Newsweek published this story under the headline “Marilyn: The 24-Year Itch” on November 10, 1986. In light of the 55th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death, Newsweek is republishing the story.
No one ever asks, Marilyn who? From the breathy, near-sighted Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to the screen-worn Reno divorcee in The Misfits, Marilyn
Monroe was a platinum archetype, a legend feeding upon her life beyond
the camera. An entranced public tracked her marriages to Yankee Joe
DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, clucked over her star-crossed
desire to have a baby, patronized her struggle to become a serious
actress. All the while, via pills and booze, she skidded toward a hot
night in August 1962, when, hand clutching telephone, she died in her
bed of an overdose of barbiturates. Now, 24 years later, the fall book
season brings three new studies of this unhappy passage: Marilyn, Mon Amour
(155 pages. St. Martin's. $ 24.95) by Andre de Dienes, a Hungarian
photographer who loved her early and kept his diary on film; Joe & Marilyn: A Memory of Love (269 pages. Morrow. $ 16.95) by Roger Kahn, and Marilyn (182 pages. Holt. $ 24.95) with photographs by George Barris—and a gloss by Gloria Steinem.
Steinem brings a new angle to the much-mauled story of Marilyn's
life. The subject of more than 40 books, Monroe has mostly attracted
male biographers. Probably few of them found it remarkable that an
intelligent woman would talk like a breathless teenager or play a string
of bimbos. Looking at Monroe's life through the eyes of a contemporary
feminist, Steinem argues that the star was rewarded for remaining
childlike and dependent. When Steinem was a young moviegoer, she walked
out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, because she found Marilyn
"embarrassing." She now sees Norma Jeane Baker (the real name behind all
the imagery) as a girl who never grew up. She was an early bloomer who
spent her childhood shunted from one foster home to the next. She
remained trapped inside the voluptuous Marilyn, forever seeking the love
and approval she had missed as a kid. "She was just so vulnerable and
unprotected," Steinem says.
The effect of social and sexual convention in shaping a Tinseltown
goddess's behavior and attitudes is worth remembering. Steinem reminds
us that in Monroe's day a woman so spectacularly sexy was seen by other
women primarily as a threat (that, of course, could never happen among
the sisterhood today). When Margaret Parton, one of the few women
journalists to cover Marilyn during her life, did a profile for the Ladies' Home Journal, it was killed for being too favorable. Years later, when Ms.
magazine ran a cover story on Monroe called "The Woman Who Died Too
Soon," it became one of the magazine's best-selling issues. "I want to
be an actress," she had said, "not a celluloid aphrodisiac." In a
feminist age, it is easier for women to respond with sympathy to the way
Monroe was treated. Her intellectual ambitions were often the butt of
jokes. Sometimes she joined in the humor. When she told a New York press
conference that she wanted "one of the parts in The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevski," a reporter ridiculed her. "Honey," she agreed. "I couldn't spell any of the names I told you."
Steinem is bound to take some heat for contributing the text to a
picture book of Marilyn, posing in tight pants or a bikini. ("There's a
kind of dissonance," Steinem admits). The author confesses she was
worried that she would be accused of "exploiting" Marilyn's notoriety.
She writes that her fee for the book has gone to a special children's
fund that has been created as part of the Ms. Foundation.
Candid shots: The seductive persona was something the star could turn
on and off at will. The look has almost become a cartoon: the boozy,
heavy-lidded gaze, the broad "smile" she cultivated baring her teeth and
gums, the artificial mole on her cheek. The photographs by George
Barris in Marilyn include the last pictures ever taken of her.
The more candid shots show the allure she could project when she
wasn't trying to look beautiful.
To see how Norma Jeane Baker became Marilyn Monroe, compare the
Barris photos from the end of her life to those by de Dienes, who shot
Monroe when she was an unknown Hollywood model in the late 1940s. De
Dienes's pictures show a fresh and captivating young brunette, small-waist and bosomy, with a natural smile and grace. They also show
some of the funnier conventions of pinup and magazine shots of that
era: there's Norma Jeane looking fetching in dungarees on a split-rail
fence, or in a play-suit with a beach ball or in a Heidi dress and
pinafore, posing with a baby goat.
Before de Dienes died last year in Los Angeles, he wrote an
accompanying text. Madly in love with Norma Jeane (her first husband was
off in the merchant marine), he recounts a month-long photo shoot
through the West, where he posed her against mountains, snow banks and
deserts. His story begins to take on the flavor of a French farce as he
recounts his earnest attempts to get into her bed. He writes that he
succeeded only once. But he stayed in touch with her and, in the last
summer of her life, visited her one evening on her birthday. Overcome
once more by passion, he tried to take her in his arms. He writes that
the weary star told him, "Oh, please, don't! I'm so tired of all that . .
. Don't ask anything of me, you of all people."
'House pet": For Joe & Marilyn, Roger Kahn couldn't
break DiMaggio's long-standing silence about Monroe, so he doesn't have
much new to offer on the brief marriage of "Mr. and Mrs. America." After
Steinem's more thoughtful account, it's disappointing to read Kahn as
he lubriciously quotes one of Monroe's supposed bed-mates on her great
proficiency at performing a certain sexual act, or to accept the
boilerplate metaphor that the movie "Asphalt Jungle" made Marilyn
"famous as a sexually charged house pet." Kahn can see that there might
be marital incompatibility between an aging ballplayer whose idea of a
good read was a Batman comic and a woman who said she read Tolstoy.
DiMaggio was possessive; Monroe chafed under his jealous eye. In one
final crisis of their union DiMaggio watched his wife film the famous
scene over the subway grating in The Seven Year Itch where her
skirt billows up and became enraged seeing everyone ogle her legs and
underwear. Kahn recounts this familiar, though telling, anecdote, but
shows us few inside scenes of the marriage. Nor does he detail their post-marital trysts or DiMaggio's enduring devotion. He doesn't even
mention the roses from Joe that arrived every week for more than a
decade at Marilyn's crypt in Los Angeles.
Contemporary stars from Blondie's Deborah Harry to Madonna have aped
Monroe, and for many men the doomed woman-child has been the subject of a
thousand rescue fantasies. Steinem speculates on what Marilyn could
have become if she hadn't died. Try to picture Marilyn now—she would be
60—in today's Hollywood, in the age of the Betty Ford clinic and the
Jane Fonda workout. What kind of roles would she have? Would she be
willing, like Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner, to play the aging sex
goddess? How about her own mini-series or a guest shot on Falcon Crest? It's impossible to imagine. Somehow, Marilyn Monroe belongs to another age. Death has enhanced her memory.