America’s original California girl

Fifty years after her suicide, Marilyn Monroe -- and her many foibles -- continue to capture the imagination

Topics: The Nervous Breakdown, Marilyn Monroe, California, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Fox, Warner Bros.,

America's original California girl(AP/Courtesy Running Press)
This article originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown.

Fifty years ago today in Los Angeles, where I’m writing these words while facing a screen of a kind that didn’t exist in 1962, a thirty-six-year-old woman fatally overdosed on Nembutal and chloral hydrate, sedatives she used, or tried to use, to sleep. She had a long history of insomnia, as well as a long history of attempted suicide, but to this day it can’t be stated conclusively if she killed herself accidentally or intentionally or if someone else administered the drugs. Her housekeeper, whom the LAPD thought “vague” and “possibly evasive in answering questions,” reported finding her dead at around three A.M. in the master bedroom of the Spanish Revival hacienda she had bought five months earlier on the advice of her psychiatrist, who hoped it would give her a sense of stability. She lacked that sense, having lived since childhood like a nomad, for the most part in California, where flux, not stability, was and is the norm.

The Nervous Breakdown

She was a product of California both spiritually and factually, born in the charity ward of Los Angeles General Hospital to a mentally disturbed mother who worked as a negative cutter at Consolidated Film Industries, a processing lab for Hollywood studios. Her father, also employed by Consolidated, refused to acknowledge her; and after her mother was institutionalized, she spent two years in a Hollywood orphanage and passed through a dozen or so foster homes, losing herself at the movies at every opportunity. She dreamed of becoming an actress, a common dream for a girl of her time and ours, in California and elsewhere, though this girl could, and no doubt did, fantasize of discovery by a talent scout, per the local myth.

When she was nineteen, a variation on this myth was realized. By then she was married to a sailor and working on the assembly line at an aircraft factory in Burbank, where a photographer spotted her and took some photos, one of which was used as the cover of the August 2, 1945, issue of Yank, a wartime publication read by servicemen. Four days later, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, spelling the end of the war and Yank. Still, a modeling agent, the wonderfully named Emmeline Snively, saw the factory girl on the cover of Yank and called her in for an interview. The girl “looked a fright” in person, Snively was to remember, being “too plump, but beautiful in a way.”

Most of the “cheesecake” photos of the day, which ran in pre-Playboy men’s magazines, were taken in L.A., and Snively thought the girl had possibilities as a cheesecake model, suggesting that she lighten and straighten her dark blonde, almost brown, curls. The girl did. She lost weight by jogging and lifting weights. She had her slight overbite corrected. She had plastic surgery on her nose and chin. She pored over every frame on every contact sheet of photos shot of her, something she would do for the rest of her life, not only to learn how to better pose but to assess those facial flaws that surgery couldn’t improve, devising makeup tricks to conceal them. “I can make my face do anything,” she bragged to a friend, “same as you can take a white board and build from that and make a painting.” For instance, her lips were “really very flat,” the same friend has said, so that she “painted them with about five shades of lipstick, to get the right curves, the right shadows to bring out the lips.” Later, she began to further highlight her lips by darkening a pale mole just above them. As a California girl, let alone a model and actress, she was alert to the importance of surfaces, and she was trying to find a look, the look, that would captivate the world. And bit by bit, from her first modeling job in 1945 to her first appearance in Technicolor in 1953, she achieved it, and so invented one of the most famous entertainers of the twentieth century, now more famous than any other, still identifiable on sight as Marilyn Monroe, even to twenty-first-century children who might be pressed to name the dead president on the dime they see every day without seeing it.

*****

The notion that California is a place where people reinvent themselves is older than Hollywood, though it was bolstered by the Hollywood star system, which amended the features and biographies of unknown novices and seasoned performers alike, often recalibrating the initial image if it failed to click. Lucille Ball, maybe the only twentieth-century entertainer now almost as famous as Marilyn Monroe, underwent a series of image overhauls at RKO and M-G-M, where she made forgettable movies; her trademark red hair, originally brown, was the star system’s only substantial contribution to her later success in television. It could claim even less for Marilyn’s success in movies. She was dropped by the first studio to sign her, Twentieth Century-Fox, apparently because, as California girls are wont to do, she was dating a surfer, another Fox discovery likewise desired by the daughter of Darryl Zanuck, chief of production at Fox.

