New York – contrary to popular opinion and Frank Sinatra – is never a city that doesn’t sleep. It sleeps soundly in fact. You walk the streets on certain nights and suddenly you can feel quite alone under the buildings. It’s not that the place is deserted, there are things going on – taxi-cabs, homeless people, late-night walkers, the police – but they can seem to proceed at that hour like things out of step, like odd yearnings of the imagination, or unexpected items in a gasoline-smelling dream of urban ruin.
I stopped one night in front of the Ferragamo shoe-shop on Fifth Avenue. The light from the shop was so strong it seemed like daylight spilling over the pavement. I felt drenched in the uncanny whiteness. And there in the window, draped on transparent mannequins or laid on silver boxes, were some of the dazzling relics of the late Marilyn Monroe. ‘A pair of stilettos by Salvatore Ferragamo, scarlet satin, encrusted with matching rhinestones.’
There’s no place like home, I thought.
‘Estimate: $4000-6000.’ And further along a hand-knitted cardigan, ‘with a brown geometric pattern and matching knitted belt. Worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and featured in a series of photographs by George Barris taken on the beach in Santa Monica, California. Estimate: $30,000-50,000.’ In the corner of the window there stood a halter-neck dress from the movie Let’s Make Love. I thought of Marilyn and Yves Mont-and posing for the cameras with their unhappy smiles. ‘Estimate: $15,000-20,000.’ The Monroe things had been to London, Paris and Buenos Aires, and were now back in New York for auction at Christie’s. Ferragamo took the opportunity for a cute bit of public relations flimflam. The cold air from the ice-rink at Rockefeller Plaza – underneath Christie’s salerooms – seemed to be blowing in one great frosty whoop down the avenue.
The people who stopped put both hands on the Ferragamo window and the white light made each one a little blonder. One woman said ‘beautiful’; the glass misted up in front of her mouth. I walked on a few blocks. There was a midnight service going on at St Patrick’s Cathedral. A long queue stretched all the way down to the altar, where a glass case stood by itself, with a casket inside, containing the relics of St Theresa of Lisieux. A hundred years ago the Carmelite nun Thérèse Martin died, and she died, according to a woman I spoke to at the end of the queue, ‘with a heart as big as the world itself’. The last words of St Theresa are not open to doubt. ‘I am not dying,’ she said. ‘I am entering into Life.’ She was canonised in 1925.
I joined the line at St Patrick’s and followed it down and when it was my turn I touched the glass and walked away. Men to my side were crying and whispering. The relics of St Theresa were travelling the world too: last year Russia and Europe, this year America, from New York to Tucson, Arizona, with a spell over Christmas at the Church of St Jane Frances de Chantal in North Hollywood.
The Christie’s sale of Marilyn’s relics raised $13,405,785. The Ferragamo ruby shoes were bought for $48,300 by the son of the man who made them, while Lots 51 and 40, the Santa Monica cardigan and the dress from Let’s Make Love, sold for $167,500 and $52,900 respectively. The big wow of the auction, as expected, was the Jean Louis sheath dress, covered in tiny stones, worn by Marilyn at John Kennedy’s birthday tribute in 1962, when she sang ‘Happy Birthday’. This went for over a million dollars. The man who bought it (owner of a memorabilia shop called Ripley’s Believe It or Not) thought he’d got a great bargain. The Kennedy dress smashed the previous world record for the sale of a female costume: a blue velvet Victor Edelstein dress belonging to Princess Diana that sold for £222,500 in June 1997. The actor and peroxophile Tony Curtis, who must have forgotten that he once said kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler, got out of his seat at the auction to tell reporters that Marilyn would have been thrilled. ‘She’d have enjoyed the fact that people still love her so much,’ he said.
