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Marilyn Monroe: the beauty, the glamour, the tragedy

21 June 2022

Almost 60 years since her death, a major new film about Marilyn Monroe proves our obsession with the star is as strong as ever. By Sarah Oliver.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe. Photo by Sam Shaw/© Shaw Family Archives/Getty Images

It was 1am on a sultry September night in New York in 1954. At the corner of Lexington and 52nd Street, Marilyn Monroe, outside the Trans-Lux movie theatre, was shooting a scene for The Seven Year Itch, released the following year. As she straddled a subway grate and let the updraft of air billow the skirt of her white georgette Billy Travilla gown sky-high, movie history was made.

Thousands of fans, penned behind crush barriers, had stayed up all night just to catch a glimpse of her. Her publicist Roy Craft would later recall: ‘The Russians could have invaded Manhattan and nobody would have taken any notice.’

A few days later the actor would tell newsmen: ‘I’m just a pretty girl who’s soon forgotten. ’ But, thanks to the iconography of the flying white skirt and many other great Monroe moments, she has become immortal.

This year, 60 years after her death overnight between the 4 and 5 August 1962 at the age of 36, Marilyn’s mystique is as potent as ever. The woman whose final interview, with Life magazine, was about the transience of fame – ‘fame will go by, and, so long, I’ve had you fame. I’ve always known it was fickle’ – is still vividly alive on our cinema and TV screens, in art and in popular culture.

A major new biopic, Blonde, starring No Time to Die actor Ana de Armas, due out on Netflix this autumn, is already being tipped as an Oscar contender. The grande dame of American literature, Joyce Carol Oates, 83, who wrote the epic novel on which it is based, is one of the few who has seen it so far. ‘Dazzling’ is her verdict. ‘It’s very powerful. Wrenching. Suspenseful. I had to stop watching it and start again because it’s so stressful emotionally. You are getting very close to Marilyn. You identify with her, it’s intimate film-making. Here you are, really immersed in her.’

Then there’s a compelling new Netflix documentary, The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, in which journalist Anthony Summers asks if Marilyn’s lonely death was suicide or an assassination, linked to romances with President John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby, America’s Attorney General.

A second new documentary, Marilyn, Her Final Secret, believes it has finally identified her father, whom she never knew and whose abandonment defined her life, using a lock of her hair taken by an embalmer.

And as for Marilyn’s cross-cultural legacy, Andy Warhol’s portrait of her, Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, became the most expensive piece of 20th-century art ever when it was sold for £158m at Christie’s in New York in May. The sale of the 40 x 40 inch artwork took just four minutes of frenzied bidding.

‘There’s a mystery about her, a woundedness. She is radiant, luminous, but there is great melancholy’

That same month, the nude Bob Mackie evening dress which Marilyn wore to sing Happy Birthday to JFK at Madison Square Garden in May 1962 (embellished with 6,000 sparkling crystals and so tight she had to be stitched into it sans underwear) reappeared on Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala. ‘Big mistake. Marilyn was a goddess. Nobody else should be seen in it,’ was Bob’s withering verdict.

But it’s Blonde which is causing a new spike in Marilyn mania. Due to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, the film has Brad Pitt as a producer and is directed by his long-time collaborator Andrew Dominik. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, Peaky Blinders, Succession) plays Marilyn’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller. Bobby Cannavale (seen recently in Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman) plays her second, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.

As well as writing Blonde at the turn of the millennium, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, Night, Neon (Apollo, out now) also includes one inspired by Marilyn. Speaking from her home in Princeton, the writer reflects on why the world simply can’t let the icon go.

‘There’s a mystery about her, a woundedness. She is radiant, luminous, but there is great melancholy. Look at other stars such as Elizabeth Taylor or Lady Gaga, we just don’t have the same feeling of elusiveness, of the mysterious feminine.’

'It’s a tragedy,’ says Andrew Dominik of Marilyn’s trajectory. ‘An unwanted child who becomes the most wanted woman in the world and has to deal with all of the desire that is directed at her.’

Andrew is correct about this discordancy between who Marilyn once was and who she became after army photographer David Conover arrived at the California factory where the newly-wed 19-year-old Norma Jeane Dougherty was assembling remote-controlled target aircraft.

It was 1945 and he was in search of a morale-boosting shot of a pretty girl on a military production line. He discovered a starlet who would become a supernova.

‘I was brought up a waif,’ Marilyn used to say, as she detailed a childhood in which a single mother afflicted by schizophrenia surrendered her daughter to 11 foster homes, an orphanage and a guardian. She was sexually abused, she claimed, as a child.

