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International Socialism, Winter 1981


Abbie Bakan

The legend of Marilyn Monroe

(Winter 1981)


First published in International Socialism 2:11, Winter 1981.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Marilyn Monroe died some 19 years ago. At the time, I was in Grade school. Yet, for our generation, the name and the legend of Marilyn Monroe make her a household word. In her own lifetime, she was the top box office attraction ever, anywhere in the world, for nearly a decade. The Marilyn Monroe industry, in her death, is at least as great as, and possibly greater, than it was in her life. Her face appears repeatedly on pillow cases, drinking glasses, T-shirts, ashtrays; restaurants are named after her, styles modelled after her. More books have been written about her than any other movie star. In 1977, the count stood at more than 40 books on Marilyn alone; another three dozen devoted at least one chapter to Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe made a fortune for the Hollywood film industry. Ever since, the media moguls have been looking for someone to inherit her crown.

But Marilyn Monroe, contrary to the portrayal of her by the profit hungry sex star industry, was more than a body, a smile and blond hair. She was symbolic of an era; she filled particular demands of her time perfectly. The era was the Fifties, when little girls could make it rich, and the pitiful-waif image that Marilyn’s press advisers promoted was a big seller. The era was that of McCarthyite reaction and blatant sexism. The years were those when Rosie the Riveter was sent home from the wartime shipyard and factory to her war-weary husband. For this time, the overt but childlike raw sexuality which Monroe projected – was compelled to project by ruthless typecasting – was perfectly modelled. Yet the same image she herself created as her ticket out of the working class.

The Monroe image calculatedly separated sexuality from intelligence, beauty from brains. In a period when the growth of television threatened the annihilation of the movie business, Marilyn Monroe could draw people out of their living rooms and into the cinema, away from the happy household TV shows to pay to see performances too risqué for home viewing. At the same time, the naive stupidity which Marilyn’s characters repeatedly projected meant that Marilyn offered no real threat to Fifties morality, nor to the wives and sweethearts of the male viewers for whom Hollywood catered.

She was the perfect package for post-war Hollywood. Norman Mailer has expressed the classic male chauvinist conception of the Monroe legend:

‘She gave you the feeling that if you made love to her ... she would ask no price. She was not the dark contract of those passionate brunette depths that speak of blood, of vows taken for life, and the furies of vengeance if you are untrue to the depths of passion, no, Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her.’ [1]

The new ‘Marilyns’ of the Seventies and Eighties, on the other hand, had to contend with the age of Womens Liberation. Women are cops, prime ministers, executives and other persons important to the bourgeoisie. Today’s ‘Marilyns’ are the blonde cops like Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Ladd, the independent, young, confident blondes like Cheryl Tiegs or the new ‘golden girl’ Susan Anton. Their guise is that of ‘liberated sexuality’. They don’t wear tight evening gowns with plunging necklines, but close-fitting T-shirts that tend to get wet a lot. Today’s ‘Marilyns’ are TV stars competing with movie nudity, not movie stars fighting for TV audiences. But they’re still all ‘Marilyns’; they have white skin, blonde hair and constant smiles; they are appropriately flirtatious and dependent on male authorities, male advisers, male lovers. Womanhood, they announce, in the crisis years of the Eighties as in the booming Fifties, is still measured against the legend of Marilyn Monroe.

But this is only one side of Marilyn Monroe, that one of a thousand sides that was acceptable to, and cultivated by, Hollywood and its star machine. I want to look not just at this side, but at who this woman was we are all supposed to imitate, to compete against. In considering her, I want neither the role of film critic or of psychoanalyst; anyone wanting those approaches will find plenty of books to keep them happy. And, rather than look at Marilyn Monroe in terms of her ‘utter uniqueness’, I want to look at her as one of hundreds of millions of women, raised as working class children in the Depression years, who wanted out. She wanted independence, respect, recognition. And she bought – hook, line and sinker – the promise of ‘stardom’, the flipside of alienation. ‘Stardom’ says, if you really have got it, and you really can sell it, then you won’t be miserable all your life like everyone around you. Alienation depends on the promise of a few ‘stars’ at the top, their brightness serving to keep everyone else competing against themselves and each other to climb the ladder. But Monroe was a victim of the very rules she played by: the more ‘successful’ she became, the more she tried to fight against the dumb-blonde image and against the life-style, the attitudes and the relationships that went along with the ‘stardom’ she had gained.

