By Eleanor Ringel Cater
It’s 50 years after the fall and the luminous tragedy that was Marilyn Monroe still lingers.
She died a half a century ago this month on August 5, 1962. Accidental overdose? Suicide? Kennedy-orchestrated murder?
We still don’t know. And we’re still fascinated. Very fascinated.
Last year, she ranked No. 3 on Forbes annual round-up of who’s got the hottest posthumous career. Only Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley precede her. Tough luck, James Dean. Bad karma, John Lennon.
Everybody from Monroe’s maid to Norman Mailer has tried to explain why Hollywood’s most famous Blonde Bombshell self-imploded one lonely Saturday night in 1962. Nearly 100 books have been written about her…only four of which were published before she died. And the titles: “Goddess,” “Legend,” “Marilyn Monroe Confidential,” “The Last Days of Marilyn,” “Marilyn: The Last Take.”
Sometimes, dying young is the best career movie.
So, let’s see, what becomes a legend most? An early, unexpected, not entirely explained death. After all, she was only 36. Better still (yikes), she was found naked, a phone in her hand. The coroner deemed it a probable suicide. The conspiracy theorists beg to differ.
But, officially, here we have it (maybe). The world’s most famous blonde didn’t have more fun. In fact, she was having so little fun, she may have killed herself.
When Norman Mailer wrote about her in his 1972 book (actually, he wrote two books and one play), he fell into lip-smacking, lascivious fantasy. He, not that pipe-smoking ineffectual Arthur Miller, should be the literary man in her legend. “She was a sexual oven whose fire may rarely been lit,” is the carnal evaluation he offers.
He called his book a “psycho-fantasy.” I guess he had to.
Because he never even met Monroe. Further, she refused his many efforts to set up a meeting. Sometimes, tough guys (even pseudo ones) don’t dance because they weren’t asked.
Yet Mailer wasn’t entirely wrong. In the world of the 1950s and early 1960s, Marilyn Monroe was rewarded for two things: womanly voluptuousness and little-girl vulnerability. As Gloria Steinem, who wrote her own Marilyn book, points out, “She was the child-woman who offered pleasure without adult challenge.”
Dame Sybil Thorndike noted much of the same thing when she remarked to Sir Laurence Olivier during the filming of “The Prince and the Showgirl,” “Look at that face. She could be five years old.”
“The Prince and the Showgirl” figures in what is probably the best movie ever made about Marilyn — last year’s “My Week with Marilyn,” starring Michelle Williams who looks nothing like Monroe, yet managed something far more than an attempted impersonation. It’s like she got inside the star and somehow discovered what the camera always discovered: a radiance that verged on the unreal.
You don’t see that in the image that stars back from book covers, T-shirts, mugs, postcards, screen-savers, whatever and wherever her likeness has been stamped. You only see it on film and sometimes in her photos.
Ultimately we can never know Marilyn Monroe. It’s one of the secrets she took with her to the grave, along with whoever Norma Jean Baker was.
But consider this quote from an autobiography Monroe began, but never finished: “I knew I belonged to the public and the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful. But because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”
She belongs to all of us now, even a half century later. Or, to paraphrase what Secretary of War Edwin Stanton supposedly said of Abraham Lincoln: Now, she belongs to the ages.