Marilyn Monroe is dead. Long live Marilyn Monroe. Indeed. Could the iconic bombshell be any more alive?
It was 50 years ago, on August 5, 1962, that the star was found dead in her Brentwood home in Los Angeles, naked and still clutching a phone. She was 36. Accidental drug overdose? Suicide? Murder at the hands of a powerful political clan? The Mob?
The story is still fresh today, thanks to Monroe’s magic potion: beauty, sensuality, insecurity and talent, all mixed together with a giant dollop of mystery, a potion that has only grown stronger over the years.
Monroe has never really gone away. She still graces the covers of magazines—three times on the front of Vanity Fair in the past four years alone.
She also remains a publishing phenomenon. There is a flood of new books—fiction and non-fiction—analyzing her childhood, her final days, her passions and paradoxes. Photo books, too. Lovely photos. Fashion photos. Nude photos. From highbrow—dressed in Lanvin—to high camp, her skirt famously airborne in The Seven Year Itch.
She still appears on both the big screen—2011’s My Week With Marilyn, with Michelle Williams as Monroe—and the small one, in NBC’s Smash. Turner Classic Movies last year ran a daylong Marilyn marathon, and a documentary, Love, Marilyn, made the rounds at film festivals nationwide last fall.
Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy on Smash, spent the first season competing on the show to star as Monroe in a Broadway musical. (She lost out to Karen, played by Katharine McPhee, a rivalry that continues to play out in the new season.)
“What stands out about her for me is her basic human desire to be loved, and how alone she felt,” Hilty says. “Everybody can connect to that. It makes her accessible.”
Hilty, 31, says she became a fan after reading a biography of Arthur Miller, one of Monroe’s three husbands. “I became fascinated with her, and I continue to do research on her. I did before I even got this role.”
While Hilty, a voluptuous blonde herself, doesn’t think she is “channeling” Monroe, she says she tries to pay homage to her and what she represents. “I try to capture her essence.”
Easier said than done. Monroe was one-of-a-kind. Born Norma Jean Baker on June 1, 1926, in Los Angeles, she endured a fatherless childhood, living in orphanages and foster homes after her mentally ill mother was institutionalized. She said she was sexually abused at 8 by a boarder in one of the foster homes and, at 16, married the first of her three husbands to escape.
Shortly after, she began modeling bathing suits, then posed for pinups with her newly bleached blond hair. People quickly noticed. Howard Hughes tried to get her a screen test but was beaten to the punch by 20th Century Fox, which signed her to a contract—at $125 a week for six months—and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. She went on to make such classics as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire and Some Like It Hot.
Leon Shamroy, a 20th Century Fox cinematographer, perhaps summed up the Monroe mystique best when he shot her first screen test in 1946:
“I got a cold chill,” he said at the time. “This girl had something else—something I hadn’t seen since silent pictures. She didn’t need a soundtrack to tell her story.” The woman who inspired Elton John to write (the original) “Candle in the Wind” is still working her charms.
“Many women wanted to be her, and many men wanted to be with her,” says Keith Badman, author of the recently released Marilyn Monroe: The Final Years (Thomas Dunne Books).
And then there was her vulnerability, which has made her fan base as much female as male, Badman says.
“A good friend of mine once said she could relate to Marilyn because she was sometimes insecure,” Badman says from his native England. “What I think was very good about her was that she was determined as well. She was one of the first stars to break out of the system, out of a film company. That was a big thing for her to do. She freed a lot of people.”
Melinda Mason understands Monroe’s power.
Mason started her Marilyn-centric web site (www.marilynmonroe.ca)—one of the most popular of the many Marilyn sites—12 years ago. It has received more than 1 million visitors, about 5,000 a month. Visits spike during anniversaries.
“I think initially people are drawn to Marilyn’s image. She had a relationship with the camera that has never been matched,” says Mason, who is based in Ontario, Canada.
“People who know nothing about her are walking around with purses or T-shirts featuring her image. Her story never gets old. She’s timeless.”
The folks at the Cannes Film Festival understood this. She was poster girl for 2012’s festival—a photo of her blowing out a candle on her 30th birthday cake. Doesn’t matter that she never attended the festival.
She’s ready for yet another close-up, too. MAC Cosmetics launch last October a limited-edition Marilyn Monroe makeup collection of 30 products. “Her look defined not only a generation but is as relevant today as it ever was,” says MAC Creative Director James Gager. “You merely have to look at stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga to see her influence. Between My Week With Marilyn and Smash, Marilyn is back in the zeitgeist.”
Lois Banner, author of the recently published Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (Bloomsbury), is not the least bit surprised there’s a new Marilyn Monroe lipstick.
“She died young and still beautiful,” says Banner, a professor of gender studies at the University of Southern California. “She was the best sex icon of her age. She was as renowned then as she is now...and then [her legend] was driven by the mystery of her death. Did she die or was she killed?”
Banner says Monroe’s unsolved death (suicide by drug overdose was the coroner’s report at the time, although homicide rumors persist) sums up her life perfectly. “She loved to live in a mysterious way.”
Donald Wolfe, author of recently-reissued The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe (Morrow), puts Robert Kennedy at the star’s home the day she died, adding to the intrigue.
“The riddle that is Marilyn Monroe will never be solved, and because of this, people will always want to read about her,” says Marie Coolman of Bloomsbury, Banner’s publishing house. “In all her brilliance, even Marilyn probably never dreamed her legacy would live on the way it has.”
Novelists find Monroe’s death irresistible, too. A new novel by J.I. Baker, The Empty Glass (Blue Rider Press), revolves around evidence found, and not found, when police first searched Monroe’s bedroom.
Adam Braver’s new novel, Misfit (TinHouse, $15.95), centers on Monroe’s last weekend, spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort Cal Neva Lodge, where she went to escape the stress of a lawsuit filed against her by 20th Century Fox.
“There will always be interest in books offering new perspectives on her life,” says Rob Kirkpatrick, senior editor at Thomas Dunne Books, which published Badman’s book. “One of our fellow imprints in the Macmillan group did enormously well two years ago with a collection of photos and writings from Monroe, for example.”
Monroe “was originally overlooked because of her sensuality and voluptuousness. Then she became just as imitated and enduring as Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy,” says celebrity biographer Christopher Nickens, who co-wrote the recently released Marilyn in Fashion with George Zeno.
Nickens says Monroe succeeded in mixing elegance with her sensuality: “She was a work in progress. She didn’t stay stuck in any kind of image.”
Think of the pink satin gown she wore when singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The airborne pleated white dress from The Seven Year Itch. The nude sheath she wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to JFK.
Nickens says that once Monroe realized that what she had was marketable—as early as age 12—she went for it “hammer and tong.... The fact that she has endured is a tribute to the hold she had over people.”
Would Monroe be surprised by all this hoopla 50 years after her death?
“I think she’d be gratified,” Banner says. “A friend of hers said to me that Marilyn would be just thrilled to have a book about her written by an academic. She wanted to be taken seriously...She was the greatest dumb blonde of the 20th century. The dumb blonde was really smart. She outwitted them all.”
In Photo: Fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains in the in the zeitgeist, spawning everything from films and TV shows and books and, now, a makeup collection. “What stands out about her for me is her basic human desire to be loved, and how alone she felt. Everybody can connect to that. It makes her accessible,” says Broadway star Megan Hilty who channels Monroe in the TV series Smash.