To escape her abusive foster home Marilyn married James Dougherty soon after her 16th birthday in 1942, but the marriage only lasted four years. Throughout her life, in search of stability, she would graft herself onto lovers – in addition to the Kennedy brothers and her second and third husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, there would be dozens of others including Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis.

The luminous sexuality first identified by Conover, hot as a blowtorch, was something she could turn on and off for the cameras. ‘I just felt like being Marilyn for a minute,’ she once said as she stopped New York traffic with it, just for fun.

When she was ‘being Marilyn’, she was breathtakingly beautiful. Her breasts (she measured 37-23-36) were so firm she could go braless and still have everyone assume she was underpinned by top-notch lingerie. Her platinum hair, rouged lips, chandelier earrings and the sultry beauty spot (it was real, not fake) on her left cheek are all still instantly identifiable as ‘Marilyn’ today.

She was a supremely talented comic actor, making movie classics such as The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot (1959). John Huston, who directed Marilyn in her breakout film The Asphalt Jungle (1950) as well as the last one she ever made, The Misfits (1961), said, ‘She had no technique, it was all the truth, it was only Marilyn.’ Her tumultuous love life and endearing eccentricities – Marilyn lifted weights and studied the poetry of WB Yeats, the life of Abraham Lincoln, and human anatomy – kept audiences agog off screen too.

‘Marilyn flickers through history in a way others don’t. They are flat on the page compared to her.

'She was the last of the huge stars, after her movies seemed to get smaller and smaller,’ says British writer Adrian Hodges, who wrote the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn, based on a book by Colin Clark – brother of the late Tory MP and diarist Alan Clark – who worked for Sir Laurence Olivier when he was filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Marilyn at Pinewood Studios in 1957.

Marilyn was the end of old Hollywood, the point at which it met the new world. She died at the start of the age of mass media. News of her death travelled across continents in a way that the loss of Jean Harlow in 1937 didn’t. She was a first-generation paparazzi celebrity and that was an important part of her lasting appeal.

'The world saw Marilyn’s unique combination of talent, beauty and sexiness at the same time as it was fed gossipy tidbits, up to the point where she was found dead in the nude. These things passed into legend and now they have, that won’t change.’

Marilyn died holding a phone off its hook with an empty bottle of sleeping pills nearby. Arthur Miller, author of acclaimed plays such as Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, who married Marilyn in 1956, would later say her early death had been inevitable.

Their marriage became strained when Marilyn stumbled across an entry in Arthur’s journal soon after their wedding in which he revealed he was ‘disappointed’ in his wife and ‘embarrassed’ by her. Their relationship began to unravel further in 1960 when Marilyn was starring in The Misfits for which Arthur wrote the screenplay. During filming she was abusing amphetamines, barbiturates and sleeping pills, and drinking heavily to the point that she was often late on set and struggled to remember her lines. The couple separated soon after and divorced in January 1961 before the film’s premiere in June. She died just 19 months after the divorce and Arthur famously didn’t attend the funeral.

Physically Marilyn had been weakened by ill health and gynaecological issues. Repeated abortions – more than a dozen – several miscarriages (while married to Arthur she had two, along with an ectopic pregnancy) and the crippling condition endometriosis had all prevented her from fulfilling her heart’s desire: becoming a mother. She was also having near daily sessions with her psychiatrist as her mental health fractured.

Her erratic behaviour had made her a liability to the Kennedy administration, which attempted to sever ties. While Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office would confirm Monroe’s death was the result of a barbiturate overdose and rule it ‘probable suicide’, two decades of conspiracy theories involving the White House, the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia saw a reinvestigation 20 years later in 1982.

Anthony Summers comes closer than anyone to chronicling Marilyn’s tragic final hours, which he investigated for his New York Times bestselling book Goddess, first published in 1985, and now reissued along with the April Netflix Unheard Tapes documentary.

'Marilyn flickers through history in a way other people don’t. They are flat on the page compared to her,’ he says. ‘She remained that deprived little girl breaking into a plastic place called Hollywood, knowing people with famous names, marrying Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and yet unable to sail her boat on the sea of life in a way that doesn’t lead to disaster.

'We know so much about her yet, as we try to grasp who she is, she eludes us. We accept we won’t ever find her and that makes her live on because people are fascinated by mysteries and spectres. Marilyn is a spectre, she shimmers, even at 60 years distant, drawing us in.’

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