Fifty years ago today in Los Angeles, where I’m writing these words while facing a screen of a kind that didn’t exist in 1962, a thirty-six-year-old woman fatally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate, sedatives she used, or tried to use, to sleep. She had a documented history of insomnia and attempted suicide, but there’s no conclusive proof that she killed herself intentionally or accidentally or that someone else administered the drugs. Her housekeeper, whom the LAPD thought “vague” and “possibly evasive in answering questions,” reported finding her dead at around three a.m. in the master bedroom of the Spanish Revival hacienda she had bought six months earlier on the advice of her psychiatrist, who supposed it would give her a sense of stability. She lacked that sense, having lived since childhood like a nomad, for the most part in California, where flux was and is the norm.
She was a product of California both spiritually and factually, born in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital to an emotionally disturbed mother who worked as a negative cutter at Consolidated Film Industries, a processing lab for Hollywood studios. Her father, also employed by Consolidated, refused to acknowledge her, and after her mother was institutionalized, she went from a Hollywood orphanage to a series of foster homes in a demoralizing trajectory made bearable by her love of movies. She dreamed of being an actress, a common dream for a girl of her time and ours, in California and elsewhere, but this girl could, and no doubt did, fantasize of discovery by a talent scout, per the local myth.
When she was eighteen, a variation on this myth was realized. By then she was married to a merchant seaman and holding a Rosie-the-Riveter job at an aircraft factory in Burbank, where a photographer with the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit, impressed by the way she photographed, encouraged her to model professionally. She applied to an agency owned by the wonderfully named Emmeline Snively, who was initially underwhelmed: the girl was “too plump,” though “cute-looking,” and “knew nothing about carriage, posture, walking, sitting or posing. She was a California blonde—dark in winter, light in summer.”
Most of the “cheesecake” photos of the day were taken in Los Angeles, and, tutored by Emmeline Snively, the girl soon became a favorite of cheesecake photographers. She bleached and straightened her kinky hair, and slimmed by jogging and lifting weights. She corrected a slight overbite with braces, and improved her nose and chin with cosmetic surgery. She scrutinized every frame on every contact sheet of photos shot of her, a lifelong policy, and devised makeup tricks to tweak remnant flaws. For instance, her lips were “really very flat,” a friend remembered, so she “painted them with about five shades of lipstick, to get the right curves, the right shadows to bring out the lips.” She further highlighted her lips by darkening a pale mole just above them. As a California girl, let alone a working model and aspiring actress, she was alert to the importance of surfaces, and she was searching for a look, the look, that would captivate the world. And bit by bit, from her first modeling job in 1945 to her first starring role in Technicolor in 1953, she achieved it, and so invented one of the most famous entertainers of the twentieth century, now more famous than any other, still instantly identifiable as Marilyn Monroe, even to twenty-first-century children who might be pressed to name the dead president on the dime they see daily without seeing it.
The notion that California is a place where people reinvent themselves is older than Hollywood, though it was bolstered by the Hollywood star system, which amended the features and biographies of unknown novices and seasoned performers alike, often recalibrating the initial image if it failed to click. Lucille Ball, now maybe the second most famous entertainer of Marilyn Monroe’s era, underwent a series of image overhauls at RKO and MGM, where her brown hair was dyed its trademark red, the star system’s only significant contribution to her later success in television. It could claim even less for Marilyn’s success in movies. She was dropped by the first studio to sign her, 20th Century-Fox, apparently because, as California girls are wont to do, she was dating a surfer, another Fox discovery likewise desired by the daughter of Darryl Zanuck, chief of production at Fox. A contract with Columbia wasn’t renewed after, supposedly, Harry Cohn, the Columbia chief, watched rushes of Ladies of the Chorus, a backstage musical featuring Marilyn, and snarled to an assistant, “What did you put that fat pig in the picture for?” Finally, despite Zanuck’s dislike of her, she was signed again by Fox, where Zanuck was inclined to ignore her. But Marilyn wouldn’t let him ignore her. She courted journalists who published stories that stressed her desolate childhood, with Dickensian embellishments provided by Marilyn. Meanwhile, she haunted the Fox publicity department, so that whenever a starlet was needed for a photo, there was Marilyn, who played “the camera the way a virtuoso plays an instrument,” in the words of Life magazine photographer Philippe Halsman. Numerous photographers concurred, including Richard Avedon, who raved that Marilyn “gave more to the still camera than any actress—any woman—I’ve ever photographed,” and Eve Arnold, who marveled at a photogenic quirk: the “very fine golden hairs” that covered Marilyn’s face and “trapped the light. It was extraordinary; I’ve never seen it before. It acted as a nimbus so that she looked almost angelic.”
