The Monroe Doctrine

[31 May 2001]

By John G. Nettles

M>onroe: a monolith on the landscape of American myth. White skirts billowing about her hips in an eternal updraft, melodious giggle carried on a breeze laced with wisps of Chanel No. 5. Object of worship and obsession and dark desires, after all these years still Hefner’s creamiest slice of cheesecake. The effortless pucker. The slight tummy pooch. One can calibrate instruments from the placement of the beauty mark . . .

In no endeavor has my generation invested so much energy as in its attempt to establish an iconography to equal that of our parents and grandparents. There were giants in the earth back in their day, and rather than accept their passing as the consequence of a changing world, we regard the dearth of equally towering figures among our own number as a failure in ourselves and attempted to construct our own mythology. Unfortunately, we went about it in insecure, derivative ways, borrowing and relabeling. Johnny Depp was supposed to be our James Dean, except he wisely began playing freaks. Kevin Costner was the new Gary Cooper, until we realized it wasn’t style — he really was that wooden an actor. Lenny Kravitz is the only person who still believes he’s the new Hendrix, and the jury’s still out on whether Kurt Cobain was our Jim Morrison or our John Lennon (I say he’s neither, though Courtney Love is most definitely our Yoko Ono).

And there is no figure more elusive than Monroe. Lord knows we’ve tried to find ours in the most unlikely contenders. I once read a newspaper article claiming that Kim Basinger was The One, with her blonde fragility and her penchant for the well-timed bosom-heave. Sharon Stone, aggressive and willing to flaunt her assets at a moment’s notice. Charlize Theron, golden curls and succulent bottom lip. And Madonna, for whom the Monroe fixation was, truthfully, more our invention than hers — we all watched Madonna do Monroe in the “Material Girl” video and the word homage mysteriously disappeared from our vocabularies. If anything, there was more Monroe in Madonna’s failed attempts at serious acting than in anything she succeeded at. Whoever she is, if she’s tow-headed, charismatic, and ambitious, we scramble to fit her into the Procrustean bed we’ve reserved for the new Monroe, our Monroe. Gentlemen prefab blondes.

Monroe: played dumb blondes so well she fooled herself. We believed her married to the Yankee Clipper but never bought Mrs. Death of a Salesman. He was too old, too dull, too smart for her. Acted with Olivier — Larry needed the cash. Loved by John Huston — lecherous old drunken lunatic. Studied with Strasberg — nice try, doll. Go back to Hollywood . . .

Even a cursory look at the Sotheby’s catalog from the auction of Monroe’s estate reveals the breadth of her mind. She was a voracious reader, as shown by her huge collection of well-thumbed books on subjects spanning the spectrum, from politics to philosophy, from Shakespeare to Faulkner, margins filled with scribbled notes and questions. Her mind was always hungry, her ambitions never vulgar.

The blonde bombshell, the sex goddess, Sugar Kane — that was a character, a costume she threw off whenever possible. Susan Strasberg used to speak of walking with Monroe on the streets of New York, amazed that no one recognized the star even though her only disguise was a scarf for her hair, and Monroe would reply that it was because she wasn’t playing “Monroe.” It was an internal switch she could flip, a charisma-circuit, movie-star mojo she could work at will. She demonstrated by suddenly flashing the smile at a passerby, and they watched the poor schlub double-take, caught in the beam of Monroe’s eerie superpower. Then, just as suddenly, she stopped, “Monroe” going back into her bottle where she belonged, and the women went back to walking. Of all the characters Monroe wanted to play, herself was the easiest and the least of them.

Monroe: misfit. Supposed First Mistress, movie-star concubine of movie-star President, both golden, both doomed. Romantic drama turned Restoration comedy — secret passages, up the back stairs, the revolving bed trick. Idylls of the king. Norma Jean becomes Morgan le Fey . . .

We have no idea what to make of the whole Kennedy thing. We feel obligated to deplore it as a breach of the public’s confidence, especially now in the post-Clinton era, but we can’t help but be fascinated by the sheer roguish audacity of it, the ineffable appropriateness of a coupling between the most powerful man and the most beautiful woman on earth. It’s too huge, too Olympian for us to wrap our minds around, even today. And yet, it’s just sex. Kennedy’s career steamrolled on a head of leonine intelligence, glamour, and sex appeal, as did Monroe’s. Millions of us would have gladly rolled over for either of them, but we are scandalized at the thought that they might have rolled over for each other. Movie stars and politicians share the eternal curse of celebrity, a public unwilling to accept that they might practice those things which they embody. Pick your cliche for dichotomy: sinner/saint, virgin/whore — which was Monroe supposed to be?

In the end, Monroe was the eternal personality at war with itself, a true Gemini, if you believe in such things. She wore the gauzy trappings of myth, and admittedly found no small measure of security in it, but she was too intelligent and ambitious to be satisfied with mere divinity. She strove to be real, only to have reality denied her. No wonder she took the pills — she wasn’t trying to escape, she was giving in.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Monroe’s death is the culture of pervasive necrophilia that has risen since. Elton John brings the house down and rakes in millions singing, without a trace of irony, about how heinously those other people so exploited her. There have been more movies made with “Monroe” the character than the real Monroe ever made herself. And the jackals of my generation continue to search for her avatar, utterly ignorant of the fact that only a self-destructive fool would want the job.

Monroe: American myth. Goddess of bright promise and patron saint of wet-dreaming adolescents. Actress in spite of herself, philosopher in spite of others. Galatea, ever in search of flesh to call her own.

Just Marilyn.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/010531-marilyn/