Enduring Love: Why We're Still So Obsessed With Marilyn Monroe
Originally Published on Kitty Writes Stuff, December 2014
TW: Suicide, Domestic Abuse, Child Abuse
Just this week, Max Factor announced the late Marilyn Monroe as their latest global ambassador, despite the fact she's been dead for over fifty years. For many, Monroe is an icon, a symbol of glamour, sex appeal and metamorphosis. Rumours about her life as Norma Jeane, her dress size and her death have ensured that Monroe has remained both the epitome of every girl, and the woman every girl wants to be.
Almost everyone is familiar with the Cinderella story of Norma Jeane, Monroe's alter-ego, the supposedly 'plain Jane' who was transformed into one of the world's biggest superstars. Monroe certainly suffered a traumatic childhood. Her father abandoned both Norma Jeane, and her mother Gladys Mortensen when she was born. Just a few months later, Monroe's mother, Gladys, was institutionalised. She spent most of her life in and out of foster homes, none of which were particularly happy; one woman attempted to smother a two-year-old Monroe, and she was sexually abused when she was merely eight. It was after this that the young Monroe developed a stutter. Monroe was incredibly open about this whilst alive, a particularly brave move when one considers the attitudes towards rape in the mid-century; one that portrayed women, even those of a younger age, as the seducer, and Monroe was no stranger to the accusation of being called a 'slut'. Perhaps it was this story of survival that resonates so deeply with her female admirers.
However, the images and stories of a 'plain' and unsightly Norma Jeane who accidentally transformed into an icon are simply untrue. So why has this fairytale been so excessively reproduced? Perhaps it is part of the appeal of Monroe, the dreams of a metamorphosis, that any girl can suddenly become a superstar, a sex symbol that makes her so 'relatable'.
As a matter of fact, Norma Jeane was a popular girl at school. She was constantly asked on dates by boys, and named the 'Oomph Girl' by her graduating classmates in 1941. It wasn't just her looks that set her apart, though. She was shy, and although she had poor grades she was remembered as witty and an incredibly good writer. She often submitted articles to the school newspaper. Her biggest dream was to escape the orphanage; she dropped out of school aged fifteen and eloped with her childhood sweetheart. Her husband was quickly sent to war, and Norma Jeane carried on with her own life and hopes. Noticed whilst working at a radio-plane factory, she was a leading model within two years. By the time she was divorced in 1946, she had appeared on the cover of 33 magazines, including the first ever playboy.
It is true that there was some transformation to her image, but whether she was Norma Jeane or Marilyn Monroe, she had always been an attractive woman. Her agent, Johnny Hyde, paid for her to have plastic surgery on her chin and her nose. Emmeline Snively suggested the change from Norma Jeane's naturally chestnut hair to Monroe's platinum blonde because it could be photographed with any wardrobe, in any light. Snively also gave her lessons on fashion, lighting and grooming. If you've ever noticed Monroe's upper lip quiver on film, it was because she was told to lower it when she smiled so as to hide her gums. Monroe was a master of self publicity; she would turn up to Hollywood events, often late, and in low cut red, or black dresses, hoping to make an impression on the journalists there. Her camera tricks included looking at her co-star's foreheads, instead of their eyes, to make her own eyes look bigger.
However, all the makeup and film tricks in the world did not transform Norma Jeane into a worldwide icon. Her demeanour and attitude made Marilyn. That, and her own hard work. Snively said of the young Monroe that "she wanted to learn, wanted to be somebody, more than anybody I ever saw in my life". Even Monroe admitted that she never wanted to 'be' Marilyn. She said of her dual-personalities that Marilyn was "like a veil I wear over Norma Jeane" and was known for being able to flick between the two, like a switch. After all, Norma Jeane never became a different person, she merely created an iconic style.
It is, on the other hand, ultimately the icon of Monroe that is idolised, not Norma Jeane. There is something very paradoxical in nature about Monroe's image; first and foremost, she was a pin-up girl, a sexual icon admired by men. However, her childlike innocence and radiance arguably evoked maternal feelings in her female fans.
By the time Monroe began to rise, Hollywood was in dire need of a sex-symbol. The growing popularity of foreign stars like Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren needed an American counterpart, and no doubt influenced Monroe's own style; the full figure, arched eyebrows, heavy eyeliner and full lips. Monroe had always been a trend-setter; in high school she wore tight jeans and short skirts for which she was reprimanded by the school officials. As a model, she credited her 'magic red sweater'- which she wore without a blouse or bra, as was expected at the time, for creating job opportunities. When she couldn't afford designer jeans, Monroe bought them at a local army surplus store and ran in the sea so that they would dry clinging to her skin. Although not a fashion icon at the time, just like her contemporaries, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Monroe stayed far away from what was in vogue and created her own style.
