Why Marilyn Monroe Is Still So Famous

Marilyn Monroe
A visitor looks at "Marilyn Monroe, Actress, New York City, May 6, 1957" by photographer Richard Avedon. Reuters Pictures

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.

Marilyn.

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-waisted 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 playsuit 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 monthlong 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 bedmates 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 postmarital 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.