Commentary: Marilyn, 41 years on

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Aug. 5, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Forty-one years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains forever young, and she eternally will. Not for her, the bloated twilight of an Elvis or a Brando or endless ghostly apparitions as a Johnny Carson guest. Easy, effortless really, to remember her as she was. She never became, nor could have become, anything else.

The beginnings of Norma Jean Baker, the fragile child buried alive in the beautiful sarcophagus that was Marilyn Monroe, were as terrible as her despairing end. "She was," wrote William Manchester in an exceptionally fine essay, "the bastard daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic." Her uncle killed himself. The frenzied lust for celluloid fame, whatever the price, was engrafted in her DNA. She was even named after a silent movie star, Norma Talmadge.

Her childhood, Manchester records, was frightful. "She had lived with 12 set of foster parents. ... .She loved a dog. A neighbor killed it." After all that, what was there but sex and fame. Her need for both was insatiable. But they were never enough.

From the very beginning, her beauty was her curse. All she was ever taught was lust without love, and that men only ever Wanted One Thing. Again Manchester, "By the time she was fourteen, the fathers of her friends had pawed her. ... She never pretended to be shocked, or even resentful."

She was made for the movies and they for her, the way a magnet attracts an iron filing. Her first break came in a Marx Brothers comedy. She shimmers into Groucho's office, the moving, huskily breathing embodiment of allure, and exclaims, "Some men are following me." Indeed they were. But it wasn't only "some."

She drove directors and fellow actors to distraction. Laurence Olivier loathed her. So did Tony Curtis. She was widely credited with driving Clark Gable to his fatal heart attack in the last picture either of them ever completed. But as far as Hollywood was concerned, she was worth it.

Manchester records that her 23 films between 1950 and 1961 grossed $200 million. That would be probably around $2 billion in 21st century real terms. She was denounced by the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano" and by "Pravda."

She really was dumb and her attempts to make a serious intellectual of herself recall the classic definition of Greek tragedy as a tale destined to evoke emotions of the deepest pity and terror. But the movie camera loved her in her unchanging beauty as much as it loved Humphrey Bogart in his craggy, authentic, life-beaten, world-weary ugliness. Bogie, we are convinced, was never innocent, never young, and Marilyn was never anything but.

It was Billy Wilder, that most Central European and knowingly cynical of all the great Hollywood directors, who understood and used her best. He was to her what John Ford was to John Wayne, or John Huston to Bogey, the cinematic Michelangelo who carved the classic image out of celluloid marble. It was he who had her straddle that heaven-sent sidewalk grating in "The Seven Year Itch" while an updraft of air blew her skirt high above her hips. She loved every moment of it. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio, her jealous and insecure husband of the time -- every husband Marilyn ever had had all too good reason to be jealous and insecure --seethed with fury.

Her marriage to DiMaggio was doomed before it ever began. She gloried in fame. After baseball, he fled it. She was the quintessence of Hollywood glamour and sleaze. He loathed it. He was prim about sex. She was insatiable and devoid of repression or regret. The misery that engulfed her made a good case for both.

As Australian-British critic Clive James pointed out in his famous book "Fame," "Talent wasn't what she was short of. It was self-esteem. ... Her story was the one about the woman who couldn't cope with world fame. It could only have one ending."

She was, continued Manchester, "Hell to live with, and hell to work with. There was a fascinating discrepancy between her on-screen radiance and her off-screen desperation".

Tony Curtis denies saying that during the making of "Some Like It Hot," kissing her was like kissing Hitler. But everyone who made that movie felt that way. By then, Manchester relates, it took 47 takes to get her to correctly say the line, "It's me, Sugar."

"Attempts to wake her," he wrote, "would begin at 6:30 a.m. with vats of black coffee and masseurs. Her snoring body would be rolled back and forth as attendants made her up horizontally. Sometimes, shooting wouldn't begin until 4 p.m.; sometimes it would be postponed until the next morning when the ritual would begin again."

By then, in 1958, there was only one way it could possibly end. There was always only one way it could possibly end.

She yearned for children but only experienced two miscarriages. Her last boyfriend wanted her to come out for a party with some friends and two prostitutes. Manchester records that she was not amused. "She put on a stack of Sinatra records on a spindle, swallowed all the Nembutals in her medicine cabinet, and sank into a lethal coma."

There was, of course, a conspiracy theory. There are always conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories, to adapt Stokely Carmichael, are as American as cherry pie.

"She was having affairs with both Jack and Bobby Kennedy," Clive James wrote. "She was practically part of the Kennedy administration." The Kennedys therefore had organized crime kill her, it was said, to shut her up, or because she had fantasies of marrying the president or Bobby. Perhaps she had fantasies about marrying them both.

No resurrection or reincarnation a la Elvis for her. No myriad mythical sightings amid the shopping malls and fast food outlets of the "X-Files"-ridden Great American Continent. She was an X-File who wrote her own closure.

She was Greek tragedy, trapped in her own doomed, unbreakable legend. That she fitfully recognized her fate and fought so hard, for so long, so pathetically, unsuccessfully to escape it only enhanced its frightful power.

She was an innocent Eve, surrounded by fallen Adams. The Serpent never had to raise a finger.

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