Fools for beauty, we adored Marilyn Monroe more than was reasonable. With resplendent hair and raucous gait, with open mouth and dazzling cleavage, Monroe conquered us, and, by acclamation, we voted her Miss Everything—the mostest, a Dream Girl for Life, the Statue of Liberty in a chiffon robe.
Her timing was exquisite. Monroe ascended with Ike in the White House and the nation in repose. We were heading out to the suburbs then and, over barbecued burgers, predicting the dandiest of futures for ourselves. Kids wanted to be engineers and airline stewardesses. Their parents wanted second autos and carpeted stairs and a nation first in war and peace.
In those glory days not a grumble was registered, coast to coast. What could the complaint have been? With touching innocence we told ourselves that America had reached consensus— that our neighbors shared our expectations and our standards, too. We had it made, and anyone who thought differently was regarded with suspicion.
As a result, divisions that had to do with income, heritage, opportunity and political preference were barely acknowledged. Strife between the sexes? Not here. Hubbie went to work, and the Mrs. baked him layer cakes. It was grand to be alive.
Monroe was not the cause of social revolution, of course, nor did she introduce American culture to the notion of sex as recreational activity. But on the screen she led us exuberantly away from smugness and boredom—or at least, God knows, she tried. Laughing while updrafts hoisted her skirt in The Seven Year Itch, Monroe pitched her derrière into orbit and signalled her intent to occupy our thoughts forever.
She was irresistible, yes. Although now we hear that her acting skills were considerable and her intelligence daunting, neither seemed very important at the time. Her voice was nothing much, and she didn’t seem to have range—one had trouble imagining her as Lady Macbeth — but did any one care? Monroe was Monroe, and for many that was more than enough.
To what extent Monroe understood the significance of her own popularity, who can tell? She had a naïve quality but was no dope either, according to associates. Certainly, she knew the definition of irony. During one of her
many lonely periods she is supposed to have told her psychiatrist that it meant nothing to be the most beautiful woman in the world if you couldn’t find a date for Saturday night.
There were stretches, of course, when Monroe was booked solid on Saturday nights and during the rest of the week as well. Sometimes, the men were rich and powerful, talented and handsome. Sometimes, they were losers. Monroe sampled them all, but, at last, none made a difference. She dropped the men or they dropped her. Soon enough, her exploits became tedious, and Hollywood found Monroe more pathetic than provocative. She was dizzy and distressed. She took drugs and alcohol. She couldn’t sustain a relationship. A number of miscarriages had left her morose. When she signed for a movie called Something's Got to Give, Monroe must have known it was her last chance. But, ill and un-
She said that it meant nothing to be the most beautiful woman if you couldn't find a date for Saturday night
predictable, she wasted the opportunity, and the studio gave her the hook— a crushing turn of events.
When, at 36, Monroe was found dead at her Hollywood home, few in Movieland feigned surprise. At the morgue a worker tied an identification tag on her toe—as though it were the only portion of Monroe’s body that might not be immediately recognized—and there the story might have ended. But questions about her death surfaced immediately. Monroe’s final reel had a sordid quality, after all, and Americans were curious. Were we ever.
A pile of how-Marilyn-died books accumulated overnight, it seemed, and no doubt the stack will increase. Like several others, the latest volume, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, by Anthony Summers, leaves open the possibility that the actress was murdered or that outsiders tampered with the death scene to protect John and Robert Kennedy, whom Monroe allegedly took as lovers. Rumors of CIA and FBI death squads abound.
On the air recently was a BBC documentary that covered much the same
ground as Summers, and last month Thomas Noguchi, the former Los Angeles coroner who performed the autopsy on Monroe in 1962, urged that the Monroe case be reopened. “We can’t keep closing the door,” said Noguchi. “There is an overwhelming public interest in the case, and the public has a right to know.”
Justice must be served, but the process is likely to be messy, and if reputable people are diminished in the process Monroe will not gain either. Surely unfit for sainthood, Monroe now may be denied even the dignity promised by the grave.
Her problem is exquisitely American: too much, too soon, too often. Stardom could not sustain Monroe. Evidently, it more often paralysed her. Monroe’s friend, Norman Rosten, the poet, says she always was a vulnerable sort—hungry for notoriety but aghast when it pressed too close. In a magazine story, Rosten recalled how Monroe, who couldn’t swim, once fled a lawn party at his summer home and dashed into Long Island Sound to avoid a group of admiring local youths.
With her fans still in pursuit, Monroe began flailing about and swallowing water. Rosten said she might have drowned if a fellow hadn’t come by with a boat. Even in her frightened state, the actress managed to wave at the kids as the launch roared away—a gesture that said as much about her good nature as her insecurities.
Like other pals, Rosten remembers Monroe as warm and endearing, determined and courageous but sad too— sad and confused and doomed. Despite the gloominess of her story, though, many believe the actress was special, an American original who helped nudge us toward a decade of liberation. “She offered to others, in her art, the promise of love, though she, herself, was defeated by it,” Rosten says.
It is tragic that Monroe’s troubles could not be resolved. Undone by excess, she perished alone—a lesson for us all. Wealth, fame, the howl of the crowd failed to preserve her. Her existence lacked a saving grace and it is not difficult to imagine Monroe, the forlorn goddess, bolting life as she did Rosten’s lawn. But this time no boatsman arrived on cue to save her. This time Miss Everything disappeared forever without so much as a wave goodbye.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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