She started as a pin-up, that medium of titillation most popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Marilyn spent hundreds of hours in front of the still camera; such was her appeal that the accomplished photographer Richard Avedon reached for superlatives when he spoke of her: “She gave more to the still camera than any actress—any woman—I’ve ever photographed….She was able to make wonderful photographs with almost any photographer, which is interesting—and rare.”
In MM—Personal there is an interesting example of her extreme photogenicity, a shot of her taken from the rear—we don’t see her face at all. She is wearing a black dress and has her hair up. All you see is a rear view of her shoulders and neck, and yet the photograph is as arresting as any in the book. MM—Personal is filled with wonderful photographs, perhaps none finer than the set Cecil Beaton made of her in 1956. (Beaton, himself involved with Greta Garbo, had plenty of practice with superstars.)
In film Marilyn’s talent shows most strongly in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and The Misfits. The director Billy Wilder quarreled with her on Some Like It Hot—but Wilder was no dummy and had this to say about her: “I think she was the best light comedienne we have in films today, and anyone will tell you that the toughest of acting styles is light comedy.”
She was almost always photographed smiling, her lips slightly parted, her skin aglow with an aura all its own, and yet there was usually a curl of sadness in her smile: sadness that just managed to fight through; sadness that was always considerable and sometimes intense.
Consider: she was born in a charity ward of Los Angeles County Hospital in 1926, as Norma Jeane Mortenson (sometimes Nortenson). Her mother, Gladys, worked in lowly film editing jobs; there she met Marilyn’s probable father, Charles Stanley Gifford. Of Gladys, Marilyn said:
I was a mistake. My mother didn’t want to have me. I guess she never wanted me. I probably got in her way. I know I must have disgraced her. A divorced woman has enough problems getting a man, I guess, but one with an illegitimate baby…. I wish, I still wish, she had wanted me.
Gladys’s friend Grace McKee became legal guardian of the little girl as well as Gladys herself after she was diagnosed with schizophrenia; in 1935 Grace put Norma Jeane in the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home (later Hollygrove).
A childhood like that is a feast for Freudians, and explains why, all her life, Marilyn longed for a family and sometimes lived with couples; instead of a family she got endometriosis and three miscarriages.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.