Born Norma Jean Mortenson in 1926, outside of Los Angeles, California, USA, Marilyn Monroe spent her childhood in and out of foster homes while her mother was hospitalised in a state mental institution. Contrary to the story created by Twentieth Century Fox of the abandoned orphan who made her way to stardom, Norma Jean was the daughter of a legal wedlock. Her parents were never even divorced. Marilyn’s father, Martin Edward Mortenson, left Los Angeles to find work in a B.F. Goodrich tyre factory as a labourer when Norma Jean was about two years old. He died in a motor cycle accident shortly before he was due to start work. While Marilyn’s various Depression-poor foster parents enjoyed the $25.00 a month they received from the Welfare Department for supporting a State ward, one of Marilyn’s hopes was to earn enough money to put her mother into a private mental hospital where she could get better care. [2]

At twelve years old, Norma Jean borrowed a blue sweater that was too small for her – the only thing that she could find to wear to school. She later reflected on how the boys in her class cat-called and hollered. Several boys came over to her house to see her after class. ‘For the first time in my life I had friends,’ she recalled later, ‘I prayed that they wouldn’t go away.’ [3] If acceptance meant acceptance on degrading, sexist terms, it was still better than complete isolation.

At 16, Norma Jean quit High School to marry James Dougherty, a 20-year old factory worker who was soon to join the Marines and go off to war. It was 1942. Norma Jean took a job in a war-production factory as a paint-sprayer while he was away. There she received an award for her good quality work. Shortly afterwards, an army photographer who thought she would be an ‘inspiration’ to the fighting forces took her picture. It appeared in Yank magazine; one unit soon christened her ‘Miss Flamethrower’. A Miss Emmeline Snively saw the picture, and invited her to her local modelling school. Norma Jean’s career as a model began.

Norma Jean was good at modelling. She worked hard at it. According to her modelling instructress, ‘She was the hardest worker I ever handled ... She quit her job at the factory without anything except confidence and my belief in her ... She would study every print a photographer did of her. I mean she’d take them home and study them for hours ... She never repeated a mistake.’ [4] All this was much to hubby’s chagrin. On his visits home, things began to change. He noted: ‘Instead of me being the centre of her attention and activities the way it had been on my first trip home, now I was incidental. I was squeezed into her busy day.’ [5] After one year’s ‘chance’ to reform her ways, ‘I just told her that she would have to choose between a modelling career and maybe the movies or a home life with me ...’ [6]

A few months later the soon-to-be Marilyn Monroe filed for a divorce. She had dreamed, all her life, of being an actress, since walking down Hollywood Boulevard as a child. She would not be stopped by one man who was never home and who thought she was happiest, as he put it, ‘keeping that tiny apartment clean, grocery shopping and filling up the odd moments before we could be in bed together.’ [7] Dougherty later re-married and joined the Los Angeles Police Department.

By the time of her divorce – a legal detail considered mandatory if she was to be hired by the Movie Studios who feared pregnant starlets – Marilyn Monroe had already appeared on the covers of several magazines with national circulations. Twentieth Century Fox was among the viewers, and they signed her up on a one-year contract at $125.00 a week.

Her one line in the first of her 30 motion pictures was ‘Hello’. That line was edited out. Her role was simply that of ‘girlfriend’ of the star. The 1948 release of Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! included a very long shot of Marilyn and another woman waving from a canoe. While the Marilyn footage was to increase substantially, none of the films in which she was cast could be considered works of high artistic merit, she was permanently type-cast in ‘B-grade’, shallow Hollywood flicks in which she played the similarly permanent role of an empty, dozey, blonde female. She almost always played waitresses, saloon maids or showgirls, women who were portrayed as peddling little else besides looks and sex, and whose characters consistently existed merely as foils for the male heroes.

After another bit part with Fox, she was dropped, only to be picked up by Columbia Pictures for Ladies of the Chorus (1948). Again, she was soon dropped. But by this time she was indeed Marilyn Monroe.

