Other iconic celebrities have died — Elvis, James Dean, Frank Sinatra, but none seem to have the enduring power of Marilyn Monroe. In 1986’s Marilyn, feminist Gloria Steinem presents her take on the iconic star, in a series of essays, aided by the beautiful photographs by George Barris, taken in a few sessions over the last two months of her life.
Steinem tries to present a sympathetic portrait of the star, but as she admits herself multiple times in the text, she finds Marilyn embarrassing. She goes so far as to compare her, more than once, to a drag queen. She shares a personal anecdote early on, claiming to have run out of a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a teenager, embarrassed by the star’s performance, “How dare she be just as vulnerable and unconfident as I felt?”
She goes on to present a pretty stereotypical image of Marilyn as the dumb blonde who men see as, “a compliant child-woman … Offering sex without the power of an adult woman” a woman that other women envy or fear, “a sexual competitor who could take away men on whom women’s identities and even livelihoods might depend; the fear of having to meet her impossible standard of always giving – and asking nothing in return; the nagging fear that we might share her feminine fate of being vulnerable, unserious, constantly in danger of becoming a victim.”
She can hardly veil her dislike of Marilyn’s ’50s sexpot movie starlet persona, so she shifts her attention to Norma Jeane, for whom she has much more sympathy. She outlines the young fatherless Norma Jeane’s early life, her mother who was either absent or institutionalized, her shuffle from foster homes to an orphanage to a young (16 years old) marriage. The preternaturally beautiful girl was quickly spotted and encouraged to model, which led to her pursuing her life-long dreams and fantasies of movie stardom.
A quote from Marilyn, “In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hairdo,” she wrote bitterly. “You’re judged by how you look, not by what you are. Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you $1000 for a kiss, and $.50 for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the $.50.”
Marilyn seems to have taken sex with producers and others who could help her in stride, as apparently all the young starlets did. From her early modeling days onward she found her beauty and her sex as a commodity. As much as Marilyn and other young aspiring actresses were used by men, we should also understand that she was very ambitious. She never saw herself as just another starlet. She was determined to become a star. Sex was one of the tools she used to get what she wanted in her career. She treated sex casually, an exchange of favors.
As is unavoidable with any discussion of Marilyn, Steinem details the actress’s many affairs — including possible, probable, and definite lovers — a veritable Who’s Who of prominent men of the ’50s: Howard Hughes (his interest in the young hopeful may have prompted rival studio Twentieth Century-Fox to hire her), Elia Kazan, Johnny Hyde (her agent), Joe DiMaggio (2nd husband), Arthur Miller (3rd husband), Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Yves Montand, Jim Dougherty (1st husband), Freddy Karger (her voice teacher). She devotes an entire chapter to John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, who she most likely had fairly open affairs with. She met Jack first, before he was president, but soon moved on to and was more serious about his brother Robert. Their affair was a well-known secret. Columnist Art Buchwald even made jokes about Marilyn and the President in his Washington Post column. It may have sounded funny in 1960, but it sounds beyond sexist now.
“Let’s Be Firm on Monroe Doctrine”
Who will be the next ambassador to Monroe? This is one of the many problems which President-elect Kennedy will have to work out in January. Obviously you can’t leave Monroe adrift. There’re too many greedy people eyeing her, and now that Ambassador Miller has left she could flounder around without any direction.
Steinem may not connect with the woman Marilyn became, but she is sympathetic to how difficult her road could be. Elizabeth Taylor was getting $1 million for Cleopatra from Twentieth Century-Fox when Marilyn averaged only $100,000 a film. Although she never seemed to suffer financially, she was not paid equitably. Marilyn may have frequently called in sick, causing delays and creating difficulties on her films sets, as a form of protest. It also may have been her way of knowing she was was needed, was not being overlooked, as she had been throughout her childhood. “People are waiting for me. People are eager to see me. I’m wanted.”
As much as her illnesses may have cropped up too often to suit her producers, directors and costars, Marilyn’s health issues dated from her youth. She was on painkillers from a very early age, to deal with excruciating menstrual pains. Her young body endured multiple abortions and operations, including an appendectomy, tonsillectomy, plastic surgery, gall bladder surgery, and many procedures to ease painful endometriosis. She was a woman who had to be obsessed with her body, inside and out.
Drugs were a huge part of Marilyn’s life. As Steinem notes, “Physicians have been more likely to prescribe sleeping pills and tranquilizers than to look for the cause of Monroe’s sleeplessness and anxiety. … even after she attempted suicide several times. … It was my first understanding that women are more likely to be given chemical and others arm’s-length treatment and to suffer from the assumption that they can be chemically calmed or sedated …”
As popular as conspiracy theories continue to be, Marilyn’s death was unlikely murder, or even a completely intentional suicide, but it does seem that there was a cover-up. According to Steinem, Bobby Kennedy may have even tried to take a still-alive Marilyn to the hospital with Peter Lawford, her body only returned to her home later, after her death. If that is too far-fetched to believe, it does seem to be true that Lawford, Marilyn’s maid, and others cleaned up the place, either suppressing or eliminating evidence. The local police and even J. Edgar Hoover held back phone records that showed her links to the Kennedys.
Marilyn was a troubled, at times drug-addled, soul. Extremely lonely, ever in search of unconditional love. She was also generous to a fault; always concerned with others before herself. Part of her enduring mystique is that she was frequently misunderstood and underestimated. Some of the people closest to her didn’t seem to really get her at all. Marilyn told her maid Lena Pepitone, about a scene in The Misfits, the script that playwright husband Arthur Miller had written for her, where she convinces Clark Gable’s character not to sell wild mustangs to a slaughterhouse, “I convince them by throwing a fit, not by explaining anything. So I have a fit. A screaming crazy fit … And to think, Arthur did this to me … If that’s what he thinks of me, well, and I’m not for him and he’s not for me.”
Monroe desperately wanted to be taken seriously, as more than just a sex object. She had more praise and understanding from her director, John Huston, “She went right down into her own personal experience for everything, reached down and pulled something out of herself that was unique and extraordinary. She had no techniques. It was all the truth, it was only Marilyn. But it was Marilyn, plus. She found things, found things about womankind in herself.”
The Misfits was Marilyn’s last completed film and the death knell to her four-year-plus marriage to Miller. She went on a downward spiral after the divorce, from which she never completely recovered. Miller certainly didn’t help things any with his response on hearing Marilyn might be being depressed to hear he was already expecting a child with his new wife Inge Morath (a Magnum photographer that he met on the set of The Misfits), “She knew I was a father before; she knew the children, she knew it wasn’t anything wrong with me that kept us from having children.” What a guy, huh?
Marilyn was fired from her next film, Something’s Got to Give, but it looked like she had smoothed things over with producers and was set to resume filming in the fall of 1962. Unfortunately that film and many others she was slated to appear in were not to be. Steinem presents Marilyn almost as a split personality, always haunted by her true self, Norma Jeane. It becomes a bit much after a while in Marilyn, but the glorious, natural-light photographs by George Barris help to show how the girl Norma Jeane who became the woman Marilyn Monroe endures. Marilyn was vulnerable, concerned with others, but also had an innate understanding of her own power:
“As soon as I can afford an evening gown I bought the loudest one I could find. It was a bright red low-cut dress, and my arrival in it usually infuriated half the women present. I was sorry in a way to do this, but I had a long way to go and I needed a lot of advertising to get there.”
You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
- xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #25: MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, by Lois Banner (cannonballread4.wordpress.com)