Marilyn was next signed and dropped by Columbia, supposedly after the Columbia chief, Harry Cohn, saw rushes of Ladies of the Chorus, a musical-melodrama in which Marilyn costarred as the ingénue, and barked to his assistant, “What did you put that fat pig in the picture for?” Finally, despite Zanuck’s dislike of her, she was signed again by Fox, where Zanuck was inclined to ignore her. But Marilyn wouldn’t let him ignore her. Journalists she had been cultivating for some time started to publish stories about her, with Dickensian embellishments about her childhood, already so poignant that embellishments would seem unnecessary, supplied by Marilyn herself. Meanwhile, she formed alliances in the Fox publicity department, so that whenever a starlet was needed for a photo, there was Marilyn, who played “the camera the way a virtuoso plays an instrument,” in the words of Life magazine photographer Phillipe Halsman. Numerous other photographers have remarked on Marilyn’s brilliance as a model, including Lawrence Schiller, who wrote in a recent book that “it was almost as if she were both the shooter and the subject,” adding a telling anecdote: while he was snapping photos of Marilyn, she observed that he kept his left eye open. Schiller, blind in that eye, “had been photographing people up close for nearly a decade, from the governor of California to pretty girls, to great athletes, and no one had ever noticed that before or said anything to me about it.”

Marilyn’s self-promotion campaign generated mail from people who had never seen her onscreen. It made fans of film exhibitors and theater owners, and at a Fox party where stars were on hand to meet and greet them, they instead mobbed Marilyn, asking, “And what pictures are you going to be in, Miss Monroe?” Marilyn coyly responded that such questions should be directed to Darryl Zanuck, who, at last forced to recognize her potential, ordered that she be used in any movie that suited the image that, over his head and through the chinks of the system, she had sold directly to the public: a childlike bombshell, sweetly oblivious to her beauty and sex appeal.

In reality, of course, beauty and sex appeal were Marilyn’s currency. A classic California climber, she slept her way to the middle, which is still as far as the casting couch, in its manifold forms, can take anyone. “It wasn’t any big dramatic deal,” she later told a friend. “Nobody ever got cancer from sex.” She told other friends that, at especially desperate moments, she paid the rent by hooking. Would the public have forgiven her, had it known? Possibly. It forgave her when news of her nude calendar photos broke, a shocking turn for 1952, and she explained them by way of poverty, just as the public later forgave her incorrigible unprofessionalism, her oft-reported tardiness on the set. That was viewed at the time as an impish foible of the waifish Marilyn and not as passive aggression, a concept decades from popularization, even in California, which led the world in passive aggression, the “Good to see you!” followed by an obsequious retreat and an unspecific invitation to get together soon.

But Marilyn wasn’t just passive-aggressive; at times she was frankly hateful. Her personal hairdresser, George Masters, remembered that if he was “two minutes late, she was furious, though she thought nothing of keeping others waiting for hours or days.” Masters called her the coldest person he ever knew, while Billy Wilder, who directed two of her best films, once said that he had “never met anybody as mean as Marilyn Monroe,” perhaps thinking of her tirade after she watched rushes of Some Like It Hot—“I’m not going back into that fucking film until Wilder reshoots my opening”—or her response to an assistant director’s knock on her dressing-room door: “Go fuck yourself.”

But such accounts are typically overlooked, or anyway rationalized, by those acquainted with them. There’s no pathos in the images they suggest; but there’s pathos aplenty in the image of Marilyn as an orphaned angel; as the candle in the wind of Elton John song; as a martyr of celebrity, of Hollywood, of men and patriarchy and the male gaze. This image—and, with variations, it’s finally a single image—excludes those traits it can’t, and doesn’t want to, accommodate: toughness, willfulness, petulance, truculence, all of which, and then some, can be found in a woman who demonstrates, like no one else, the folly of trusting images, which can never do more than hint at what we believe, or choose to believe, they reveal.

*****

In December 1954, wearing a black wig, Marilyn flew to the East Coast with a ticket she had bought under the name Zelda Zonk—even her protopunk alias was alliterative, with the Zs invoking sleep—and hid out in Connecticut while headlines asked: WHERE IS MARILYN? She did this partly as a strategy to force Fox to renegotiate her contract—the strategy was, naturally, successful—and after she emerged from hiding to hold a press conference, she took an apartment in New York, where she would live, off and on, to the end. New York was thought to be cultured as California wasn’t, a belief that persists, so that many Californians have entertained ideas of moving to New York. It has also worked the other way, of course. There may be more former New Yorkers living in California than anywhere else in the world, but they, as well as countless transplants from elsewhere, sometimes speak of leaving once they’ve gotten what they came to get, and that’s often fame and wealth, though it used to be wealth alone, per the 49ers who panned for gold in the Sierra Nevada and another wave of gold seekers who, in 1848, descended on the San Gabriel Mountains north of L.A. This earlier gold rush is all but forgotten, but so much is forgotten in California, a place with a scant sense of history, I’ve found, at least compared to my native Virginia. Constant flux promotes short memory.