Before her first film was released, Norma Jean was instructed to change her name, to something more sensuous and fashionable, and shorter. The name ‘Marilyn’ she took from Marilyn Miller, a Ziegfield Follies Star from Ohio; ‘Monroe’ was born from her mother’s maiden name, and Norma Jean’s claim to ancestry from the fifth President of the United States, James Monroe. But there was more than word games to the creation of Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jean’s curly auburn hair was straightened and dyed blonde, her slightly protruding teeth were fixed with orthodontia arranged on credit, and a bump on her nose and a weak chin line were altered by plastic surgery. Marilyn spent about an hour a day working out with weights, to create the proper shape, and many more hours learning to smile with half-parted lips so as to hide her excessively high gumline. When she protested against having her hair bleached, she was threatened with the loss of a well-paid modelling job.

But packaged beauty was commonly marketed among aspiring starlets, despite what one Fox cameraman called her appealing combination of ‘natural beauty plus her inferiority complex’. [8] After she was released by Columbia Pictures, Monroe was so broke her car was nearly repossessed for missed payments.

The quickest way for her to reach the top would have been via what is affectionately known as the ‘casting couch’ – or sleeping with appropriate directors, managers and agents in return for pull. But Monroe categorically refused this route, and was proud of the fact that she’d ‘never been kept’. [9] Opportunities were plenty, but she wanted success on the basis of merit and talent. The Executive Vice-President of a major Hollywood agency, Johnny Hyde, left his wife and four children in hopes of marrying Marilyn. He was ageing, with a serious heart condition that would shorten his life. But the promise of a back door success, and a secure future as a rich widow, didn’t convince Monroe. Nonetheless, she bore no malice against the women who tried to sleep their way to stardom:

‘You can’t sleep your way into being a star ... but it helps. A lot of actresses got their first chance that way. Most men are such horrors, they [women actresses – AB] deserve all they can get out of them!’ [10]

After her release from Columbia, Monroe continued taking bit parts in B-movies and modelling jobs, where she could, to get by. It was at this time that she accepted $50.00 to pose nude for a Golden Dreams pin-up calendar. Challenged by the press and outraged studio bosses when the calendar was re-released, Monroe simply answered (1) that she was hungry and (2) what the hell was wrong with a naked body? She was far ahead of Fifties above-ground morality.

Marilyn’s refusal to accept the casting-couch route slowed down her career by several precious years. Her ‘big break’ didn’t come till 1950, with the release of The Ashphalt Jungle and All About Eve. In both films she played an amazingly convincing but unthreatening dumb blonde, and the reviews were smashing. She was not yet a star, but at least was now a recognised screen personality. Still, the press raved about her looks, her body, her child-like voice – but not her acting. Hollywood producers considered her without talent, but well-adapted to filling out her own life. ‘Miss Caswell’ in All About Eve is among other things an aspiring actress, mockingly introduced as a ‘graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts’. This vicious sort of type-casting, through which Marilyn was repeatedly made to mock not only femininity and sexuality in general but herself in particular, was a fully calculated and integral part of Hollywood’s sales-pitch for this actress with the sexy bod.

Not till 1952 did she receive a major dramatic part, in Don’t Bother to Knock. The film, apparently, was terribly scripted and directed, and was panned in the reviews. True to form, Monroe’s attempt to play a serious role was blamed as the cause of the film’s failure, and major producers swore she would not be allowed to ‘ruin’ another film. It was not until she performed her first nude scene (behind a shower curtain – but, for 1953, extremely risqué) and made the ‘Monroe walk’ famous with a 116-foot long rear view of Monroe’s backside along the beach, that Marilyn Monroe became a star – not just a star, but the most talked-about, most imitated and most money-making star-packaged female commodity in Hollywood.

And she was also the most narrowly type-cast of any star of her time, and probably since. Consistently she was cast in roles so naive as to be unintentionally funny, roles in which she drove men to unusual antics, drove them beyond their normal controls. The characters she played were normally single, the prizes to be won at the end of the movies by the conquering males; usually she was working class, portraying the Hollywood mystique of uncultured animal instincts which women of middle-class ‘intelligence’ could not offer so freely, and universally incapable of depth or intelligence or growth. Marilyn Monroe was almost never allowed to play the kind of role she – and millions of working-class women -hoped to achieve in real life. This was the ‘fame’ she had won.