The sale of Marilyn Monroe’s personal property – a plastic cup, a group of blankets, a plexiglass tissue-box cover, a piece of paper with the words ‘he does not love me’ written in pencil, to name just a few of the 576 lots that were auctioned – may represent the most interesting event to occur in contemporary art since the death of Andy Warhol. Indeed it takes Warhol’s deification of celebrity past its absurdly logical conclusion: why pay more for a representation of Marilyn Monroe, even an Abstract Expressionist one like De Kooning’s, or a mass-produced one like Warhol’s, when, for a not dissimilar price, you can own a little something of Marilyn herself? The Christie’s sale goes so far ahead of Warhol’s thinking that we ironically end up back where we started, with the basic principle of authenticity. The threat – the joy – was always that Pop would eat itself in the end, and it has done. The old superstition about High Art, ‘Rembrandt actually touched this canvas,’ can now be applied to the personal belongings of the century’s most famous woman – this object actually touched Marilyn – and thus our era’s tangled worries with the meaning of fine art are for a moment resolved. Pop culture became its opposite number: the ordinary minutiae of the extraordinary life came to seem as formally expressive as Guernica. The designer Tommy Hilfiger pays a fortune for two pairs of jeans Marilyn wore in The Misfits. He frames them and hangs them up in his apartment. He gets the pleasure of Charles I pacing a banqueting hall replete with Van Dycks. Hilfiger gets to feel he has captured the thing that is truly seen to capture his time. The spirit of the age is a bundle of famous rags. Going, going. Gone.
But what of poor Marilyn herself? What is she? And who was she before all this came to pass in her adopted name? What was it about her that allowed it to happen? And who are we that love her so much? These questions rise and fall like the sound of distant applause as you read the Christie’s catalogue. And occasional answers can seem to spring from the pictures and descriptions of the objects themselves. The book is a slick and a morbid affair: the clothes are really nothing without Marilyn in them; many of the photographs show her coming out of a film premiere, or sitting hopefully in another tiny apartment. Her possessions, you feel, are there to soften and furnish, to ease and to deepen, the life of a woman who is barely in possession of herself. But without her they seem like tokens of the purest emptiness.
Marilyn’s books and stockings and strings of pearls come to ground you in a vivid life that is gone; her existence was so much about projection and luminous performance that you can hardly bear to imagine the macabre earthiness of her leavings. It’s a bit like contemplating Ophelia’s soaking garments and weedy trophies pulled from the weeping brook; they are cold, modern remnants of desire and the misfortunes of fortune; tokens of the 20th century’s obsession with the nuances of fame and public death.
Madame Bovary. The Sun Also Rises. The Unnamable. The Fall. Marilyn’s auctioned books are like scripts primed for her long afterlife. And one of the others, Dubliners, contains the story that captures something of the eerie and magical grip that personal effects can hold for the living. Her gloves and candlesticks resemble those in ‘The Dead’: rows of framed photographs before a pierglass; we might imagine these objects that once belonged to a beautiful, famous, sad, young woman, can tell us something strange and true about our own lives. The people who queued to see her things around the world were apt to say such a thing. The eternal-seeming fabulousness of a great movie star – like that of a princess – might serve for a while to transform even the dowdiest of realities. That is the myth anyway. And Marilyn Monroe was nothing if not a sacrifice to the potency of her own mythology. Even her pet poodle’s dog tag and licence (estimate, $800-1200; final bid, $63,000) become items of great interest, symbolic pieces of the life of someone who has entered into Life. Frank Sinatra gave her the dog. She called it Mafia. Right now someone is looking at the licence and thinking they grasp the meaning of the 20th century. They may be right.
Norma Jeane Mortensen was born in June 1926 in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital. Her mother Gladys Baker was now and again mad, leaving her daughter troubled but free to dream up an alternative life, and to develop her vital allure reading movie magazines. Norma Jeane had a keen sense of how to conquer people’s affections – especially those of men. She wore lipstick. She wore short skirts. She told a sad story of her upbringing. And after a spell modelling and flirting and screwing and practising her walk, waiting in line with the other girls at Schwab’s Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard, Marilyn emerged with a brazen sense of how to enliven the Fifties.
Marilyn invented a persona – The Girl – that would at first seem to release her from the bad things of her childhood, but which later became like one of her childhood ghouls, leaning over her, making her all sex, and suffocating her. The Girl was a fiction and a mask – ‘Mae West, Theda Bara and Bo Peep all rolled into one’, said Groucho Marx – which served to turn a case of ordinary, everyday wishing into a triumph of calculated stardom. There is hardly a single area of Norma Jeane’s life that wasn’t fluffed up to enhance Marilyn’s exotic stature. The Girl, the resulting character, would seem to carry vulnerability and sexual freedom to a new place in the movies, but in real life, in the decompression chamber of overblown ambitions, the person who called herself Marilyn Monroe could only unravel in a miasma of loneliness and uncertainty and pain. And worst of all, even this, her bad times, her suffering, came in the end to add to the myth of her specialness. In her own lifetime she became the patron saint of sex; and afterwards, in her very modern martyrdom, she made us feel that an engulfing sadness does not in any way preclude a giant success. Marilyn’s fans find the combination fatal. And so unfortunately did she.