Marilyn’s self-promotion campaign generated mail from people who had never seen her onscreen. It made fans of film exhibitors and theater owners, and at a Fox party where established stars were on hand to meet them, they instead mobbed Marilyn, asking, “What pictures are you going to be in, Miss Monroe?” Marilyn coyly replied that such questions should be directed to Darryl Zanuck, who, at last forced to recognize her potential, mandated her use in any production that suited the image that, over his head and through the chinks of the system, she had peddled directly to the public: an orphaned bombshell, sweetly oblivious to her beauty and sex appeal.
In reality, of course, beauty and sex appeal were Marilyn’s currency. A classic Hollywood climber, she slept her way to the middle, which is still as far as the casting couch, in its manifold forms, can take anyone. “It wasn’t any big dramatic deal,” she later told a friend. “Nobody ever got cancer from sex.” She told other friends that, at especially fraught moments, she scraped by as a call girl. Would the public have forgiven her, had it known? Possibly. It forgave her when she copped to posing nude in desperation, a startling mea culpa for 1952, just as it forgave her incorrigible unprofessionalism, her oft-reported tardiness on the set. That was viewed then as an impish foible of the waifish Marilyn and not as passive aggression, a concept decades from popularization, even in Hollywood, which led the world in passive aggression, the “Good to see you!” followed by an obsequious retreat and an unspecific invitation to get together soon.
But Marilyn wasn’t just passive-aggressive; at times she was frankly hateful. Her occasional hairdresser, George Masters, recalled that if he was “two minutes late, she was furious, though she thought nothing of keeping others waiting for hours or days.” Masters considered her the coldest person he ever knew, while Billy Wilder, the director of two of her best films, once said that he had “never met anybody as mean as Marilyn Monroe,” perhaps thinking of her tirade after seeing rushes of Some Like It Hot—“I’m not going back into that fucking film until Wilder reshoots my opening”—or her response to an assistant director’s knock on her dressing-room door: “Go fuck yourself.”
But such accounts are usually overlooked, or anyway rationalized, by those acquainted with them. There’s no pathos in the image they propose; but there’s pathos aplenty in the image of Marilyn as a wounded stray, as the candle in the wind of Elton John song, as a martyr of celebrity, of Hollywood, of men and patriarchy and the male gaze. This image—and it’s finally a single image—excludes those traits it can’t, and doesn’t want to, accommodate: opportunism, toughness, willfulness, petulance, all of which, and then some, can be found in a convoluted woman with a genius for appearing the opposite.
In December 1954, wearing a brunette wig, Marilyn flew to New York with a ticket she had bought under the name Zelda Zonk—even her protopunk alias was alliterative, with the Zs suggesting sleep—and was driven in the trunk of a car to a hideout in Connecticut. She hid as part of a strategy to force Fox to renegotiate her contract—the strategy was, naturally, successful—and after she emerged to hold a press conference, she took an apartment in New York, where she would live, on and off, to the end. New York was thought to be cultured as California wasn’t, a belief that persists, so that many Californians have entertained ideas of moving to New York. It has also worked the other way, of course. There may be more expatriate New Yorkers living in California than anywhere else in the world, but they, as well as transplants from elsewhere, often speak of leaving once they’ve gotten what they came to get, and that’s sometimes fame and wealth, though it used to be wealth alone, per the 49ers who panned for gold in the Sierra Nevada and another wave of gold seekers who in 1848 descended on the San Gabriel Mountains north of L.A. This earlier gold rush is all but forgotten, but so much is forgotten in California, a place with a scant sense of history, at least compared to my native Virginia. Flux is a foe of memory.