Monroe was well aware of the double-bind she was caught in. ‘Being a movie actress,’ she would say, ‘was never as much fun as dreaming of being one.’ [11] Her stardom also obstructed her desire to trust people. Shortly before her death, she said, ‘I’d like to be accepted for my own sake, but a lot of people don’t care who you are. All they’re interested in is your fame – while you’ve got it ... You’re trapped in your fame.’ [12]

Monroe was like a Cinderella trapped at the ball, fearing any return to her past but never feeling herself a part of the world of kings and princes. ‘Marilyn Monroe’, she would say, ‘became a burden ... an albatross. Marilyn Monroe had to look a certain way – be beautiful – and act a certain way, be talented. I wondered if I could live up to their expectations ... I was sorry I wasn’t a waitress or a cleaning lady and free from people’s great demands. Sometimes it would be a great relief to be no longer famous.’ [13] But there was nowhere else to go: ‘Don’t knock it,’ she’d add. ‘Where would I be without it? On a calendar – nude.’ [14]

Monroe fought bitterly to be able to use her talents as a serious actress within the movie business. If she was going to be a star, to be famous, she wanted to offer the public real art, which she was fully capable of creating. Her perpetual fights over scripts and directors’ interpretations gave her the reputation of being a ‘Hollywood bitch’, a ‘she-devil’ who refused to do passively what she was told. She was often called ‘the witch’. [15] Tony Curtis remarked that kissing Marilyn Monroe in a love scene was ‘like kissing Hitler’. [16] And four years after her death Billy Wilder was to announce that Monroe was ‘the meanest woman in Hollywood’. [17] She met with repeated refusals to respect her own suggestions and demands as a serious actress, and these led her to despise the studio big-wigs, whom she described as ‘jealous of their power ... like political bosses.’ [18]

Monroe’s greatest period of rebellion against the movie industry came after her starring role in The Seven Year Itch, released in 1955. Though she was still committed to more than three years’ work on her seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, she categorically refused to play the dumb blonde once again in a follow-up to How To Marry A Millionaire (to be titled How To Be Very Popular). She also rejected a series of lead parts in Fox films in which she was to be cast as a schoolteacher-become-dancer, a mistress, and a prostitute. Her part in The Seven Year Itch, titled simply ‘The Girl’, required her to mock herself unabashedly: references are made to a photographer’s ‘artistic picture’ of ‘The Girl’ in the nude, and ‘The Girl’s’ love for high drama à la Sarah Bernhardt. Not surprisingly, this is probably the most frequently re-run of all Monroe movies today – and it is also the last one she agreed to do under her old Fox contract.

‘I want good stories and good directors’, she announced. ‘I am a serious actress. I want to prove it.’ [19] She was indeed a serious actress, and recognised as such by some prominent people in the field: to directors like John Huston and Joshua Logan, she was one of the finest female actors in Hollywood history. She herself knew she could really act, but she was up against a movie industry geared to promoting and supporting capitalist ideology -including the most overt and blatant variety of sexism. Referring to her contemporaries Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, she said: ‘To a lot of people I’m as big a star as they are, but – I guess people don’t take me as seriously ... They think beauty is meant to serve them.’ [20]

It was her determination to be treated as an actress which led her to abandon Fox and to take acting classes in New York at the Actors’ Studio, under the direction of the Strasbergs. She told reporters, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be through studying, so I want to live in New York where I’ll be going to school.’ [21] Her desire to learn went far beyond her studious approach to the arts of acting (and modelling). Having left High School at the age of 16 to marry, she was both regretful and embarrassed all her life about her poor education. She considered not having a High School diploma ‘a sin I’ve always tried to hide.’ [22] But she was as determined about knowledge as she was about acting and her career. She was a voracious reader, always carrying a book under her arm on the set and opening charge accounts in bookstores in every city where she was staying.

This intense desire to develop her mind stood in direct contradiction to the dumb and pretty image upon which her ‘appeal’ was based. The press had a heyday with it, exploiting her lack of confidence to the hilt. Reporters constantly grilled on with questions on ‘highbrow’ literature in attempts to make her stutter and sound like a fool. The movie moguls got into the act as well: the most extreme example occurs in Let’s Make Love, where she starred, with Yves Montand, as a showgirl. Released in 1960, this was one of her last films, her part that of a typically vacant, aspiring singer, who takes night classes to get her High School diploma. She is, however, not really going to school to learn, but so that someday she will be able to know ‘what people are referring to.’