Encyclopedias exist to bring a constant proliferation of knowledge to rest for a time in one place. Adam Victor’s attempt on the universe of Marilyn Monroe – life, Life, Afterlife, scholarship, clothes, gossip, filmography, addresses, hospitals, drama coaches, superstitions, favourite toys – is truly mind-boggling. It may represent the triumph of detail over proportion, but still, all in all, it serves as a complete concordance to the many Marilyn narratives yet published. It also causes you to wonder just how much scrutiny even a famously hyper-public life can bear. But it seems there are many people in the world who need this information. Here is a part of the entry on Marilyn’s honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio:
After a night at the budget CLIFTON INN motel in Paso Robles (and a meal in the restaurant of the Hot Springs Hotel, or at the Clifton Inn according to some versions), Joe and Marilyn drove in his dark blue Cadillac to a mountain lodge outside Idyllwild, near PALM SPRINGS, loaned to them for the occasion by Marilyn’s attorney, Lloyd Wright. Here they had the uncommon luxury of two weeks alone together.
The upper-case things have entries to themselves. Just as the Christie’s sale of Marilyn’s knick-knacks did better than adjacent sales of German Art and the Ancient Jewels of Persia, so Victor’s encyclopedia, a mini-bible of our times, will do better than many a Complete Guide to This and That, or Encyclopedia of the Other.
There are more biographies of Marilyn Monroe than of any other person in the history of show-business. Around seven hundred have been published in English alone, with a dozen or so new ones every year. It is even possible to suggest a typology of writings about Marilyn. It starts off with studio biographies written by publicists, and a kind of memoir by the screenwriter Ben Hecht (later published as My Story by Marilyn Monroe, featuring the well-spun tale of Norma Jeane’s abused childhood, and the white piano she saved from her mother’s house – a piano that sold for three-quarters of a million dollars at the Christie’s sale). There were also early biographies by Marilyn’s friends (the columnist Sidney Skolsky, the poet Norman Rosten) and her enemies – Marilyn, the Tragic Venus, based on the incriminating fibs of Hollywood scribe Nunnally Johnson. There have been plenty of biographies by people who worked for Marilyn, by her housekeeper Eunice Murray, her cleaner Lena Pepit-one, by a fan called James Haspiel who used to stand outside her apartment, by one or two guys who slept with her, by any numbers of guys who wanted to sleep with her, and by a tittle-tattle lifeguard at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Her half-sister Bernice Miracle wrote a fairly tender little book called My Sister Marilyn. Then to top it all there was The Secret Happiness of Marilyn Monroe by Her First Husband.
In fact, you can easily top that too. There has been spurious tome after tome on the subject of her untimely death. Come on down, the Murder Cover-up Theorists. Anthony Summers wrote Goddess, an exhaustive, exhausting and paranoid account of how everyone in the known world wanted Marilyn dead. He also did the actress the supreme disservice of publishing a picture of her on the slab. There have been many of these sensational books, which mainly show how both Kennedys bugged her, raped her, drugged her, killed her, collaborated with the Mafia, were set up by the Mafia, were punished (or in league) with the Teamsters, or the Cubans, or the Rat Pack, and that every intelligence agency in the United States was busy tailing Marilyn or burning her phone records or laying plans to snuff her out. Prominent among these writers are Milo Speriglio and Robert Slatzer (a bit of a cross-category-turn this last one: he claims to have been married to Monroe for three days). There is a new addition to this group, a hysterical book by Donald H. Wolfe which may just prove to be the conspiracy sub-genre’s reductio ad absurdum: Bobby Kennedy and Sam Giancana and Marilyn’s psychotherapist tripping over each other in an effort to commit the great pointless homicide.