But Marilyn—an anomalous Californian in this way, among others—was versed enough in history that she would cite Eleonora Duse, a legendary Italian actress who died two years before Marilyn was born, as her role model. Duse was known for “living” her parts with a technique so subtle it didn’t seem to be a technique at all, inspiring the Stanislavski Method and its various interpreters, among them Lee Strasberg, the artistic director of the Actors Studio and Marilyn’s mentor in New York. She wanted to be a serious actress, she announced, not an “erotic freak,” and to that end, she formed her own production company, which would create projects of a kind that she knew she would never be offered by Fox. Long interested in literature, she befriended poets and novelists, marrying one of America’s two best-known playwrights, Arthur Miller, while the second, Tennessee Williams, looked on askance, asserting after Marilyn’s death that she was praised for reading books because “we couldn’t conceive that an ambulatory bowl of rich vanilla ice cream needed to think or to grow a mind. Marilyn sought and developed her identity as a sex symbol; she wiggled and cooed for the camera, but, incapable of satisfaction or understanding, she fought this image, so she would read Joyce and Schopenhauer and Woolf and Jung. Of course she understood none of it, because there was no fertile ground in which any of this could take hold: You can throw a multitude of seeds into the desert sands, but there will never be fruitage. Marilyn’s mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.”
This blistering assessment might sadly have rung true to Marilyn at her most insecure, and nothing made her more insecure than acting. A dream she noted helps to explain the crippling stage fright that worsened as her career progressed. In the dream, Lee Strasberg was a surgeon who opened her with a scalpel, “deeply disappointed” when he discovered “absolutely nothing there.” Acting, then, may have terrified Marilyn because it could expose her as the hollow shell—her mind “a desert,” a metaphor that recalls Southern California—she suspected herself to be.
Williams’ attack on Marilyn was equally an attack on the “gnomish” Strasberg, who “lied to her and told her she was the new Duse,” making her believe “that she might become the great actress Strasberg told her she could and should be,” though “we never did and never will look at her and admire her acting—we will admire her bust and butt and her giggling stupidity.” Many thought the same. Far from being praised for reading books, Marilyn was widely mocked for it, and even her advocates, with the inevitable exceptions, admitted her limitations as an actress. Laurence Olivier, her co-star in The Prince and the Showgirl, which he also directed, decided she was really a model after she followed his instructions perfectly, as she had never done before, during a scene without dialogue. To call an actress a model is a degradation for a classical actor like Olivier, but where Marilyn is concerned, I think, in a way, he was onto something.
A few years ago, I watched Marilyn’s first collaboration with Billy Wilder, The Seven Year Itch. I had seen it before, just because it happened to be on television, when I was a kid with no interest in old movies or the people in them, and I liked it to the extent that I could like any old movie, but seeing it again years later, what struck me, as it hadn’t when I was a kid, was the ineffable magnetism of Marilyn Monroe. Every time she was offscreen, I wanted her back, and every time she was onscreen, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was, I slowly realized, partly because she was posing in ways that command attention, just as cats command attention with their poses, though I wouldn’t say that Marilyn otherwise reminds me of a cat. I wondered if she had been directed to pose as she did, but she did it so often and so well that it had to be her doing alone.
Marilyn’s difficulty with dialogue was as irritating to her colleagues as her habitual tardiness. Multiple takes were sometimes necessary—thirty, forty, fifty, sixty—to get a single usable shot, even if her line was one word long. Yes, she was frightened. Yes, she was passive-aggressive. Yes, she was hazy from insomnia and the drugs she took to sleep. But her background as a model had prepared her to pose, not act, just as she was used to still photographers talking her through a shoot, which no movie director would do unless the shot was silent. Also, as a model, she was used to photographers pausing between frames to make small adjustments, as would she, with her preternatural sense of what did and didn’t look good to the camera. Those pauses were standard when she was working as a model, but she was expected to keep going as an actress, even as the model in her head, concerned with lighting and angles, found it natural to stop. Meanwhile, the actress in her head must have resented the intrusion of the model. She was there to act, not pose, and if Marilyn the model wouldn’t insist that every moment be “real” in the Method way, Marilyn the actress was determined to have an equal say. Am I feeling this? Am I really feeling it? Wait, I forgot my line. Can we do another? Damn, I’m getting a shadow on my face. Another, please. Is this real? Am I faking it? What’s my line again?
