Marilyn Monroe: Anything but a dumb blonde
Writer Sarah Churchwell says the real Marilyn was smarter, tougher and a better actress than we think.
Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe is the topic of hundreds of books. Instead of throwing another biography onto the pile, a professor in the United Kingdom named Sarah Churchwell did something different: she analyzed what others have written about the biggest sex symbol of all time.Skip to next paragraph
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In her 2004 book "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe," Churchwell dives deep into the depths of myths and facts surrounding this deceptively simple woman.
Monroe's death alone – five decades ago this weekend – has spawned an endless array of theories from accident to assassination to suicide. "Each of these endings concludes its own plot," Churchwell writes, "and each plot differs in key respects – yet they all insist that theirs is the true story of Marilyn Monroe's life."
The next few days will bring another onslaught of Monroe stories. (Call it the Fifty-Year Itch.) I contacted Churchwell and asked her to put this extraordinary American phenomenon into perspective.
So here's Marilyn. All about Marilyn, in fact, to borrow (sort of) a phrase.
Q: Here we have a woman who was an actress, who was scorchingly pretty, and whose life was messy, to say the least. That describes countless Hollywood stars and wannabes, both before and since.
What has made her such an object of fascination?
A: I think Marilyn said it best herself, in her final Life interview: "These girls who try to be me, I guess the studios put them up to it, or they get the ideas themselves. But gee, they haven't got it. You can make a lot of gags about it like they haven't got the foreground or else they haven't the background. But I mean the middle, where you live."
She had something special that transcended the fact that she was beautiful, transcended her sexual body (her "foreground" and "background"), and we can't name it or bottle it or sell it. God knows people have tried.
Call it charisma, call it magic. Cary Grant had it. Marilyn Monroe had it. They can be imitated, but it's always a parody. They can't be matched, they can't be equaled, and it comes from something inside them.
Charm, attraction, appeal, fascination: these are all words that say "We don't know why we are so drawn to you, but we are." We just are. It's like love – you can't analyze it, you just feel it.
Q: Did you notice a difference between how male and female biographers view her?
A: I began my book with the expectation that the way she was viewed over time, from her death in 1962 until I finished writing, which was 2004, would have changed according to changing ideas about women – the gradual acceptance of feminism, basically. And how wrong I was.
Not only does the way she is written not become more feminist, if anything in important ways it became more sexist. Female biographers have tended to pity her, to condescend from a very great height, and to patronize her. Male biographers – even openly gay ones – go on and on about how sexual desire is at the core of her appeal, seeming to forget that straight women will respond to her differently.
She coalesces the Freudian idea that we either desire other people, or identify with them: you want to be them, or you want to have them. If that is true, Marilyn epitomizes it.