Monroe Books by Big Writers is another category: Norman Mailer (‘Marilyn was every man’s love affair with America’) to Gloria Steinem (‘It is the lost possibilities of Marilyn Monroe that capture our imaginations’).And then – sigh of relief – there are the biographers who simply adored the way she was on the screen, who became intrigued by what happened to her, and who worked hard to find things out, and wrote good books about her. Of all the hundreds of biographies this really comes down to two: Norma Jeane: The Life of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles (1969), and Marilyn Monroe: The Biography by Donald Spoto (1993).
Barbara Learning’s new book adds to a sense of Monroe as someone in constant struggle with fictionality and mental illness, with the demands of men, and with an overwhelming wish to be taken seriously as an actress. Monroe’s mother blamed her daughter for being born, and the child grew up with a dark memory of people screaming in the hall, of departures and uncertainties, and of men taking advantage of her loneliness and dependence. Even Marilyn seemed to realise that dressing up – going on show – was a way of providing an answer to the gaunt face of her mother in the Rockhaven Sanitarium. It might even be possible that Marilyn’s efforts to dispel America’s fears about sex were somehow related to her attempts to dispel her own fear of madness. At any rate her grandmother Della Mae Monroe died in a strait-jacket. Gladys lived until the Eighties in a Florida loony bin. And Marilyn presented herself to the world as a beacon of confidence, an angel of sex, while all her life she was troubled with the idea that her mind wasn’t right.
It was Marilyn’s misfortune to think that serious acting could save her from self-doubt. In fact it only exacerbated it. The Girl, though certainly choking and limiting as a character, was something she knew about, and it remained for her a very special and individual invention. But Learning is bigger and better than any other biographer when it comes to describing Monroe’s terror in the face of Twentieth Century Fox’s view of her. In 1955, after showing America and the world how to relax about sex by allowing her skirt to blow over her head in The Seven Year Itch, Monroe ran away to New York to become somebody else. But The Girl would always follow her. She threw a press conference to reveal ‘the new Monroe’:
Cocktails were served for about an hour as guests awaited a ‘new and different’ Marilyn. Shortly after six, the front door opened and Marilyn blew in like a snowdrift. She was dressed from head to toe in white. A fluttery white mink coat covered a white satin sheath with flimsy, loose spaghetti straps. She wore satin high heels and white stockings. Her long, sparkling diamond earrings were on loan from Van Cleef & Arples.
Marilyn seemed disappointed when people asked what was new about her. ‘But I have changed my hair!’ she protested. Her hair did seem a shade or two lighter. Asked to describe the new colour, Marilyn replied in a child’s voice: ‘Subdued platinum.’ The crowd received Marilyn with good-natured amusement. They responded as though she were one of her comical, ditzy blonde film characters ... ‘I have formed my own corporation so I can play the kind of roles I want,’ Marilyn announced ... She declared herself tired of sex roles and vowed to do no more. ‘People have scope, you know,’ said Marilyn. ‘They really do.’
This sad tableau is one of a pair. She came to England the following year to star in The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. At the initial press conference one of the straps on her dress broke with suspiciously good timing, whereupon she announced that she would very much like to appear in a film adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. ‘Which one would you play?’ shouted one of the reporters. ‘Grushenka,’ said Marilyn, ‘that’s a girl.’ ‘Spell it,’ said another hack.
Marilyn was cursed – or blessed – with an instinctive ability to intellectualise sex and at the same time to sexualise intellectuals. But in time this would constitute a schism in her everyday life: on the way up she tried to please men who only wanted her for sex, and at her height, at the pinnacle of her New York period, from 1955 until her death in 1962, she tried to please men who thought she was better than that. Fundamentally she swithered between giving and wanting: in time she would surround herself with intellectuals who thought they might harness her vulnerability and somehow turn her into a great actress or a happy person. Yet there was something in the material of her early life that made such achievements very difficult: fulfilment remained but a flickering, costly, benighted dream. In some chiefly unhelpful way she didn’t know who she was.
Leaming is hard on the men who tried to transform her. They seem to her to have wanted more for themselves than they did for Monroe. She may be right about Arthur Miller and the Actors’ Studio guru Lee Strasberg. The former, in his memoir Timebends, describes a girl who was beyond reach, and who seemed impossible to help. Yet his After the Fall shows him at his most self-justifying: Maggie (the Monroe character) is crying out for something that Quentin (the Miller figure) can’t easily respond to, not at least in the midst of his great existential derangement of purpose. He does the worst thing possible given her background: he makes her out to be a lunatic. With Strasberg it seems possible that he worked as much from a store of cynicism as out of love for the hero-worshipping Marilyn. Here’s Leaming:
Strasberg had to convince Marilyn that she had not accomplished anything on her own. He had to invalidate her hard-earned achievements in Hollywood. He had to reduce her to point zero. He had to make her accept that, despite all she had done in her career to date, she had come to him with nothing.
