‘A suicide kills two people, Maggie. That’s what it’s for.’ Thus Quentin, the tormented Prospero-figure in Arthur Miller’s autobiographical play After the Fall. Maggie replies by eating a handful of pills, and the scene then twists and turns between Quentin’s acknowledged guilt and his defiant belief that she would have done it anyway. Miller survived the long suicide of Marilyn Monroe, but his muse fell silent. Joe DiMaggio, his baseball-star predecessor, loved her faithfully despite the years of public insult from her, and today still grinds his teeth in silence, no interviews, no comment. Silence of a different sort descended on Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department when journalists started probing after her death: Marilyn had been a phone call away from killing Bobby’s career, and possibly brother Jack’s as well. The silence of those whom Anthony Summers failed to catch suggests that the facts about that death are even now divulged at mortal risk. And the damage goes back and back. For her tuition as an actress Marilyn depended utterly on two women whom she first exalted then pitilessly destroyed. A singing coach who gave her honest devotion was so hounded by the jealous DiMaggio that he tried to end things with a draught of cleaning fluid. Soon after, in the nicest possible way, she dumped him; he is still an invalid today. Kissing Marilyn, said Tony Curtis, was like kissing Hitler. As Sammy Davis Jr put it: ‘She hangs like a bat in the minds of the men that knew her.’
Or like a dove. The other portrait Miller drew of his bride was Roslyn in The Misfits, driven by her animal recoil from any form of suffering. Constance Collier, who tutored Marilyn briefly before she fell into the clutches of the Strasbergs, likened her to a hummingbird in flight. Collier was one of many professional admirers who saw that she was not really an actress at all, that her exquisite grace on screen derived from her instinctive projection of her real self. As with her fellow-narcissist Greta Garbo, the pull which Marilyn exerts for Eighties audiences has to do with a quality which throve in unreflective innocence and which is in these post-feminist days extinct. And the fascination of her story lies in the somnambulistic sureness with which not only she but everyone around her played their parts, fusing life and art. How apt that all she said in her first (awful) film should have ended on the floor, bar the one word ‘hello’. How fitting the real debut in The Asphalt Jungle, her undulant form glimpsed rising from the shadows like Nijinsky’s faun. Her first patron told her she reminded him of a Broadway star called Marilyn Miller: she obediently assumed the Christian name and added the surname ten years later. As a child she had fantasised that Clark Gable was her real father, and hung his picture alongside Abraham Lincoln’s on her wall. When she got to act with him, her perverse behaviour helped bring on his fatal heart attack: she herself speculated that this might have been her revenge on the father who never declared himself. Even the titles of her films acquired a commanding significance: Let’s make love – during which she did, to her costar Yves Montand – and Something’s got to give. She did – she died. The man who re-beautified her after autopsy was her regular make-up artist, and in his pocket was a gold-plated money-clip she had given him years before, with the inscription: ‘To Whitey. While I’m still warm. Marilyn.’ In retrospect, the pattern is perfect.
Many writers have reacted to this fearful symmetry. At one extreme it has triggered the tricksy pretension of the Terry Johnson-Nicholas Roeg film Insignificance; at the other, it inspired Norman Mailer’s ‘novel biography’ of a ‘possible’ Marilyn, which proved a triumph of intuitive speculation. Mailer leaned heavily on the first edition of Fred Lawrence Guiles’s book, suggesting that one day a great biography might be built on its workmanlike foundations. That was 12 years ago and no such thing has materialised: unless Miller’s own memoirs, now in gestation, miraculously turn up trumps, it looks as though it never will. What we do have, however, is a revised edition of Guiles and a remarkable new piece of detective work.
Mailer was sensibly wary of Marilyn’s creative memory and of her gossip-columnist friends, and he distinguished between facts and factoids, those things which are not so much lies as satisfying embellishments of the truth. Fact: Marilyn reading Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man while the cast of Some like it hot wait her pleasure, and shouting ‘Go fuck yourself’ at the nervous assistant who asks if she is ready to work. Factoid: asked how she feels about getting married to DiMaggio, Marilyn replies: ‘I’ve sucked my last cock.’ Neither Guiles nor Summers is seduced by factoids, and though the latter writes like a newsman, in clumsy haste, their books complement each other satisfyingly.
Goddess offers a competent account of the life, but its raison d’être lies in what it reveals about the circumstances surrounding the death. Summers has chased up 600 people in his search for the truth about the Kennedy brothers’ involvement with the star during her final crack-up, and he shows that J. Edgar Hoover himself alerted them to the Mafia’s bugging of her home. Bobby was there the day she took her last overdose, and may even have called the ambulance which took her still alive to hospital and then back dead to her bed. Key police evidence was destroyed. Thanks to the aperient action of this book, a public inquiry is once again a possibility.
Norma Jeane opens movingly with an account of Marilyn’s last days in the cramped, uncomfortable house she finally chose for herself. Guiles shows the deprived and angry child living on in parallel with the superstar, and eventually asserting its grim supremacy. He dwells on the importance to the five-year-old of her dog Tippy, and the shattering blow to her confidence when a neighbour shot him – Mailer thinks that marked the start of her stammer. Guiles notes her exaggerated taste for melodrama, casting herself retrospectively as Little Nell in the orphanage (which wasn’t actually that bad a place), and as Marie Antoinette opposite Tyrone Power in the privacy of her bedroom. Her transformation from slut to star, which could happen with spine-chilling suddenness, as though she were pumping herself up, was later noted by many; ‘empty’ was the word most commonly used to describe her towards the end. She was torn apart by the conflict between her contempt for ordinariness and her desperate desire to be ordinary. The outrageous creature who went about naked under her mink coat ached to be a proper wife and mother; the boy who told her he had consulted a priest before consenting to act with her turned the knife in a deep wound.