Her departure to New York involved not only a career rebellion but a personal rebellion as well. When her husband of nine months, Joe Dimaggio, went berserk over her showing her legs over a train vent in The Seven Year Itch – only one of a long series of such confrontations – she left him behind as well. ‘Joe wanted me back ... but I knew Joe couldn’t change. It’s in his nature to be possessive and – well – puritanical.’ [23] She was attracted not just to the Actors’ Studio in New York, but to the city’s intellectual elite as well – the most notable of whom was Arthur Miller, Marilyn’s future husband.

In lifestyle and interests, she felt closer to Bohemia than to Hollywood. She detested stars like Laurence Olivier, of whom she said he ‘tried to be friendly, but he came on like someone slumming’. [24] She was not into ostentatious living or luxurious expenses. In fact, she was not considered to be properly concerned about her money; refusing to invest, she lost fortunes in taxes, and gave much away. Off-screen, she usually wore dark pants, no make-up and a kerchief round her head – partly to avoid being recognised and harassed, and partly because she hated flashy clothes and jewelry. ‘Flashy earrings, necklaces and bracelets detract from a lady’s looks,’ she said, ‘and even if I have to wear that stuff, I don’t have to own it. The studio loans it to me whenever they want to show me off.’ [25]

She was known for preferring to drink out of thick ‘jelly glasses’ (American jam jars) – which reminded her of the Depression-poor families she’d grown up with as a child – rather than fancy crystal. After her death, the total value of her clothing and personal effects was appraised at $690.00. Unlike other Hollywood stars who owned several mansions, the first house Monroe ever owned was a small, modest place in Los Angeles, which was still being built at the time of her death.

What had happened between the New York getaway in the mid-1950s and the time of her death? Fundamentally, her one-woman rebellion failed. Despite an ill-conceived effort, pushed by photographer Milton Greene, to form her own motion-picture company, Monroe could not single-handedly defeat the Hollywood film monopoly. After just two productions – and Monroe’s realisation that she could be outvoted by Greene and his associates on the Board of Directors – the company was scrapped. All the forces of the industry had been determined to send her back to Fox, preferably cap in hand. Pretending to have a brain was one thing, but being an independently successful actress out of studio control was simply intolerable. One columnist encapsulated the media assault in a piece in the New York Daily News about a year after she’d quit Fox, under the title A Word of Advice to a Poor Wandering Girl:

‘What it comes down to is this: you are throwing away your heritage. Worse than that, you are giving the brush to millions of red-blooded American boys for whom you have become a symbol of uncomplicated womanhood.’ [26]

Monroe also found that the movie business is indeed a business, and business is profit, no matter who ‘owns’ the company. While filming Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe Productions, she objected furiously to the cutting of a kissing scene in which a string of saliva was visible on the screen. She might want to project human, natural people with human, natural attributes like spit, but this clashed with the make-believe prince-charming world of the movies. She developed a cynical but realistic attitude to her movie-star career:

‘They tell you to cry one tear, and if you feel two and therefore you cry two, it’s no good. If you change “The” to “A” in your lines, they correct you. An actress is not a machine, but they treat you like one. A money machine.’ [27]

Monroe’s experiences led her to maintain great sympathy for the tens of thousands of young no-name actors and actresses who daily hoped and prayed to be ‘discovered’. Long after she had become a star she directed a reporter who wanted to get an insider’s view of the movie world, ‘See the unknowns, those who are trying to make it. That’s the real Hollywood.’ [28]

However, the final defeat of her one-woman rebellion was not just the result of her opponents’ vicious attempts to break her. Despite her own verbal intention not to ‘continue as a near-parody of sex’, [29] in reality she could only bring herself to abandon partially the dumb blonde image which had freed her from the poverty-stricken life of Norma Jean. She was as determined in fighting for her image as she was in rebelling against it. During the filming of Bus Stop, Monroe insisted that Hope Lange’s hair be darkened to contrast more sharply with her own bleached blonde coiffure. When her director refused, she walked off the set and waited for him to capitulate. The parts she played continued to be only minor variations on the dumb blonde theme; and when finally she settled with Twentieth Century Fox, she returned to them to play a further series of the same kind of parts.

