HerStory: The tragedies and triumphs of Marilyn Monroe

HerStory: The tragedies and triumphs of Marilyn Monroe

In spite of all her success, Marilyn Monroe was a victim of a marketplace built and run by men. These times need new, improved icons

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, July 29, 2022, 01:34 AM IST
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Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio | Wikimedia

A few days from now, August 4, will mark the 60th death anniversary of one of the biggest stars of Hollywood. She was found dead of a drug overdose in her Los Angeles home, and so many years later it is still being speculated on — was it suicide, accident or murder?

Marilyn Monroe is often referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world (most certainly in Hollywood of the time). Just as the legendary Helen launched a thousand ships, Monroe’s life and death launched innumerable books, documentaries, feature films, television series and conspiracy theories. There were other actresses as beautiful as her, and much more talented, but it is her face that pop artist Andy Warhol painted as the Marilyn Diptych, that portrait of hers (from the 1953 film Niagara) that is still found on posters, mugs, T-shirts and keychains. It was her statue, Forever Marilyn, in the classic skirt-billowing pose (From The Seven Year Itch, 1955) that was sculpted by John Seward Johnson in 2011 and put up in Palm Springs a year later. (It created a controversy, was taken down and then returned.)

It is about her that 14 films and series have been made – a documentary by Emma Cooper, The Mystery Of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes, is currently running (on Netflix); there is an upcoming film, Blonde by Andrew Dominik, based on the book (that came out in 2000) by none other than Joyce Carol Oates. The Pulitzer Prize finalist novel was also turned into a made-for-TV film in 2001.

She is a pop culture icon, has inspired artists, advertisers, architects, musicians and the many actresses who portrayed her in various mediums. At least 27 (according to Goodreads) books have been written about her, including Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers, on which the Netflix film has been based.

It is typical of showbiz make-believe, that from her name (Norma Jean Mortenson) to her dazzling blonde hair, there was a lot that was fake about the woman. That in no way takes away from the courage and determination that it must have taken her to go from her troubled and unstable childhood to being the most desired woman in America. But along with achievement, there is also the tragedy of sexual abuse, exploitation, mental illness and scandal that are the causes of the endless fascination with Marilyn Monroe.

In a chilling bit in the web film, Monroe admits to being molested as a child, but since young girls then were not told about sex, she did not think much of it, but she also confessed to a fantasy of running into her father at a bar and making love to him. There is no way of determining just how much damage trauma does to a child’s mind.

That breathless voice and waifish persona that everybody wrote about could have been a result of her past; she did say she felt like a rejected orphan, raised as she was in a series of foster homes,with relatives and at orphanages, which could not have been conducive to a healthy childhood.

She was married at 16 to James Dougherty and working in a factory, when a photographer turned her into a pin-up girl. (A lot of her pin-up and nude photos surfaced after her death, with a much enhanced price tag.) She gradually climbed the Hollywood ladder to become a hugely popular star, even though she was typecast as a dumb blonde.

Cultural historian Sarah Churchwell wrote about her, “The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn't act. She was far from dumb, although she was not formally educated, and she was very sensitive about that. But she was very smart indeed—and very tough. She had to be both to beat the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s…The dumb blonde was a role—she was an actress, for heaven's sake! Such a good actress that no one now believes she was anything but what she portrayed on screen.”

Back then, Hollywood was ruled by studios run by men, who treated the always growing lines of hopeful young women pouring in from all over the country as meat. If an actress was picked, her life was controlled by studio bosses and their all-powerful publicity machine.

After the success of her films, and her ‘sex symbol’ and ‘blonde bombshell’ image, there was public interest in her personal life. She was married to two famous men, baseball player Joe DiMaggio, who could not stomach her stardom, and then a very unlikely pairing with playwright Arthur Miller (“Egghead Weds Hourglass” was the Variety magazine headline), who by some accounts treated her badly and claimed to be disappointed with her.

Monroe herself worked to improve her acting by enrolling at the Lee Strasberg Studio, and her mind by reading voraciously. Still, none of the men she was reportedly involved with — and the fanzines then could mine the gutters for gossip — valued her for her brain.

Her decline began when she got involved with the Kennedy brothers – John and Robert. Because of who they were, her privacy was horrendously invaded; her home and phones were bugged, so was the home of actor Peter Lawford (the Kennedys’ brother-in-law) where Hollywood royalty partied. Every intimate moment, every careless word was recorded; at some point the Mafia was involved, and accusations of her being a communist (a black mark in Cold War-era America) were bandied about. Already mentally fragile, she started depending more and more on alcohol and drugs. By the time she was shooting for her last film The Misfits (1961) she was barely in a condition to work.

She had psychiatric help, but no support from family or a stable group of friends; the atmosphere at the studios did not encourage lasting bonds between female co-stars. If a woman was already struggling with addiction and mental health issues, there was no safety net.

Monroe's sudden death was big news all over the world. French artist Jean Cocteau is reported to have said that her “her death should serve as a terrible lesson to all those whose chief occupation consists of spying on and tormenting film stars."

Academic interest in the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon, that had already begun during her lifetime (she was admired and pitied in equal measure), multiplied many times over after her premature and mysterious death. Film historian Laura Mulvey wrote, “Marilyn Monroe, with her all-American attributes and streamlined sexuality, came to epitomise in a single image this complex interface of the economic, the political, and the erotic. By the mid 1950s, she stood for a brand of classless glamour available to anyone using American cosmetics, nylons and peroxide.”

Maybe, in a post-feminist world, it is time to take Marilyn Monroe off the pedestal and de-mythologise her. In spite of all her success, she was a victim of a marketplace built and run by men. These times need new, improved icons.

The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author

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