Missing Marilyn

American Photo devoted their May/June 1996 issue to Marilyn Monroe. June 1 is the anniversary of her birth in 1926. Eighty years ago, and counting. On the cover, she is that fresh and delicious thirty-something she was a few weeks before she died. The centerfold, if you can call it that, is a lost photograph, digitally restored, from the Bert Stern shoot. It is a breathtaking picture; the whole landscape of a portrait that became famous through the circumstance of her death.

Death was kind to her. When she died, she became forever thirty, soft-focused, firm as a ripe peach, full-lipped, moist-eyed, happy. Life wasn't so kind. She learned that we would like her if she were platinum blonde, if she talked like a timorous little girl, if she jiggled her butt when she walked, if she went down for anyone who wanted it. And she wanted to be liked. The Kennedy boys liked her, and so did a lot of other men.

Her ties to the Mafia don't suggest sterling character; her affairs while she was married to Joe Dimaggio and Arthur Miller were less than discrete. She was a whore, for a while quite literally. So? We're all whores; Jesus said it to the crowd with the stones, a little more nicely.

She was a good actress, but not great. Maybe she wasn't much of a person. She's been dead longer than she lived, and the legends, myths, and romance have vaselined the lens of history forever. Who knows what she was really like? Self-taught and well-read by grazing. A champion of the poor and minorities. An airhead who once asked a teenaged boy if the book he recommended to her was Lord of the Flies or the Fleas? A self-indulgent bitch incapable of fidelity to her husbands. A waif with very bad taste in men. A woman struggling with her creativity. A lot of men have groped the elephant, copping their feel; trust none of them. Some women too; they have their agendas as well. She was not, like so many of our current 'icons', an arrogant, degenerate thug. It isn't so much to ask.

She may be the subject of more web sites than any other twentieth-century person. She has been written about thoughtfully by playwrights like her husband Arthur Miller, hyperglandular novelists like Norman Mailer, feminists like Gloria Steinem, sad and mean children like Joyce Carol Oates and Truman Capote, whimsied homosexuals, assorted lovers, Ayn Rand, and her own sister. Her film persona is one of the few female icons in the first tier of impressionist repertoire. And women want to be her: The 'new' Marilyn is even more hardy a perennial than "the new Beatles." She resurfaces every few years in the form of a pneumatic movie star or a slutty rock singer: Two ways to miss the point.

I have some disjointed things I want to say about her on the occasion of her birthday. I loved her, for starters, which is not like me. I love women like Tina Turner, Buffy Ste. Marie, Barbara Streisand, Leslie Silko, Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich: Women who aren't pretty at all, really, whose beauty is in their vitality, their creative energy, their strength, independence, and intelligence. Why Marilyn Monroe, real or imaginary? Not because of her movies. I was too young for most of her films, and since the films themselves don't interest me, I never bothered to check them out. I saw some, didn't see others, may see a few more. Of what I saw, two stand out, The Misfits and Some Like It Hot.

What I saw then, going to her films, studying pictures of her when I was a teenager, and what I see now are very different. Then, I simply wanted to touch her. She was the icon of unfulfilled desire. My intellectual justifications and rationalizations may have been more noble than those of the belly-scratching "common man," but they boiled down to the same simple lust. Now, nearly thirty years older than she was the night she died, it's not so simple. I suppose I imagine myself like I imagine Arthur Miller, her extraordinarily unlikely husband. I imagine I could appreciate her self, her desire to be more than a sexual pillow. Lust? Sure. One could no more look at her without lust than one could look at ripe fruit and not feel a pang of hunger. And her photographs are sexy in ways her loose little girl persona isn't any more.

She lives in the photographs. They communicate the essential, unique thing that made her immortal. In the best of them, there is play, serious or silly, and the eyes are not vacated in that "dumb blonde" mask she perfected for her films. There is a kind of innocence not bovine and domestic but wild and willing as deer: not the illusion of virginity, but a lack of calculation. This is not a woman who would have bragged about losing her virginity as "a career move," even though she probably made that particular "career move" often enough that it became commonplace for her. This is not a woman who is contemptuous of men (though she had cause to be), or of women either. Looking at the "new Marilyns" only helps me appreciate the old. There was something essentially evil in what we did to her, what we bought and how we paid. The poseurs who succeeded her all know it, and so many of them look like they want the deal she only took as a last (or easiest) resort.

Marilyn Monroe. A victim, or rather a person who was willing to pay too much for what she wanted. For her island, we offered her trinkets. They were such pretty trinkets, and the island of her self she didn't think was worth much. She sold her self to be loved. We fucked her; we loved somebody else. Happy birthday, sweetheart. I'm sorry.