What she could not achieve on the screen, she continued to hope to find in her personal life. She didn’t fit into the Hollywood mould, and couldn’t change it to make it fit her, so she sought affinity with and comfort from people who were not a part of it. Monroe was no socialist, but she defended the Communist Party members who were under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. She knew that ‘They’re for the people, aren’t they?’, and this was enough not to scare her away from association with members of the Hollywood Ten and with trial victims like Arthur Miller.

Monroe’s attraction to Miller, and their ultimate marriage, represented part of her continued attempt to find in her private life the respect which was missing from her movie roles. Years before she met him in New York, Miller was one of the authors she most admired. Unlike DiMaggio, Miller was part of a social milieu that included movie people. He approved of Marilyn’s career and encouraged it. Nonetheless, he was extremely sexist, to the point of near-misogyny. One indication was the nature of their marriage announcement. Marilyn had flown to Washington, against the screaming protests of Fox, to be present at the time of Miller’s stand before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was not a Communist Party member, but he refused on principle to give forth names of other members of ‘Communist Writers’ groups’. When the press asked him for his future plans, Miller replied, ‘I wish to attend a production of my play, and to be with the woman who will then be my wife.’ Though she was ecstatic, Monroe had never been asked if she agreed or not. For the media, the ultimate body was to marry the ultimate brain.

Monroe also continued to feel a great affinity with oppressed peoples, and if she did not lead causes she certainly supported individuals who fought back. She expressed great sympathy for Blacks who had begun to fight racism with the early rumblings of the Civil Rights movement. It was, she said, ‘easy to understand the slave system when you’ve been through the star system’. [30] One biographer notes a conversation he had with a Black woman he met at a party in the Southern States in the early Sixties. This woman told him Marilyn Monroe was the only white woman who interested her because ‘She’s been hurt. She knows what the score is ... I never could identify with any other white movie star. They were always white people doing white things.’ [31] And, long before James Baldwin was a successful writer, he similarly identified with Monroe though she was white. When Monroe herself was asked why Blacks should feel an allegiance to her, despite her being a white, blonde sex symbol she replied, ‘I don’t want to be a symbol of anything. Blacks can sometimes see through appearances better than whites.’ [32]

Similarly, years before the growth of the Gay Liberation movement, Marilyn Monroe defended her compatriot gay actor Montgomery Clift against press harassment and ridicule: ‘People who aren’t fit to open the door for him sneer at his homosexuality. What do they know about it? Labels – people love putting labels on each other. Then they feel safe.’

She went on to refer to one of the millions of rumours about her sexual charms and afflictions: ‘People tried to make me into a lesbian. I laughed. No sex is wrong if there’s love in it.’ [33]

She hated cops, and was very pleased to see the young people of her day ‘not swallowing it all anymore.’ [34] When films were cancelled on two occasions, ostensibly because of Monroe’s lack of set discipline and tardiness, she wrote personal letters to the workers on the film crew explaining that she had not been responsible, as the studio claimed, and that she was sorry they had lost their jobs. Few Hollywood movie stars would think about the crew workers’ pay-checks in such circumstances.

But the defeat she faced in her public life could not but be reflected in her private life. She desperately wanted her third and last marriage, to Miller, to work. She was determined to be a ‘good and proper wife’ to make it work. On the back of her wedding picture she wrote ‘Hope. Hope. Hope.’ She announced to the press that she bought all Miller’s socks, ties and shirts, and that she definitely did not approve ‘when a man has to go out and he has no clean shirts to wear because his wife has been out playing bridge.’ [35] But the two sides of Marilyn Monroe, like those of every woman who wants both to please, be accepted and desired, and to have an independent career and life, were in conflict with each other.

She knew she was perpetually abused and ridiculed; she knew that women as a sex were abused and ridiculed by men. But, without a framework to explain this, or a movement offering any support to challenge it, she was constantly forced to turn in on herself. The more isolated she felt the more she turned to barbiturates and alcohol. She thought how absurd it was that self-respecting Blacks resented being called ‘Boy’ yet no one seemed to notice it when – in her words – ‘Some men call you a good girl in the same way they pet their dog’. [36] Yet at the same time she blamed herself for having become too smart and threatening men too much. After the failure of her third marriage she told a friend, ‘Maybe I’m just a dumb blonde after all’. [37] She wondered if she was a ‘sexless sex goddess’. Lacking a critique of sexism, capitalism or the oppression she faced daily, and especially lacking any practical alternative, she could only assume that the incompatibility between the image of the sex queen and the reality of being a divorced working woman in the Fifties was her problem alone, and up to her to overcome.

