Had Marilyn Monroe lived, she would be 90 this year. As a new exhibition of rare photos opens, Suzanne Harrington looks back at her life and legacy – and imagines the star as a 90 year old.
Had Marilyn Monroe lived, she would be 90 this year. But had she lived, would her image still shine quite so brightly in the public consciousness?
Or, over half a century after her death, does she remain a goddess within popular culture simply because she never got old, tired, or ordinary?
When beauty we can see but can never touch — and onto which we transpose our own desires — dies young, it stays with us.
Our culture is a graveyard of the young, dead and beautiful, to whom we erect permanent shrines: Marilyn, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain.
From Cleopatra to Princess Diana, history is full of beauty dead in its prime.
Marilyn is one of the most enduring.
She may have died in August 1962, yet she still remains the subject of regular books and exhibitions — the latest is a series of rarely seen photographs being shown at Chelsea’s Little Black Gallery in London, by two photographers whose lives were changed by their connection with her.
Their images show a kind of gorgeousness that can still stop us dead.
She remains frozen in time, her perfectly created look untouched and untarnished — put “what if Marilyn had lived” into Google images and see the CGI imaginings of what elderly Marilyn might look like.
It feels voyeuristic and a bit tawdry, a bit Baby Jane, because we are so conditioned against accepting ageing in women, especially beautiful women.
We still don’t like it when goddesses turn out to be mortal and middle aged, or — heaven forbid — elderly, which is why Hollywood remains the most sexist, ageist job market on Earth.
In terms of truly preserving her looks, the only option Marilyn ever had was to die young.
She duly obliged, with a barbituates overdose, leading to decades of rumour and conspiracy that she was not a suicide, but a homicide.
That she had been terminally silenced by sinister forces.
Conversely, there are even crazier theories that she is, like Elvis, still alive and living in obscurity — one particularly fanciful idea suggested she had relocated to a sheep farm in Australia — as a farmer’s wife.
Which is as likely as Elvis working down the chip shop.
There was even a television mini-series on how her life may have panned out had she survived — and had JFK, with whom she had that infamous liaison, survived his assassination.
There are many imagined different outcomes for Marilyn. What if she had survived her overdose?
What if she had found Narcotics Anonymous, which had been established nine years earlier in 1953?
What if she had taken a break from her pile up of car crash relationships and concentrated instead on serious acting and intellectual pursuits, shedding the ditzy sexual image that drove her, quite literally, mad?
She was, as we now all know, very far from “blonde” — a voracious reader, she has been photographed absorbed in the work of James Joyce, Arthur Miller and Walt Whitman. (She’d read Death of a Salesman before she ever met Miller).
Her book shelves included Steinbeck, Camus, Kerouac, Conrad, Chekov, Proust, Rilke and Flaubert.
Marilyn was famously associated with various negative aspects — pathological lateness, drug dependency, neurosis, insecurity, a bit of a nightmare to work with.
A high maintenance girly hysteric.
Yet when you consider the context in which she was trying to make her way — a pre-feminist, utterly male dominated culture in which men made the decisions, held the cash, and women smiled obligingly and looked nice — she was doomed from the start.
Marilyn wanted to be taken seriously.
Yet she was perceived, for the most part, first as a breathy wiggle, then as a tragic blonde.
That Marilyn overcame her background to become one of the most iconic women of the 20th century says rather more about her intelligence and character than her knockout appearance; Hollywood then, as now, is full of visual knockouts — but you need a bit more than that to attain such immortality.
Yet she came not from money or connections, but from a single parent family, born on June 1, 1926, a time when single parent families were still taboo.
Raised in foster care due to the serious mental illness of her mother Gladys, Norma Jean Baker married at 16 to avoid being fostered again.
She was discovered by a photographer while working in a munitions factory. The rest is cultural history.
Her movie roles revealed a luminous talent, vulnerable and funny and brilliant.
Her acting coaches were Lee Strasberg and Michael Chekhov — she took her job seriously.
But the world didn’t take her seriously, because we couldn’t see past her physical self.
“I want to be an artist,” she is quoted in Christopher Bigsby’s biography of Arthur Miller.
“Not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.”
The more famous she became, the deeper her insecurity grew.
Self-aware, curious, a life-long writer of prose and poetry, politically conscious, and hungry for knowledge, there were great big gaps in her emotional intelligence, which she filled with pills.
Before the pills took over, she had formed a close platonic friendship with photographer Milton Greene, who first photographed her in 1953.
When her second marriage ended, she sought stability and solace within the Greene family.
Greene died in 1985, but his son is on record remembering what an easy and self-contained house guest Marilyn was at that time — always reading, and clearly enjoying the emotional stability of an ordinary family home.
But then she married Arthur Miller, and the friendship with the Greenes weakened.
Back then, little was understood about addiction. Arthur Miller, her third and final husband (the middle one was baseball player Joe DiMaggio) said that her psychiatrists kept prescribing her more drugs, not realising that this was her primary problem — they felt she was emotionally disturbed, and needed the drugs to function.
In fact, it was her drug addiction which caused her marriage to Miller to end. He just couldn’t compete.
In 1961, she was in a psychiatric hospital, terrified that she would end up inheriting her mother’s schizophrenia — she described her time there like being “in prison for a crime I didn’t commit”.
A year later she was dead.
And so began the Marilyn industry.
Her image became as ubiquitous as Campbell’s soup cans, until it ceased to signify anything relating to Marilyn as an individual.
Her image became public shorthand for desire and beauty that would never fade. It meant Hollywood sex blonde, rather than a woman called Norma Jean Baker.
Where would she be now? Would she have turned her back on it all, like Brigitte Bardot?
Perhaps moved from her sexualised image to more serious acting that involved non-blonde hair and a naturally ageing face?
Or would she have been pressured into doing a Joan Rivers, and hauling her face into her hairline?
It’s probably not an overstatement to suggest that whatever path she might have chosen other than overdose, she would have been as hounded as Diana, as mercilessly scrutinised, her every physical aspect of ageing dissected and picked over.
Perhaps it was just as well she died when she did – although maybe had she lived, as a middle-aged woman she would have embraced feminism with gusto, and thrown everything but her books in the bin. We’ll never know.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES starring MARILYN MONROE by MILTON H GREENE & DOUGLAS KIRKLAND is at The Little Black Gallery, 13A Park Walk, Chelsea, London SW10 0AJ until February 27.
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