Thursday, August 4, 2011


Nowadays, we are pretty accustomed to celebrities with drug and alcohol problems meeting untimely ends. Amy Winehouse is just the latest. We are also accustomed to hearing conspiracy theories about the deaths. There was once a more innocent time, however, when untimely deaths caught us by surprise, even though they were no less frequent then than now. Tomorrow is the anniversary of one of those surprises.

Given the human predilection for multiples of ten, the anniversary is likely to get only passing mention. I expect more fuss next year when the number is an even 50. Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. Officially, it was a “probable suicide,” though an accidental overdose of Nembutal and chloral hydrate was not ruled out. Not everyone who examined the death agreed, most notably Jack Clemmons, the first LAPD officer to arrive on the scene. He suspected murder. There are enough peculiarities in the evidence for his suspicion to be not unreasonable, but there is nothing conclusive or, for most investigators of the case, convincing.

As if there weren’t enough conspiracy theories involving Kennedys, a few writers make much of the point that Marilyn's last phone call apparently was one she placed to the White House several hours before her death, and that Robert F. Kennedy was in California that night. They ask, “Did she threaten to reveal her dalliance with the President?” I’m not a big fan of either JFK or RFK, but I don't find the notion of any involvement by either in her death remotely credible. I don't know exactly what happened that night. It's doubtful anyone does. I do remember, however, that when the news of her death was reported on TV my dad instantly said, “She’s 36”. For whatever reason, he always was aware that he and Marilyn were the same age. It was a major news story for a month.

For a decade prior to 1962, Marilyn had been the American sex symbol. Not “a,” but “the.” The odd thing is the extent to which she still is, 49 years later. In 2011 I frequently meet people (mostly under 40) who never once have seen a Marilyn Monroe movie from start to finish. I nonetheless still frequently hear young and old men alike describe an attractive woman by saying something like, “Well, she’s not Marilyn Monroe, but she is pretty.” Female pulchritude is still on the Monroe standard. She has spawned and continues to spawn endless articles, film tributes, and books. She turns up in unlikely places. If there are any two Andy Warhol artworks everyone remembers, they are the soup can and the Marilyn portrait. It is hard to find more divergent authors than Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem, yet both published books about Marilyn.

I think she has kept her throne largely because she remains a pretty good symbol for America’s bipolar sexuality: exaggerated and repressed, artificial and substantive, passionate and frosty, promiscuous and prudish, joyful and depressed, meek and pugnacious, free-spirited and self-imprisoned, wholesome and deeply corrupted by alcohol and drugs. Who else embodies those contradictions as well as Marilyn?

As for her movies, I like the majority of them, but I’ll leave it at that. They have been reviewed enough elsewhere.

It is easy to lose sight of the person beneath the personality. Perhaps the best glimpse of the real young woman is the photo below, taken in 1945 for Yank magazine by a photographer touring an aircraft factory; she was just Norma Jeane, defense worker. The ultimately fatal fragility is as visible as the youthful health. The Yank photographer urged her to take up modeling. She did, soon becoming Miss California Artichoke Queen.

The video clip below is from Ladies of the Chorus (1948) when she was still relatively unknown. What a difference three years can make.

If Freud is right that the libido and the death instinct are our deepest drives, Marilyn is a double whammy. Life is fleeting, and anniversaries such as this one bring the fact home. Yet, she survives after a fashion, more robustly than most of us will survive. We all try to beat the reaper by leaving something of ourselves behind, and she left a lot.

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