Being too buxom for the demure, Parisian styles in magazines, Monroe instead used her sex appeal - whilst maintaining an elegance lost on other stars, such as Jayne Mansfield, that made her image irresistible to both genders. One story goes that, before appearances, she would take one last look at herself in the mirror and whatever her eye hit first, she would remove. Often jewellery. Speaking of, although she famously sang 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend', she owned very few herself. With the exception of a ring given to her by her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, Monroe preferred costume jewellery.
Marilyn also endorsed workout and diet books long before Jane Fonda made it popular for celebrities to do so. She was an early devotee of yoga, taught by the famous Indra Devi. Although she was athletic; lifting weights and going on regular runs around Beverly Hills, Monroe was not strict in her routine. She loved cooking, enjoyed a good steak and would often treat herself to an ice-cream sundae after work. Another never-ending myth is that of Marilyn's size. Many a woman will happily tell you that Monroe was a size 12, or 14 (that of an average American woman) whilst lambasting the expectations of today's beauty industry and expectations. However, measuring 35-22-35, Monroe was close to a size zero. It's true that her weight often fluctuated, much to the dismay of her movie's costume makers, but she was never larger than a size 6, or 8 by today's standards.
To reduce Monroe to merely an image, however, seems an injustice. Monroe was not a model, she was a fiercely ambitious movie star. Yet if you asked the younger generations of Monroe's fans, they will most probably have never seen her films. Despite her work, she is known more as an image than as an actress.
Monroe faced adversity all throughout her career. Dismissed as cheap by others in Hollywood, she never got to realise her dreams of becoming a serious actor. Always ambitious, she began working with the Strasbergs in hope of bettering her career. She was witty and knowledgeable despite having no formal education. Her dream roles included Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov- a book she avidly discussed with Nikita Krushchev when they met. Although she had some good roles, and was her studio's most bankable star by far, she was still massively underpaid. She earned just $100,000 for her final film, Something's Got to Give; just a fifth of what her co-star, Dean Martin, was awarded and very little compared to the millions that Elizabeth Taylor received for her role in Cleopatra. She suffered from a crippling performance anxiety; this meant she very rarely turned up, and struggled to learn her lines. It took the director 60 takes just to get the "It's me, Sugar" scene in Some Like it Hot. Yet, despite this, she has outlasted her Oscar winning counterparts; Dorothy Malone, Simone Signoret and Jennifer Jones have very little on Marilyn's Enterprise.
When she wasn't acting, Monroe was also a champion for charities- especially to orphanages and children's organisations. Though perhaps her most famous stint was performing for troops in Korea. One might argue that the censorship rampant in the 1950s contributed to keeping up appearances, whereas a star of Marilyn's size today would be shredded to pieces by the press. However, Marilyn was not without scandal. As she was rising to fame, a newspaper leaked nude pictures of a young Norma Jeane, taken in the 1940s. Not unlike the similar hacking scandal that exploded in 2014, Marilyn urged her studio to let her handle her own PR. Instead of denouncing the images, Monroe simply said she'd been hungry and behind on rent - stressing that the photographer's wife was in the room. She concluded the interview with the powerful statement "I'm not ashamed of it, I did nothing wrong.".
Her studio head, Darryl F Zanuck, hated Monroe. Her accomplishments are, however, mighty. In the face of misogyny and dismissal from her peers, Monroe was the first woman to challenge a major movie studio on the issue of artistic freedom, and second to set up her own production company. Typecast as the dumb blonde, Monroe begged of one journalist after an interview "please don't make me a joke."
Monroe was certainly unique. She was a sex symbol in an age when sex was a four-letter word. Her nude pictures were hung on the walls of American Troops in Korea, propelling her to fame. However, her own view of attraction was very different. Her celebrity crushes included Albert Einstein and Arthur Miller.
As someone who was clearly searching for love, the men in Monroe's life also cannot be dismissed as insignificant. She was first married at 16, to a man who didn't approve of her job as a model, and was later banned by his second wife from going to see Monroe's movies. Their marriage ended when he returned home from war, and though she had once threatened to jump off a bridge if he left her, she claimed later she felt "trapped and bored".
Her marriage to Joe DiMaggio was explosive, and only lasted nine months. He also disapproved of her career, and asked her to stop acting. Although when they married he was by far the more famous, he retired aged 36. Whilst her career was at an all time high, his was beginning to fade. She got all of the attention. Friends argued that their relationship began to deteriorate after her visit to Korea, however, it was the famous subway scene from The Seven Year Itch that provided the breaking point. At the last minute, the director had advertised the shooting location, turning the set into a media circus, with thousands of men there. She was made to shoot the scene over and over again whilst the crowd cheered lewdly, and DiMaggio stormed off. The night culminated with a screaming match in the hotel lobby, and him beating her in their room so violently that security was called. She filed for divorce on account of 'mental cruelty'. She was not the housewife he wanted her to be.
Despite this, they remained good friends. When she was involuntarily committed to an asylum, it was DiMaggio she turned to, not her then-husband Arthur Miller. She joined him in Florida and he quit his job, alarmed by her condition. There were rumours that they were planning to remarry, and after her death he sent red roses to her grave three times a week for twenty years.