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But Marilyn—an anomalous Californian in this way, among others—was versed enough in history that she would cite Italian theater legend Eleonora Duse, who died two years before Marilyn was born, as her acting touchstone. Duse was known for “living” her parts with a technique so subtle it didn’t seem to be a technique at all, inspiring the Stanislavski Method and its various interpreters, among them Lee Strasberg, with whom Marilyn began to study at New York’s Actors Studio. She wanted to be a serious actress, she announced, not an “erotic freak,” and to that end, she formed her own production company, which would, and did, create projects of a kind that she knew she would never be offered by Fox. Long interested in literature, she befriended poets and novelists, marrying one of America’s two best-known playwrights, Arthur Miller, while the second, Tennessee Williams, looked on askance, writing after Marilyn’s death that she was praised for reading books “because, I think, we couldn’t conceive that an ambulatory bowl of rich vanilla ice cream needed to think or to grow a mind. Marilyn sought and developed her identity as a sex symbol; she wiggled and cooed for the camera, but, incapable of satisfaction or understanding, she fought this image, so she would read Joyce and Schopenhauer and Woolf and Jung. Of course she understood none of it, because there was no fertile ground in which any of this could take hold: You can throw a multitude of seeds into the desert sands, but there will never be fruitage. Marilyn’s mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.”

This blistering assessment might sadly have rung true to Marilyn at her most insecure, and nothing made her more insecure than acting. A dream she recorded in her diary helps to explain the paralyzing stage fright that plagued her throughout her career. In the dream, Lee Strasberg was a surgeon who cut her open with a scalpel, “deeply disappointed” when he discovered “absolutely nothing there.” Acting, then, may have terrified Marilyn because it could expose her as the hollow shell—her mind “a desert,” a metaphor that recalls California—she suspected herself to be.

Williams’ attack on Marilyn is equally an attack on the “gnomish” Strasberg, who “lied to her and told her she was the new Duse,” making her believe “that she might become the great actress Strasberg told her she could and should be,” though “we never did and never will look at her and admire her acting—we will admire her bust and butt and her giggling stupidity.”

Many thought the same. It isn’t true, as Williams writes, that Marilyn was praised for reading books; in fact she was widely mocked for it. But even her fans, with the inevitable exceptions, regarded her more as a sex symbol than as an actress; and Laurence Oliver, the director of The Prince and the Showgirl, in which he also played the prince to Marilyn’s showgirl, decided she was really a model after she followed his instructions perfectly, as she had never done before, during a scene without dialogue. To say that any actress is really a model would amount to the ultimate insult for a classical actor like Olivier, but where is Marilyn is concerned, I think, in a way, Olivier was onto something.

A few years ago, I watched Marilyn’s first collaboration with Billy Wilder, The Seven-Year Itch. I had seen it before, just because it happened to be on TV, when I was a kid with no interest in old movies or the people in them, and I liked it to the extent that I could like any old movie, but seeing it again years later, what hit me, as it hadn’t when I was a kid, was the ineffable magnetism of Marilyn Monroe. Every time she was offscreen, I wanted her back, and every time she was onscreen, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It was, I slowly realized, partly because she was posing in ways that commanded attention, just as cats command attention with their poses, though I wouldn’t say that Marilyn otherwise reminded, or reminds me, of a cat. I wondered if she had been directed to pose as she did, but she did it so often and so well that it had to be her doing alone.

Marilyn’s difficulty with dialogue was as irritating to her colleagues as her habitual tardiness. Multiple takes were sometimes necessary—thirty, forty, fifty, sixty—to get a single usable shot, even if her line was one word long. Yes, she was nervous. Yes, she was passive-aggressive. Yes, she was hazy from lack of sleep and the drugs she took to help her sleep. But her background as model had prepared her to pose, not act, just as, in her modeling days, she was used to having the photographer speak to her during a shoot, which wouldn’t happen on a movie set unless the shot was silent. Also, as a model, she was used to a different rhythm, with the photographer pausing between frames to make small adjustments, as would she, hyperaware as she was of what did and didn’t look good to the camera. Those pauses were natural when she was working with still photographers, but she was expected to keep going as an actress, even as the model in her head, concerned with lights and angles, found it natural to stop. Meanwhile, the actress in her head must have resented the intrusion of the model. She was there to act, not pose, and no model would insist that every moment be “real” in the Method way, but an actress, of course, would, and Marilyn the actress was as determined as Marilyn the model to have a say. Am I feeling this? Am I really feeling it? Wait, I forgot my line. Can we do another? Damn, I’m getting a shadow on my face. Another, please. Is this real? Am I faking it? What’s my line again?

