Marilyn Monroe: Anything but a dumb blonde

Writer Sarah Churchwell says the real Marilyn was smarter, tougher and a better actress than we think.

'The dumb blonde was a role,' says Churchwell. 'She was an actress, for heaven's sake!'

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.

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.

Q: What are some of the biggest myths about her?

A: 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 head of Fox Studios was incredibly contemptuous of her, and she fought him tooth and nail, and won, in real terms.

She was very witty, with an acidic sense of humor. 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.

One of my favorite lines of hers came when she divorced Arthur Miller. A journalist asked her if she thought Miller had married her because he was looking for a muse. She said she'd only answer on condition that he printed her answer in its entirety, with no editing. He agreed, and she said: "No comment."

That is not a stupid woman.

Q: Is there a risk of over-analysis here? Could the real Marilyn Monroe be forever lost?

A: Of course the real Marilyn is forever lost. That's what being dead means. I'm not being flippant – no story can recapture a real person. It's an impossibility, and a consoling fairy tale that we tell ourselves, the fantasy that the real Marilyn is accessible to us. No, she's not, she died.

As for over-analysis – well, I am always amused by people who tell me that I've over-analyzed something, because it is so handy that their amount of analysis is the perfect amount of analysis. How nice to know that the amount of analysis you give something is precisely the right amount of analysis it should receive!

Over-analysis is when someone else thinks more than you do. That doesn't mean we can always answer a question, but I think there is too little thinking in the world, not too much.

Q: What are some of the big lessons we can learn from your book, not just about her but overall?

A: The book shows that biography is far more fiction than we think it is, and that our cultural images of people really are made up by our stories about them, and that these stories may have nothing to do with reality.

I also fought hard for the idea that just because Marilyn Monroe is an invented persona, that doesn't make her a fake person. She wasn't artificial – she was made. Made things can still be real – a table isn't a natural tree, but it's still a real table. It's been sculpted.

I wrote an essay once calling her a greater Gatsby, which I really believe. She made her dreams true, and they really did represent the American dream.

Q: After all your exhaustive research, do you like Marilyn Monroe? Is she someone you'd like to visit with over tea?

A: I like her much more after all my research, not less. I like her a great deal, and I would love to talk to her.

I hope she would like talking to me, because I would speak to her with respect, and interest, and I would know how much she has to teach me, and not make the mistake of thinking it was the other way around.

I have a great deal of respect for what she accomplished, against the greatest odds, and for how hard she tried to improve herself and her art. It could make a stone weep, the cruelty of people who continue to sneer at how hard she tried.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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