Picture the following scenario if you can: a woman, now approaching eighty, is seated with her husband in the audience of the City Center of Music and Drama one evening in the late 1950s. They are waiting for the curtain to go up on a performance of the New York City Ballet. It must have been an electric moment. Here is a young and yet world class ballet company whose founder and main choreographer–brilliant, Russian born George Balanchine–is in his prime. The theater itself, built in 1924 by the Ancient and Accepted Order of the Mystic Shrine, is wonderfully antic and absurd, with fanciful tiles in bright colors studding the outlandish surfaces of its architecture. What were they going to see? And who might have been dancing? Allegra Kent? Violette Verdy? Maria Tallchief? Melissa Hayden? It almost doesn’t matter; it was sure to have been a spectacular night. But as the woman sat there, reading her program notes and chatting idly with her husband, she began to sense a kind of hum in the crowd, a certain energy that seemed to gather and swell, despite the fact that the curtain remained motionless and the lights had not yet begun to dim.
What could it be? She and her husband looked at each other, puzzled. Then they began to look around. There, in a balcony below sat Marilyn Monroe, and her then husband, Arthur Miller. The intensity of the excitement continued to grow as more and more people began first to whisper and then intone, Marilyn, Marilyn. Sporadic clapping began; quickly it turned into an ovation, with people on their feet shouting out her name. One can only imagine how the dancers must have felt as they pawed the ground with their point shoes and did a few nervous releves backstage, as they always do before a performance. The giddy applause, the wild, joyful adulation rightfully belonged to them on that night: who could have stolen it ? I’m sure that at some point they learned the answer, and had to go on with the performance anyway, despite the fact that it must have been something of a let down. For Marilyn, being Marilyn, did what she always seemed to do: she absorbed all the available light and made it her own. When she was there–on screen, or in person–it became almost impossible to pay attention to anyone else. And maybe that, more than anything, was her special gift: the riveting of the collective attention to one face, one form, one voice, as it smiled and moved and utterly transformed everything around it.
I was too young to have known or appreciated the phenomenon that was Marilyn Monroe first hand: I was five years old when she died on that August morning , 1962. But I can remember quite vividly the first televised image I saw of her: a clip of the now famous rendition of Happy Birthday she sang for President John F. Kennedy. She wore some sparkling, beaded gown that seemed quite transparent, and beneath it, little or perhaps even nothing else. The spot light quivered and dipped but was essentially confined to her radiant face; it never moved below, so that her nearly naked breasts and body remained in a kind of tantalizing shadow. Who would not be tantalized by her performance, this beautiful woman with the little girl voice, who embodied so many different kinds of resonant and unsettling paradoxes?
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The facts of her life are, at this point, familiar sign posts in the well-rehearsed legend. Born to Gladys Pearl Baker in Los Angeles on June 1, 1926, the name on her birth certificate is Norma Jean. Her father is no where in sight and her mother is soon diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. After a brief stint in an orphanage, little Norma Jean is bounced around from foster home to foster home. She marries a local neighbor boy at sixteen, embarks on a modeling career and is soon discovered by a Hollywood movie executive. The husband is soon discarded, like so much else in her earlier life. In 1947, at the age of 21, she appeared in her first motion picture; by 1950, her roles in such films as Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve begin to command attention. There are more films of course, and eventually she achieves starring roles in them: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot. There are well-publicized marriages, to ball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, and equally well-publicized divorces. And there are affairs, lots of them, with other movie stars, like Yves Montand, or with politicians, like the Kennedys. There are nervous breakdowns, bouts of depression, miscarriages and suicide attempts. Finally, there is the drug overdose–intentional? accidental? and on August 5, 1962, Marilyn’’s lovely light went out forever.
But in fact, this is hardly what happened. If anything, the legend that is Marilyn Monroe has equaled or possibly even surpassed the life. For one thing, there are the films, and film grants a kind of immortality in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Even though we may know, intellectually, that Marilyn Monroe died by her own hand, from an overdose of barbiturates, when her violet satin clad body–seen in a series of mirrors–spans the screen five times over in How to Marry a Millionaire or when her creamy, abundant flesh pours, once more, from the low cut the black negligee she wears in Some Like it Hot, she is with us still; she lives.
Hollywood has had its share of icons and of sacrifices before and after her: James Dean, Carol Lombard, Jayne Mansfield all had tragic and untimely deaths. But more than any other, Marilyn’s is the story that continues to weave itself around our collective consciousness, Forty years later, she continues to captivate and compel, offering some elusive glimpse–perhaps it is a mirror, perhaps a window–onto the soul of the life and times that traipsed on without her.