And so on. As much as she tortured her colleagues, Marilyn surely tortured herself most of all. Yet the result is that she always, in the slang of her day, looks like dynamite, since the model in her wouldn’t settle for less, while there’s an honesty, a freshness and sense of life that comes through even when she’s posing. Then, too, the camera likes fear, which is why some directors prefer first takes, the ones in which the star of the movie, the person we’re likeliest to watch, is the least comfortable. All of Marilyn’s takes were first takes. Her terror of acting, which she vainly tried so hard to overcome, was in fact an asset.

Of course, none of this qualifies her as a great actress as Tennessee Williams or Laurence Olivier would define greatness, with her narrow range and dicey technique. But Marilyn the actress is roughly equivalent, I think, to singers like Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger, who are far less versatile and skilled than any kid who ever made the first cut on American Idol, while even the winners of American Idol are as instantly forgettable as Dylan and Jagger were memorable from the gate. As for Marilyn, I can hardly point to anyone else I find more enjoyable to watch onscreen, and by that measure, not only do I think she’s a great actress, I think she’s a great artist.

***

Marilyn the artist is the Marilyn we always heard the least about, and we hear almost nothing about her now. The mysterious death of Marilyn the victim is making a little news again—is it proper to speak of this as the golden anniversary of her death?—and, over the years, there’s been considerable talk about the alleged affairs of Marilyn the temptress—or is that again the victim?—with John and Robert Kennedy, though it’s unmistakably Marilyn the retro sex goddess who has recently materialized on Facebook to authoritatively provide an example of a great body versus the contemporary female body “ideal.” Her films? How many now watch them, aside from old-movie buffs? They’re too slow for most us. We want nonstop action and special effects, not dated bedroom comedies featuring dead people, including Marilyn Monroe.

In fact, the only Marilyn Monroe movie most people have seen, if they’ve seen one at all, wasn’t made in Hollywood; it was made at Madison Square Garden three months before she died, when she sang “Happy Birthday” for John Kennedy after being introduced—a gag about her tardiness—as “the late Marilyn Monroe.” Two clips of JFK’s forty-fifth birthday celebration were the first to come up when, researching Marilyn before writing about her, I checked YouTube for clips, with the shorter version of her brief performance at the top of the list. The quality is poor, but she can be heard and seen in action, as she can’t be, of course, in her many photos.

But her photos are, more than anything else, the key to her longevity. Unlike most entertainers of her day and before, she doesn’t have to be heard or seen in action for someone unfamiliar with her—are there such people?—to glance at an image of her decked out and dolled up as “Marilyn Monroe” and think: “Bimbo! Hot blonde! Got it!” Her painstaking self-inventory, her makeup tricks, her scrutiny of every frame on every contact sheet of photos of her, all have paid off in a future world she could never have anticipated, and her acting has paid off a little too, since of course it’s the bombshell caricature she created and not her that we observe in most of her photos. She no longer needs the rags-to-riches waif, which she also had a huge hand in creating, to help put her across. That’s for people curious enough to read a little about the troubled creator of that other, more durable caricature, and most people aren’t that curious, and why should they be regarding a woman who’s been for fifty years? She’s history, and this is now, when it sometimes seems that all of us are reinventing ourselves, crafting self-images through the photos and video clips and updates we post online, selling ourselves even to “friends” we know, yet don’t know, in a world that reduces everybody to driveway neighbors, people we wave to as we get into or get out of our cars and dash off, on foot or behind the wheel, hoping never to be trapped in a complicated exchange.

I recognize this fast, simple, self-absorbed world, which owes a tremendous amount to Silicon Valley, in my offline life here in California. For better or worse, it’s the life I’ve always known in California, where I moved in search of fame and fortune, though, really, if I had been convinced of the immortality conferred on me by fame, I would’ve been content to struggle, or so I told myself. I was too young and stupid to realize that fame is short-lived for the few plucky or lucky enough to come by it. I wasn’t one of them, and even if I left California after failing to get what I came to get, I could never leave it altogether. California is everywhere now, and its most famous daughter, as immortal as any dead celebrity can be, is everywhere known, and everywhere invisible in the way she most wanted to be seen.

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