Joe DiMaggio's words on the end of their marriage were simply; "it's no fun being married to an electric light."
Her next marriage was to her celebrity crush, Arthur Miller. He said of their romance "She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past adolescence". Newspapers ran the headline "Egghead Marries Hourglass". They seemed like an odd couple. Monroe hung on to his every word, but peers claimed he was resentful, too critical and lacked understanding. When their marriage began to fall apart, Monroe came across a letter in which he claimed that she was childlike, not as intelligent as he had hoped and that he pitied her. They did publicly support each other’s careers, though. She starred in Miller's film 'The Misfits' which he hoped would help her become a more serious actress, and Monroe refused to abandon Miller when he was called to the committee of un-American activities.
The aftermath, however, was ugly. Miller's play After The Fall and its character 'Maggie' was supposedly based on Monroe, and was a very bleak portrayal. Jackie Kennedy turned on Miller for this, as she thought it was disloyal of him. Writer James Baldwin walked out of the play because he thought the portrayal was too harsh; she was shown as a self-destructive jezebel who was abandoned for her own good.
Perhaps the most tantalising insight into Marilyn's character, however, is in the words of her dearest friends. Jane Fonda swore that Monroe "radiated light and vulnerability". The writer Isak Dinesen poetically compared Monroe to a lion cub, full of "unconquerable strength and sweetness". She compared her meeting to Monroe as having the "wild nature of Africa amicably gazing at me with mighty playfulness". It is exactly this character, the icon who beams life and light that continues to captivate people over half a century on.
In her own words, Marilyn was merely a veil that she wore over Norma Jeane. Perhaps this was a reflection on her own vulnerabilities. Edward Wagenknecht said of Marilyn that she "played the best game with the worst hand". Beyond her life as a sex symbol and a superstar, Marilyn, or Norma Jeane, was so much more than an actress or an icon. She was a human. She loved children and animals; she always yearned for her own child but was plagued with miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. She was, however, very close to her step-children.
Although she played it dumb, Monroe was anything but. She loved reading; her old friends at the Hollywood Studio Club remembered her as always toting books around. Her favourite authors included Camus, Steinbeck and Hemmingway. She was reading To Kill A Mockingbird before she died. Her favourite subjects were poetry, classical literature and politics. Even as she was older she always kept a diary, penned poems and wrote. Her poems often explored the theme of escape; from the world, her childhood, from the busy life of the city to somewhere more silent, and sometimes death. Her favourite artist was Goya, her hero was Abraham Lincoln.
Monroe was also an advocate for equal rights; she said in one interview, that wasn't published at the time, that she believed "what the world really needs is a feeling of kinship". When Ella Fitzgerald was refused a spot to sing at a club because of the colour of her skin, Monroe intervened and promised she would sit on the front row for a week if Fitzgerald was allowed to play. She opposed nuclear testing, and often questioned the Kennedy brothers on the morality of it. However, Monroe also struggled with her own personal demons. The trauma from her childhood, her anxiety and depression led to a growing dependency on drugs.
Marilyn Monroe's death is the perfect mystery. A beautiful woman, in the prime of her life, dead, with an abundance of enticing rumours and secrets surrounding the circumstances. Was she murdered by the Kennedy's, by Dr. Greenson, the Mafia? The enigma only adds to the appeal.
And then, there is the question; would she still be an icon if she wasn't dead? With a young death comes eternal beauty, there are no pictures of a wrinkled Monroe on google. She is captured merely in her youthful perfection. Considering her problems, and the invading nature of today's press, her career would have most probably ended a long time ago. She would be no Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange. Would it matter? Most the pictures you see of Audrey Hepburn and other old Hollywood stars, if you were to google it, are of them in their heyday, despite living to older ages. Bettie Page, who endorsed lingerie companies in her later years, refused to be photographed at events. Has the nature of celebrity changed? Are people too cynical, too transparent now? There are no ties to the Mafia, no presidential affairs to get excited about. Perhaps that is why we turn to the magic of a bygone age. Moreover, despite being the most written about woman in history, Monroe is still an enigma. Men want to be with her, women wanted to be her. In season two of Mad Men, the office workers cry on the news of her death. Suicide in New York peaked one week after Monroe passed, with one woman's note reading "If the most wonderful, beautiful thing in the world has nothing to live for, then neither must I".
The trend of using dead celebrities as an advertising campaign is not a new one; Monroe is only the 6th top-earning deceased celebrity, according to Forbes, and the only woman on the list. New technology, as seen in last year's Galaxy advert with Audrey Hepburn, is making this even more freakishly possible. Despite her personal problems, Monroe was seen as vivacious and furiously alive by her peers; her childish innocence and enduring sex appeal as well as the constant rumours surrounding her life and death have ensured that the Monroe industry shows no sign of slowing down.