Cecil Beaton saw Marilyn as ‘a dreaming somnambule, a composite of Alice in Wonderland, Trilby and a Minsky artist’. Barbara Hutton, with whom he often stayed at her Tangiers palace, seemed to him ‘a little Byzantine empress-doll’. What he saw behind the glamour was the pathos of incurable neurosis. It had been Barbara Hutton’s privilege, aged five, to discover her mother’s dead body (suicide), and her grim pleasure thereafter, as heir to the Woolworth millions, to dole out money to the father she detested. To her unimaginable wealth she added the power of her sexual allure (first mutinously used to seduce the bodyguard her father had imposed on her), and thus armed she embarked on an extraordinary career of conquest. Of her seven husbands only Cary Grant was self-sufficient. The others, a sporty lot, wooed with aeroplanes and pensioned off with palazzos, were toys she picked up and threw away. Some caught her anorexia – dinner might consist of a dozen gin and tonics – and most endured cruel humiliation towards the end of their tenure, but like her numerous unofficial lovers, they remained fond, as though they knew she couldn’t help herself, and that hope, not calculation, lay behind each new throw.
C. David Heymann did manage to interview his subject, and he draws heavily on her notebooks and on the findings of an army of researchers. Poor Little Rich Girl is dense with facts, figures and, above all, names, and is marred by a clumsily novelettish tone: ‘Barbara quickly repaired by herself to a distant corner, her face hidden behind a frozen mask.’ She wrote terrible verse but interesting prose: the two most memorable passages in this book are by her. On the whole, content transcends form. Picture Maurice Chevalier in Santa garb handing out unmounted precious stones at Barbara’s deb ball; Catherine the Great’s tiara and Marie Antoinette’s emeralds serving as fancy dress; a razor slipping and a GI getting castrated at a drunken homosexual orgy; James Dean being roped in for a one-night stand; Zsa Zsa Gabor getting her famous black eye from Hutton-fancier Rubirosa (after whose magnificent appendage smart restaurants named their giant pepper mills). Curiously blind to her family firm’s exploitation, Barbara launched many philanthropic schemes in Tangiers, where hangers-on cashed in daily on her compulsion to give everything away. Finally, addicted to pills, inventive sex, suicide fantasies, and the exercise of absolute power (some days her servants had to put everything into song), the pearl-hung, painted creature perched on gold cushions did achieve a mad grandeur, not unlike that of Ludwig of Bavaria.
A recent search of London’s best jazz shops produced just one track by the celebrated Thirties torch-singer Libby Holman: ‘Am I Blue?’ delivered in a velvet contralto, without a trace of the vulnerability Billie Holiday brought to the number. That’s appropriate. The man in the song would have been the one to wake up alone, rather than Libby, and if he followed the example of her other lovers he would then dash off and crash his car/take an overdose/shoot himself. Miss Holman claimed not to be able to remember whether her sad tobacco-millionaire first husband had shot himself or whether she had shot him in a drunken frenzy: the case, which caused as great a stir as the Lindbergh kidnapping, was hushed up by his family. Her eldest son died trying to climb America’s highest mountain in tennis shoes, and sent a younger brother mute from grief. Libby, an enthusiastic part-time lesbian, was very bad news for males unless, like her lover Montgomery Clift, they had other interests. She wasn’t as rich as Barbara Hutton but she was just as imperious, just as suicidal, much more intellectual and a great deal funnier. (Patting a bed from which Edward and Mrs Simpson had lately risen, she commented: ‘The Windsors were here all right. The bed’s still cold.’) As one might expect, the Hutton and Holman stories echo each other at many points. As one might fear, their authors’ weaknesses do so too. ‘She felt beautiful that night,’ says Bradshaw. How do these people know? Dreams that money can buy reads like a carefully researched gossip column, with mysterious chasms opening up whenever the records are sparse.
No male narrator comes between Mai Zetterling or Florence King and their readers. Each tells her tale in her own way. Mai’s way is to spill it out higgledy-piggledy as though at a diagnostic session with a psychiatrist. She chooses, somewhat startlingly, to represent her early years in Sweden as an unbroken cavalcade of cocks, condoms, flashings, fellatios, and the sights, sounds and smells of excretion, menstruation and parturition. Then comes a mystical conversion, then stage success in London, then an affair with Tyrone Power in Hollywood (where she can’t understand the jokes), then Medieval-style peasant-hood in France, and fulfilment as a filmmaker among the Eskimos (whose jokes are less threateningly sophisticated). She may be tenacious but her sexual self-absorption is total and her curiosity about others (husbands included) non-existent; when in doubt she goes ape. ‘Was I mad?’ she asks at intervals. Well, perhaps a teeny bit. And she is emphatically not a writer.
If All Those Tomorrows follows the trail of an uncontrollable id, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is the memoir of a serenely self-aware ego. Florence King grew up in an obsessively obstetrical atmosphere, but was encouraged to rebel by her drily intellectual father. Traditional Virginian femininity, she concluded at a relatively tender age, meant ‘nervous breakdowns, insanity, spontaneous hysterectomy and illiteracy’, and as a born nonconformist she wanted no part of it. She writes with the pace and aphoristic punch of an accomplished comic novelist (Alison Lurie praises her to the skies), but her judgments are grave and the emancipation she chronicles is both moving and unexpected.