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Marilyn

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George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Marilyn Monroe and Edith Sitwell, London, 1953

I wish I could claim to have a firm handle on Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, but I don’t. It’s probably safe to call it a tour de force, and less safe to call it a 277-page conceit, which the reader either buys into or doesn’t. Curiously, MM—Personal includes a charming series of letters Marilyn wrote to Arthur Miller’s children from the point of view of their basset hound:

Some terrible insects by the name of ticks have been getting on me lately and Janie it’s just terrible but I am managing the problem pretty well because when I get one on me I just run to Daddy or Marilyn and they get them off me in a hurry.

It’s not clear whether O’Hagan knew of these letters, but he has certainly immersed himself about as deeply as anyone in the world Marilyn inhabited, and its characters. Here’s Kenneth, the once famous 54th Street hairdresser:

They didn’t like dogs at Kenneth’s, the hairdressing salon on 54th Street. Not that it bothered me a great deal. Kenneth was one of those men with a mind like a pecan pie, sticky and dense…. Kenneth always imagined he was about four minutes away from ruling the world…his scissors ready to dive osprey-like into the hair of some turbulent matron….

The novel is full of passages like that. Who actually remembers Kenneth today? Who remembers Roddy McDowall? Plenty remember Frank Sinatra, an important character during the early part of O’Hagan’s book.

Read together the three books remind one of what a lot went out of American life with the passing of Marilyn Monroe; the important thing about her was her spirit, not whether she went to bed with a president and his brother.

5.

Marilyn’s favorite photograph of herself was made by the British photographer Cecil Beaton in New York on February 22, 1956. She liked it so much that Josh Logan, who had just directed Bus Stop, had it framed for her, between two notes from Beaton. Marilyn had dozens of prints of it made. What struck Beaton was her ability to endlessly transform herself—without inhibition but with a real uncertainty and vulnerability:

She had rocketed from obscurity to become our post-war sex symbol, the pin-up girl of an age. And whatever press agentry or manufactured illusion may have lit the fuse, it is her own weird genius that has sustained her flight. Transfigured by the garish marvel of Technicolor cinemascope, she walks like an undulating basilisk, scorching everything in her path…. Perhaps she was born just the post-war day we had need of her. Certainly she had no knowledge of the past. Like Giraudoux’s Ondine, she is only fifteen years old, and she will never die.

The photograph—like many of her photographs—is stunning, but she doesn’t look fifteen and, six years later, she did die, after saying this to a reporter:

It might be kind of a relief to be finished. It’s sort of like you don’t know what kind of a yard dash you’re running, but then you’re at the finish line and you sort of sigh—you’ve made it! But you never have—you have to start all over again.

Richard Avedon said:

Her ideas were always dominated by what she felt her public image should be. She would pore over the contact sheets for hours. She was always looking for what she called an “honest” picture, a “real” or “right” picture.

Marilyn Monroe is buried in a modest little mortuary in Westwood, California. There are several more talent-picked burial places in this world—Westminster Abbey, Père Lachaise, and even Forest Lawn—but none move me as much as that homely little acre in Westwood, where people I might actually have worked with lie. There’s Natalie Wood, ridiculous in full makeup, running down a sand dune that wouldn’t have been there in The Searchers. There’s my own agent, Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar, there’s Truman Capote, no doubt come to be near Marilyn, there’s Jack Lemmon, there’s Dean Martin, and, greatest of all, there’s Marilyn Monroe, who once said of herself:

Little Norma Jeane, the servant girl. The only way she could be sure people wanted to see her was to make them wait.

How sad is that?

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