She was, she found, no more comfortable among Miller’s gang of snobbish New York intellectuals than she was among Hollywood superstars. ‘Some of Arthur’s friends accepted me immediately, but some of them treated me like a dull little sex object with no brains, and talked to me like a High School principal with a backward student.’ [38] The more demands she made on Miller, the more he came to despise her, and then to despise her more for making him feel guilty. He was finally to try to purge himself of his of his own sense of responsibility by writing, on his next wife’s request, a devastating post mortem on Monroe in his play After The Fall. Maggie, a barely disguised Monroe character, has every conceivable stereotypical female disease from jealousy of her mother-in-law to being a fool with money. Quentin, playing a similarly obvious Miller, proclaims, ‘These goddam women have injured me.’ Women – and all women were encapsulated in Monroe’s stubborn failure to be the accommodating woman in real life that her roles made her on the screen – were obviously to blame.

Marilyn Monroe was found dead on August 5th, 1962. The death was reported as a probable suicide, due to ingestion of an overdose of barbiturates. There is no question but that she had a suicidal history, but the circumstances surrounding her life at this moment did not point to suicide. Nor was any suicide note left. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding her death strongly suggest that she did not commit suicide, but was murdered, and that the murder was covered up.

But how she died is not immensely relevant to our understanding of how she lived. Though we can note that the ‘tragic suicide’ story was certainly compatible with the image of the pitiful waif, and has helped those who owned that image to continue to rake in a fortune.

How should we remember Marilyn Monroe, the woman who made $250 million at the box office for a handful of Hollywood producers, yet who was never even nominated for an Academy award? Monroe did want to be remembered, but not just as a cheesecake smile and a cleavage. In her last interview, she said:

‘Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I believe ... I want to be an artist – an actress with integrity. My work is the only ground I’ve ever had to stand on.’ [39]

And, in the same interview,

‘If you’ve noticed in Hollywood where millions and billions of dollars have been made, there aren’t any kind of monuments or museums, and I don’t call putting your footprint in Grauman’s Chinese a monument ... Nobody left anything behind, they took it, they grabbed it and they ran – the ones who made billions of dollars, never the workers.’ [40]


1. Norman Mailer, Marilyn, New York 1973, p. 15.

2. R Slatzer, The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe, Los Angeles 1974, pp. 72–6.

3. M. Conway and M. Ricci, The Films of Marilyn Monroe, New Jersey 1964, p. 11.

4. Mailer, p. 53.

5. J.E. Dougherty, The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe, Chicago 1976, p. 87.

6. Dougherty, p. 96.

7. Dougherty, p. 37.

8. Conway and Ricci, p. 10.

9. J. Mellem, Marilyn Monroe, London 1975, p. 49.

10. W.J. Weatherby, Conversations with Marilyn, New York 1967, p. 142.

11. Weatherby, p. 125.

12. Weatherby, p. 111.

13. Weatherby, p. 108.

14. Weatherby, p. 115.

15. Weatherby, p. 53.

16. Zolotow, quoted in Mailer, p. 17.

17. Mailer, p. 17.

18. Mellen, p. 73.

19. Mellen, p. 35.

20. Weatherby, pp. 34–5.

21. Mellen, p. 35.

22. Slatzer, p. 90.

23. Slatzer, p. 248.

24. Weatherby, p. 61.

25. Slatzer, p. 173.

26. Cited Mellen. p. 38.

27. Mellen, p. 47.

28. Weatherby, p. 68.

29. Mellen, p. 33.

30. Weatherby, p. 9.

31. Weatherby, p. 76.

32. Weatherby, p. 95.

33. Weatherby, p. 108.

34. Weatherby, p. 137.

35. Mellen, p. 52.

36. Weatherby, p. 142.

37. Slatzer, p. 240.

38. Weatherby, p. 144.

39. Mellen, p. 48.

40. Mellen, p. 46.

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Last updated on 1.3.2013