And so on. As much as she tortured her colleagues, Marilyn tortured herself most of all. Yet the result is that she always, in the slang of her day, looks like dynamite, since the model in her wouldn’t settle for less, while there’s a rawness, a freshness, a subtle spontaneity that comes through even when she’s posing. Then too the camera likes fear, which is why some directors prefer first takes, the ones in which the player we’re likeliest to watch is the least comfortable. All of Marilyn’s takes were first takes. Her terror of acting was an asset.
Of course, none of this qualifies her as a great actress as Tennessee Williams or Laurence Olivier would define greatness, with her narrow range and dicey technique. But Marilyn the actress is roughly equivalent, I would argue, to singers like Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger, who are far less versatile and skilled than any contestant who ever made the first cut on American Idol, while even the winners of American Idol are as immediately forgettable as Dylan and Jagger were memorable from the gate. As for Marilyn, I can hardly point to anyone else I find more enjoyable to watch onscreen, and by that measure, not only do I think she’s a great actress, I think she’s a great artist.
Marilyn the artist is the Marilyn we always heard the least about, and we hear almost nothing about her now. The mysterious death of Marilyn the victim is making a few headlines again—is it proper to speak of this as the golden anniversary of her death?—and, over the years, there has been considerable talk of the alleged affairs of Marilyn the temptress—or is that again the victim?—with John and Robert Kennedy, though it’s unmistakably Marilyn the retro sex goddess who has recently materialized on Facebook to provide an authoritative example of an outstanding body versus the contemporary body ideal. Her films? How many now watch them, aside from old-movie buffs? They’re too slow for most of us. We want nonstop action and special effects, not dated bedroom comedies featuring dead people, including Marilyn Monroe.
In fact, the only Marilyn Monroe movie most people have seen, if they’ve seen one at all, wasn’t made in Hollywood; it was made at Madison Square Garden three months before Marilyn died, when she sang “Happy Birthday” for John Kennedy after being introduced—a gag about her tardiness—as “the late Marilyn Monroe.” Two clips of Kennedy’s forty-fifth birthday celebration were the first to come up when, researching Marilyn before writing about her, I checked YouTube for clips, with the shorter version of her brief performance at the top of the list. The quality is poor, but she can be heard and seen in action, as she can’t be, of course, in her many still photos.
But those photos are the key to her durability. Unlike most entertainers of her day and before, she doesn’t have to be heard or seen in action for someone unfamiliar with her—are there such people?—to glance at an image of her decked out and dolled up as “Marilyn Monroe” and grasp her essence reflexively: Hot blonde! Bimbo! Bombshell! Her makeup tricks, her tireless self-inventory, her scrutiny of every picture taken of her: all have paid off in a future world she could never have anticipated, and her acting has paid off too, since of course it’s her alter ego and not her that we observe in most of her photos. She no longer needs her auxiliary alter ego, the rags-to-riches waif, to help put her across. That’s for people curious enough to read a little about the overwrought inventor of Marilyn Monroe, and most people aren’t that curious, and why should they be regarding a woman who’s been dead for fifty years? She’s history, and now it seems that all of us are inventing alter egos through the photos and clips and updates we post online, peddling ourselves to “friends” we never met or barely know in a world that reduces everybody to driveway neighbors, people we wave to as we exit or enter our cars and dash off, on foot or behind the wheel, hoping never to be trapped in a complicated exchange.
I recognize this fast, simple, self-absorbed world, which owes a tremendous amount to Silicon Valley, in my offline life here in California. For better or worse, it’s the life I’ve always known in California, where I moved in search of fame and fortune, though, really, if I had been convinced of the immortality conferred on me by fame, I would’ve been content to struggle, or so I told myself. I was too young and dumb to realize that fame is ephemeral for the few lucky enough to come by it. I wasn’t one of them, and even if I left California after failing to get what I came to get, I could never leave it altogether. California is everywhere now, and its most famous daughter, as immortal as any dead celebrity can be, is everywhere known, and everywhere invisible in the way she most wanted to be seen.