The Hollywood icon and the people’s princess

They both died in August.

The Hollywood icon and the people’s princess

They both died aged 36. They were both famously blonde and beautiful.

They both had signs of borderline personality disorder.

Their deaths were shrouded in conspiracy theories that they had been murdered by the state.

They had versions of the same awful Elton John song sung for them.

Edgar Allen Poe once wrote that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic thing; in the case of these two, their deaths have not so much been poeticised as fetishised.

Marilyn and Diana — no surnames required — died 50 and 15 years ago this August. Not everyone will remember the death of Marilyn, but it’s unlikely you don’t recall the moment you heard about Diana. You’ll remember the feeling of disbelief, of hoping they’d made a mistake and she wasn’t dead. Why?

Why would you have felt like this? It wasn’t as though you knew her. It wasn’t as though you were going to personally miss her, as though she was going to pop in for a cuppa anytime. Other than her fellow aristocrats and some very rich people indeed, none of us knew Diana personally — yet she was the most projected-upon woman of her era.

The people’s princess was a media construct, but everyone believed it to be true.

The death of Diana, in Paris in 1997, provoked a weird tsunami of grief in a traditionally buttoned-up society.

While the world stopped and stared, Britain burst into tears over its dead princess and cried without stopping. People turned up in London in their tens of thousands, sobbing and bearing flowers — the royal family had no idea how to react, and had to be coached by Tony Blair on how to respond appropriately to this deluge of public grief for a woman they knew only from newspaper and magazine covers.

It was not what you’d have expected.

Diana was an emotional turning point, for both the British public and the monarchy.

Prior to her, members of the royal family didn’t do hugs — they didn’t hug their own children in public, they didn’t hug the children of strangers in public, and they didn’t hug children with HIV in public. Diana changed all that, and the public, so used to the formal, chilly protocol of royalty, melted with Diana-love.

We believed her to be all about feelings and vulnerability, about openness and kindness and love. In terms of royal codes and conventions, she was chaotically off-message. That Martin Bashir interview was, in the context of its time and place, mind-blowing.

Such was Diana’s universal popularity — and unfailingly photogenic looks — that in her short, but intensely scrutinised public life, she sustained sales of a whole raft of newspapers and magazines.

The Daily Mail, the Daily Express and Hello! magazine were bereft at her death, and continued putting her on their front page for a long time afterwards. Ironically, it was our insatiable appetite for her image which ultimately finished her off, chased prematurely to death by paparazzi.

We couldn’t let her go.

We haven’t been able to let go of Marilyn either, even though she’s been dead more than many of us have been alive. As Huffington Post blogger Liz Smith recently put it, she is “the most alive dead woman of our time”. Poor Marilyn. She’s been dissected, analysed, picked over in the 50 years since her death, mired in conspiracy theory, the subject of dozens of biographies, biopics, documentaries, fictionalised accounts, and a million imitators. She’s the ongoing inspiration for drag queens all over the world. Her look has been so copied, manipulated, and mass-produced that it has almost lost its meaning — so what does Marilyn Monroe still signify to us? Why does she still matter?

There are dozens of famous dead blondes: Jean Harlow; Jayne Mansfield; Veronica Lake; Sharon Tate; Grace Kelly; Diana Dors; Paula Yates; Anna Nicole Smith — but we don’t rate them the way we rate Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. We don’t sing mushy ballads about them. So what was it about those two that made them different from the rest?

Maybe it was a mixture of sexuality and vulnerability, amplified by borderline personality disorder, a condition that made them needy, even within their total unattainability. Both suffered well-documented emotional neglect and instability as children, one of the root causes of BPD. Both had intense fear of abandonment (when Arthur Miller was married to Marilyn, he was unable to produce any new work, such was her need for constant attention); both were impulsive and had poor self-image, despite their external beauty; both were prone to paranoia (not helped by the insane scrutiny under which they lived their lives) and self-harm — Marilyn was booze- and pill-reliant, Diana bulimic. Both relied heavily on therapy — Marilyn on Freudian analysis, Diana on sessions with eating-disorders psychologist Susie Orbach.

Maybe we could relate. Many of us are reliant on pills, therapy, and struggle with destructive behaviours. Discovering that distant, iconic figures like those two were also human and vulnerable made them even more appealing; as the people’s princess, the public — led by the tabloids — projected a mass-rescue fantasy onto Diana, wishing to pluck her from the icy clutches of the royal family.

There was no basis in reality for this rescue fantasy — it was just something we collectively felt, when she showed her vulnerability and sadness. (Women who display no vulnerability whatsoever — like Madonna, for instance — don’t inspire rescue fantasies as much as a desire for emulation; the difference was that we wanted to save Diana, not be her.)

Marilyn was equally but differently vulnerable. Unlike Diana, with her outsized, squiggly handwriting and cheerful disinterest in academia, intellectually Marilyn was very different from her carefully managed, ditzy public image. Inside her head, she was anything but blonde, a voracious consumer of literature, poetry, philosophy, and psychoanalysis; it was one of her great frustrations that she was regarded primarily as a face and body rather than a mind. It drove her mad, just as royal protocol and an arranged marriage drove Diana mad — temporarily at least.

Their deaths remain linked by those persistent conspiracy theories of murder. Marilyn, it transpired, was intimate with the US president; after her death, it was speculated that she had been killed by the CIA, to shut her up about it. That she was considered ancient by Hollywood standards, suffered from serious depression, and was chemically dependent on various substances makes for a more plausible cause of death either by accidental or deliberate overdose, but the murder idea is more sensational.

Diana, too, was said to have been murdered. Mohammad Al Fayed, her boyfriend’s dad, was convinced that the British secret service had been ordered by the royal family to have her killed. With rumours that Diana was pregnant with Dodi Al Fayed, the grieving Al Fayed Sr believed that the British establishment could not have coped with the future king having a Muslim half-sibling; that Diana’s death was a form of state-sponsored Islamophobia. That she died in a car driven by a drunk driver who was speeding to escape the paparazzi seems more realistic, but Al Fayed went to court to get his theory heard — and dismissed.

It says a lot about us as a society that we are such rubber-neckers when it comes to dead blondes. Our fascination, our ongoing interest — what is that about? It’s not about Marilyn or Diana —– it’s about us. Maybe the real murderers are the very people — us — who professed to love them in the first place.

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up