That seems to have been the pattern: men would appear who wanted to save her and who then blamed her for not responding in the way they wanted. Marilyn was very generous with her neuroses. The men she admired seemed to think her savable and damnable at the very same time. It hurt her to agree. But what’s clear is that she didn’t think very much of herself.
Monroe’s last and best psychotherapist, Dr Ralph Greenson, once wrote a paper on empathy. He wrote of the attempt to experience the feelings of another person: ‘one partakes of the quality of the feelings and not the quantity.’ Marilyn Monroe seems to have been adrift in the sheer number of things she felt. None of her men, though, not even Greenson himself, was able to help her clear a path to contentment. Even the analysis was part of her attempt, sponsored by Strasberg, to become a serious person. And what you see, when you look at her therapist’s writing, is a methodology of patient care which is rather like the Method. Greenson asked of himself the sort of negative capability that Strasberg asked of his actors.
Strasberg wanted them to lose their egos in the service of their art, to reach down and find an emotional mechanism that would allow them to become the thing they contemplated. It worked for Brando and Montgomery Clift. It worked for Kim Stanley and Eli Wallach. And strangely it worked for Dr Ralph Greenson in his treatment of Marilyn Monroe. ‘By shifting the working model of the patient into the foreground,’ he wrote, ‘and pushing all that is peculiarly me into the background, I have let the patient’s words and feelings enter this part of me.’ Like Freud he invited his favourite patient to his dinner-table. He offered his own family in place of the one she didn’t have. And Marilyn went into her final decline when Greenson went on holiday. Greenson wrote to Anna Freud in London that Marilyn might destroy herself. He said he was improvising with a very sick patient. It wasn’t his fault, but in a very direct way he was the last man to let this odd, unhappy woman down. He later admitted to Anna Freud that Marilyn’s death was a blow to his pride. Men made promises to Marilyn’s psyche which neither party could keep. Her father failed to recognise her. She didn’t know what he looked like and she inspected every face she ever saw for signs of him. That was the story of her life. And that was her death.
A dozen years ago I went to look at Marilyn Monroe’s grave. She is buried just beyond Hollywood at a place called Westwood Memorial Park. It was a very quiet place and a hot summer’s day. As I walked over the grass the only real sound was coming from a bell that hung from a branch of a tree over the grave of Natalie Wood. A water sprinkler in the corner of the park made a placid are over gravestones and shrubs. Not a bad place to live out one’s afterlife, I thought. Down a lane called the Walk of Memory you pass Darryl F. Zanuck and Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Fanny Brice. What I remember most is the atmosphere of the cemetery: the place was more than just a repository of famous bones; a giant investment of common wishes lay deep in the polished stonework. Yet the only scent that moved through the air was the scent of everyday boredom.
Marilyn’s spot is easy to find. Up on a wall you see her name and all over the stone are lipstick marks and scribbles. A little pyramid of flowers lay at the foot of the grave. Joe DiMaggio’s one red rose was wilting in the heat. After a while standing there I began to absorb the routine composure of the place and the time and the situation: this was just an ordinary visit to the grave of a dead star. There was nothing of The Girl, the music, the magic of performance, nothing of wishfulness or New York transformations or twinkling dresses or psychoanalysis. The white concrete and the unmoist air were typical. It was all null and vaporous in front of Marilyn’s grave. The only really powerful sense given out by that dry concrete, by the quiet garden all around, was of a certainty of life going on about here with neither grief nor ceremony. It could have been any carpark in America: a place where children might play on a vapid afternoon, the sun coming down, the future unknown. I had made the journey: nothing was here.
That night I saw Marilyn Monroe’s handprints in the concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Later I joined a queue to see The Seven Year Itch. And no doubt Marilyn was present again: beyond death and commercial promise, she was there. The Girl inside the girl. Waving a hand from a high window; beautifully alive to the smiling, tearful caper of being alive.