June 1, 2016

“The Longer You Last”: Pictures of Marilyn Monroe on Her 90th Birthday

book rev

I grew up with a picture of her in my bedroom hanging over my bed … watching over me … not as the icon, not as a sex symbol, but as an ordinary girl, her arms outstretched, her head back, the sun’s out, she’s laughing, barefoot in the grass, at Roxbury, where she lived with Arthur Miller.

—Michelle Williams, from an interview about My Week With Marilyn 

Pictures of Marilyn are all over Times Square, for sale to tourists who want to take home a souvenir from the sidewalk caricaturists lining 7th Avenue, plying their trade, deftly capturing the essence of someone’s husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or child. At a Port Authority newsstand she stares out at you from the cover of the current Vanity Fair. That red-lipped Hollywood icon is at least truer to life than the garishly painted laughing face on the 50-foot-high femme fatale in Niagara towering in front of the Criterion Theater 63 years ago, head back, torso bent forward, hands splayed on her tightly skirted thighs, legs apart, people posing down below, Lilliputians to Marilyn’s Gulliver, their heads on a level with her ankles.

No Lies!

Marilyn Monroe would have been 90 today. Born June 1, 1926 in the charity ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital, she died of a barbiturate overdose at her Brentwood home on August 5, 1962, two months after turning 36 and five years after the miscarriage suffered by the laughing barefoot “ordinary girl” in the picture hanging over Michelle Williams’s bed. The photograph on the cover of Lois Banner’s biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (Bloomsbury 2012), was taken by Monroe’s friend Sam Shaw earlier in the summer of 1957, possibly in early June, around the time of her 31st birthday when she found out she was pregnant. Her expression is wary, guarded, you could caption it with Andrew Marvell’s line, “And at my back I always hear time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” By then she’d already suffered one miscarriage, the first of three with Miller.

In My Story, the unfinished autobiography Marilyn dictated to Ben Hecht in 1954, she dreams of having a child she’ll bring up “without lies. Nobody will tell her lies about anything. And I’ll answer all her questions. If I don’t know the answers I’ll go to an encylopedia and look them up. I’ll tell her whatever she wants to know — about love, about sex, about everything! But chiefly, no lies! No lies about there being a Santa Claus or about the world being full of noble and honorable people all eager to help each other and do good to each other. I’ll tell her there are honor and goodness in the world, the same as there are diamonds and radium.”

While Hecht no doubt helped shape that heartfelt declaration with its reflection of Marilyn’s experience in a world where lies prevail and goodness is as rare as diamonds, you don’t have to read far in the poems, intimate notes, and letters compiled by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment in Fragments (Farrar, Straus & Grioux 2010) to recognize the same earnest, savvy, self-aware voice. The most characteristic photographs in Fragments show a beautiful woman comfortably being herself, which is most often the case when she’s either absorbed in a book or writing one of those “intimate notes” in her journal. Of course there’s no such thing as a private moment for one of the most photographed women in the world, and here she is again in a new show based on those notes (Marilyn in Fragments) at the Laurie Beechman Theater, which prompted this comment from Stephen Holden in his May 26 New York Times review: “If you imagined that at this late date there’s nothing left to say about Marilyn Monroe, you may want to think again.”

The Girl Who Loved Marilyn

In My Life, Monroe admits, “I have always had a talent for irritating women since I was 14. Sometimes I’ve been to a party where no one spoke to me for a whole evening. The men, frightened by their wives or sweeties, would give me a wide berth. And the ladies would gang up in a corner to discuss my dangerous character.”

A similar dynamic was in play at my high school, where the girls loathed her and the boys treated her as a glorified dirty joke. Such was the situation my junior year when I met a girl who loved Marilyn Monroe. As you might expect, she had short peroxide blond hair and a fondness for eye-shadow, lipstick, fingernail polish, and high heels. She would show up at the counter of the drug store soda fountain where I had a summer job and we’d talk about her favorite subject. I made an immediate hit because I’d just seen and liked The River of No Return (1954), in which Marilyn is a saloon singer who ends up spending most of the film in a man’s shirt and blue jeans, her hair tied back, gamely helping Robert Mitchum and his young son steer a raft through deadly rapids while fighting off hoards of howling Indians.

Some months later the girl from the soda fountain called me up and invited me to go roller skating in a nearby town to which her parents would drive us. I was surprised, having assumed I’d never see her again since she went to the other, bigger high school. At the skating rink, a southern Indiana fantasia of whirling lights, industrial-level noise, and rock ‘n’ roll, I was like Jerry Lewis on skates. She didn’t care. She was glad to have me to sit on the sidelines admiring her as she commanded the scene: she flew, she sailed, she soared, outclassing everyone, a smiling star in the flourescent orange skirt and jersey and socks she’d changed into; this was her own luminous cinema where she could release all the loving energy she felt for her idol. Boys swarmed around her, caught and lost her, none skilled enough to keep up, for she wanted partners only long enough to show how beautifully she could spin free of them, each one left like a fallen slave in her gaudy wake.

Every time she came to where I was sitting, proudly, shyly grinning in her glory, not a drop of sweat on her pretty face, I didn’t have to say a word: she took it for granted that only someone who appreciated Marilyn could fully grasp how much what she was doing meant to her, and in the back seat of the car on the way home, I was rewarded with passionate kisses while her parents conversed as if nothing unusual was happening. There was one more such evening, once again initiated by a phone call from her, and that was it until the moment a year later when I ran into her and her husband, a bellhop at the hotel where she waited tables in the coffee shop.

The Longer You Last

While watching The River of No Return again the other day, I paused the DVD at one point, unable to make out what Marilyn’s character was saying when she fainted from the torrents of water crashing down on her as the raft was swept over the rapids. It was the only moment in the film where she was not clearly enunciating every word, a distracting, sometimes even tiresome habit — the fault, it’s said, of her acting coach, whose presence created serious friction with the director, Otto Preminger, who took it out on Marilyn. Spoken, slurred, the words were, as far as I could make out, “The longer you last, the less you care” — a line that resonates if you know her story. According to Banner’s biography, Marilyn’s lifelong tendency to stutter began when she was sexually abused at the age of eight. “Speech therapists today,” Banner adds, “suggest that Marilyn’s soft voice and her facial mannerisms may have been strategies to disguise the stuttering.”

In the scene that follows Marilyn’s collapse on the raft, Mitchum tends to the drenched, shivering woman, wrings out her clothes, and rubs the chill from her legs and feet. The fact that she’s naked under the blanket while this is going on is only mildly titillating. The point is she’s shaken, ill, vulnerable, as she so often was in “real-life”; it’s the one scene in the film where you feel the true presence of the woman who spent her time off the set communing with a raccoon called Bandit or, according to Banner’s biography by way of Mitchum, “in her dressing room immobilized by menstrual cramps, suffering, and embarrassed.”

“The most honest picture ever taken of Marilyn Monroe,” in the words of a recent article on www.telegraph.co.uk, the work of Richard Avedon, was sold last month at Sotheby’s for £77,500. Avedon once recalled how the photograph came about: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing — she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.”

You can see this woman, the one who watched over Michelle Williams and who imagined telling her child “no lies,” on the cover of Lois Banner’s Marilyn.

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Probably the best source of information on 90th birthday events is marilynmonroe.com. The Michelle Williams comments are from a ScreenSlam interview. Marilyn in Fragments will be performed again on June 6 and June 14 at the Laurie Beechman Theater, 407 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 695-6909, westbankcafe.com. As usual, the Princeton Public Library was an invaluable resource.