Re-inventing Marilyn

Ever since I first wrote about Marilyn Monroe in a series of poems set to jazz for the BBC in the late 1980’s, the subject of  her life and work have kept connecting and re-connecting to mine. I’m at work, these days, on a libretto for an opera based on some of the Marilyn poems; while looking through materials in my files, I came across a review I’d written in the early 1990’s for a (then) newly revised biography of Marilyn Monroe by Maurice Zolotow.  It was published in the Globe & Mail. I’ll post it here.

One wonders if the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon will last, and if so what our descendents will make of her. Her talent was to project, on film, a spirit and beauty of heightened reality: many people have called it transcendent. Even the soggy revelations of recent years about her marriages, her relationships with the Kennedys and the sordid circumstances of her death, have not dimmed the public adulation. It seems, in fact, that her insecurities and weaknesses have only added to the image of a goddess at bay. It also makes no difference that her beauty was largely man-made, involving enormous expense and trusted attendants. In some curious way, Monroe’s working class origins, inflexible ambition and instinctive intelligence made her a touchstone of truth. This, I think, was part of the bond with her third husband, the playwright, Arthur Miller. She also invites compassion, which is, of course, one of the finer aspects of love.

Maurice Zolotow’s “Marilyn Monroe” originally issued in 1960, two years before her death, remains the best existing biography of the actress. We may now doubt some fo the claims of Monroe’s naivety, but Zolotow knew her, and the book has an authentic ring. His fascination with his subject is obvious, the inexplicable and mysterious nature of her appeal; but it doesn’t make him uncritical of her astonishing narcissism. Above all he makes her appear human.

Zolotow quotes the director Billy Wilder, to whom Monroe once gave a lift in her black Cadillac convertible, as follows: “I didn’t realize what a disorganized person this is until I see in the back of the car. It is like she throws everything in helter skelter because there’s a foreign invasion and the enemy armies are already in Pasadena. There’s blouses laying there and slacks, dresses, girdles, old shoes, old plane trickets, old lovers for all I knew, you never saw such a filthy mess in your life. On top of the mess is a whole bunch of traffic tickets. I ask her about this. Tickets for parking. Tickets for speeding. Tickets for passing lights, who knows what. Is she worried about this? Am I worried about the sun rising tomorrow?”

Zolotow foresaw for Monroe, because of her paradoxical and conflicting desires, a future alienated “from the common stream of humanity” and of “essential loneliness.” He compares her to Garbo who was able to accept a solitary life saying that it is this with which Monroe must come to terms. Here he foresees her tragedy. For there was no coming to terms with the need for human contact and for love that consumed her. Perhaps it is the scale of this need which continues to draw a world-wide outpouring of love, adultation and pity nearly thirty years after her death.

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