Norma Jeane's career, her modelling won her increasing fame and eventually brought her to the attention of studio heads. Her smouldering on-screen presence was immediately apparent, with Twentieth Century Fox executive Ben Lyon deeming her, “Jean Harlow all over again”.
Norma Jeane was hungry for success. She later recalled: “I used to think, as I looked out on the Hollywood night, ‘there must be thousands of girls like me, sitting alone and dreaming of becoming a movie star'. But I'm not going to worry about them, I'm dreaming the hardest.”
She was offered a standard contract with a salary of $125 per week and her name was changed, first to Carole Lind and eventually, against her better judgment, to Marilyn Monroe. As with Coca-Cola, it was the pleasingly alliterative and the “lucky” flow of the words that caused them to be chosen.
In time, Monroe would become a brand name to rival the soft drink. For her first few years on the Twentieth Century Fox lot she had only small parts. But her profile continued to grow and in 1951 she presented an Academy Award. The following year she appeared on her first Life magazine cover.
In these years, her last remaining tie to her old life as Norma Jeane was severed as Aunt Ana passed away. Monroe would later say her aunt had been the only person who had truly loved her.
She won praise for her searingly sexual performance in Niagara, in which she played a femme fatale, and her public and private persona seemed to converge. Joan Crawford, for one, criticised Monroe's plunging necklines as “vulgarity” and “unbecoming of an actress and a lady”. Her biggest role to date was alongside Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The film remains a cornerstone of Monroe's career. There is a telling exchange toward the end, when Marilyn, playing Lorelei, comes face to face with the stern father of her witless boyfriend, Gus Esmond. “I thought you were dumb,” Esmond Senior tells her. “I can be smart when it's important,” Lorelei replies. “But most men don't like that.”
Russell herself insisted Monroe was an intelligent, sensitive soul and diaries discovered after her death would seem to bear this out. “Why do I feel this torture?” she wrote in one entry. “Or why is it that I feel less human than the others (always felt in a certain way that I am subhuman, why, in other words, I am the worst). Even physically I have always been sure that something was not quite right with me.” Publicly, Monroe maintained that she had a soul but nobody was greatly interested in it. She accurately saw herself as a canvas on to which the viewing public could project its desires.
This image of her as the ultimate American sweetheart was only heightened when she married Joe DiMaggio. The legendary baseball player, retired since 1951, saw a publicity photograph and tracked her down. “I thought I was going to meet a loud, sporty fellow,” she recalled. “Instead I found a reserved gentleman in a grey suit, with a grey tie and a sprinkle of grey in his hair.”
During their time together, Monroe's star continued to soar. The Seven Year Itch, with its iconic skirt-blowing scene, was a particular highlight. But the marriage soon foundered. DiMaggio was a retiring type who loathed the limelight of Hollywood. His failure to keep his gorgeous young wife was said to be proof that no man could be the best at two national pastimes. “I have too many fantasies to be a housewife,” Monroe said of her time in the marriage. “I guess I am a fantasy.”
In keeping with this, she apparently refused to wear a stitch of clothes around the house, anyone's house. After divorcing DiMaggio, she went to Las Vegas to stay with Frank Sinatra. The arrangement was convenient. Sinatra, too, was miserable about his break-up with Ava Gardner.
One morning, the singer loped downstairs in his boxer shorts to the kitchen, only to find Monroe standing in front of the open fridge, naked, with her little finger in her mouth. She was, apparently, trying to decide what kind of fruit juice she would drink. When Sinatra walked in, she turned to him and cooed, “Oh Frankie, I didn't know you got up so early.” At that moment, so the story goes, the relationship developed from platonic to sexual.
In May 1955, she began dating Arthur Miller. The press dubbed them “the Egghead and the Hourglass”. At the time, Miller was involved in a squabble with the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee, but his union with Monroe seemed like incontrovertible proof that he was a red-blooded, flag-waving Yank. Monroe agreed to a Jewish ceremony and seemed enamoured of her new husband. They were pursued relentlessly by the paparazzi and rocked by rumours of affairs. Tony Curtis, who starred alongside Monroe in Some Like It Hot, claimed he got her pregnant while she was married to Miller.
By the time she began filming an adaptation of Miller's play, The Misfits, their marriage was irreparably damaged. Monroe had become addicted to prescription drugs. A miscarriage and a cruel letter from her mother, Gladys, brought her close to breaking point. One night Miller was called from a restaurant. Monroe had taken an overdose. She spent a short time in a psychiatric ward. She and Miller were divorced in 1961. Monroe's sweetheart was once again her country.
This was best expressed in the fluttering, wide-eyed performance of Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy at a gala in 1962.
The actress Arlene Dahl said: “Marilyn walked in and everything stopped, everyone stopped. It was magical, really. I've never seen anyone stop a room like that. The president turned around and you could see he was really attracted to her. People just wanted to stand near her, smell her fragrance, breathe the same air.”
A chorus of biographers claim that Monroe and JFK had a brief affair. Rupert Allan, her publicist at the time, said that she had been “fixated” with the president. It was an obsession that would threaten to destroy her. By now, the scars of her past were closer to the surface than ever and her addictions had worsened. She feared she had inherited her mother's mental illness and often heard ‘voices' or imagined she was being followed.
Kennedy was reportedly the last person she spoke to on the night of August 5, 1962. The next day the papers all led with the same story: ‘Marilyn was found in the nude'. The County Coroner's Office in Los Angeles recorded a verdict of “acute barbiturate poisoning”.
Monroe's old acting teacher Lee Strasberg delivered the eulogy at her funeral, which was attended by 31 close family and friends. Her casket was lined with champagne coloured silk and she was buried in her favourite Emilio Pucci dress. “She could never learn to acquire the lacquered shell of the prima donna or the armour of sophistication” wrote Alistair Cooke in her Guardian obituary. “So in the end she sought the ultimate oblivion, of which her chronic latecomings and desperate retreats to her room were token suicides.” For the next 20 years, red roses were lain in her crypt by a grief-stricken DiMaggio.
The anniversary of her death has prompted flurries of reminiscence. In recent months different exhibitions have taken place in London, Los Angeles and Cannes. A new book, Marilyn Remembered, has just been published. It shows romantic ephemera, such as love notes to DiMaggio, and incredible, previously unpublished personal photos. They depict her as she will always be remembered: a creature seemingly composed of cashmere and diamonds, untouchably beautiful, heartbreakingly fragile and never a day older.
Marilyn Remembered, by Cindy De La Hoz, is available now, Carlton Publishing, £35