Sunday, March 4, 2007

Norma Jeane Baker and the cult of celebrity

Britney is still famous from her previous incarnation, too

Tankwoman's recent post about celebrity stories and how they often push more substantive news to a lower priority than they should have got me to thinking about the reasons we have "celebrities". It's especially puzzling with someone like Paris Hilton, who seems to be a celebrity mainly because she is a celebrity. Although I did first hear of her in connection with some "reality show" she did a few years ago, Cornpone Girls, or Return to Petticoat Junction or something like that, where she and I think it was Nicole Ritchie lived in rural Arkansas somewhere and made out with the local good ole boys on camera.

It reminded me about the biography that feminist writer Gloria Steinem did about Norma Jeane Baker, better known by her screen name of Marilyn Monroe, which was titled simply Marilyn (1986). Steinem writes about the enduring power of her iconic image, which is still with us more than 20 years after her book was published:

Now, almost twenty-five years after her death, I notice the same phenomenon that was true when I first wrote a brief essay about Marilyn Monroe fifteen years ago. many of us remember the precise moment on August 5, 1962, when we first heard of her death. We remember where we were, what the room looked like, who was there. It's a sense memory usually reserved for the death of a president like Roosevelt or Kennedy, or a great leader like Martin Luther King, or a member of our own family Even for those of us who are not old enough to have such a memory, her name is almost as familiar as that of the famous who are living now.

Her terrible openness made a connection with strangers. It seems never to end.
Of course, when we ask why someone like Marilyn or Elvis continues to be a fascinating figure long after their deaths, it's a bit like the Paris Hilton thing: it's fascinating that other people have found them so fascinating.

But that's not quite it. Marilyn was an outstanding actress. Elvis was a pioneering musician, and had a great voice. So they weren't just famous because they were famous. Luc Sante wrote in 2000, in a review of Joyce Carol Oates' novel Blonde which was about Marilyn (
Her Story New York Review of Books 12/15/2000 issue - link behind subscription):

A mountain of books have already been written to explain or exploit her, from poetry to the rankest trash. The ephemera has never stopped being generated and doesn't seem as if it ever will. Hers may be the mightiest of the pop-culture religions - only Elvis comes close. Valentino is barely a memory by now; James Dean recedes from view as the years reduce him to three movies and a handful of stills; the dead Sixties rock stars have lost their mass appeal and their worship has narrowed to fringe cults. But Marilyn's mystery remains evergreen. Her beauty itself is mysterious — it is both real and concocted, just as sexually she appears both vulnerable and overpowering, or maybe it's that her vulnerability is itself overpowering. She is the very personification of the Hollywood star, intimate with each viewer while as remote as a marble statue. Her life sounds like a parable, or a pulp novel, from the mystery of her parentage to the mystery of her death.
Steinem also points out that their was a distinct tragic element in Marilyn's life that enhances her story's appeal:

One simple reason for her life story's endurance is the premature end of it. Personalities and narratives projected onto the screen of our imaginations are far more haunting — and far more likely to be the stuff of conspiracies and conjecture -if they have not been allowed to play themselves out to their logical or illogical ends. James Dean's brief life is the subject of a cult, but the completed lives of such similar "outsiders" as Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda are not. Each day in the brief Camelot of John Kennedy inspires as much speculation as each year in the long New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. The few years of Charlie "Bird" Parker's music inspiregraffiti ("Bird Lives"), but the many musical years of Duke Ellington do not.

When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.
One big reservation I have about Steinem's book is that she is far too uncritical in her treatment of the legends about Marlilyn having had affairs with Jack Kennedy and even his brother Bobby. Now, I realize that I may be the only living adult who doesn't believe that she had an affair with Jack Kennedy. But reality still does have some claim of its own. And the stories about her and Bobby are even more far-fetched.

Donald Spoto, who is the best celebrity biographer whose work I've ever encountered, took a careful look at those tales in his Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1993). He examined the various stories that were out there - and there were quite a few of them - that claimed JFK and Marilyn had rendezvous at particular times and compared those to their actual schedules. It's famously hard to "prove a negative". But he was able to determine their schedules for the claimed incidents, and most of them were downright impossible. Marilyn and JFK were in different cities or even in different countries.

There was one exception. Spoto believed that JFK and she had a one-night stand at his brother-in-law Peter Lawford's house one night. They were both guests there on a particular night. (On 03/04/1962, for the curious.) He found that the available evidence persuasive for that one occasion. So I'm willing to say that it's not unreasonable to believe that they did have that one-night stand. Though it didn't quite convince me. At least there is a second-hand account of Marilyn herself having said she and Jack did the Wild Thing on that occasion.

Marilyn and Bobby were acquainted and were even friends to some extent. But the evidence for their having had a sexual relationship is on the level of the pre-Iraq War evidence for Saddam's notorious stash of "weapons of mass destruction".

I know I'm never going to convince anybody that she and JFK didn't have an affair. But I still toss it out there when the subject comes up.

I recommend Spoto's biography. He actually subjects the sources to some careful scrutiny. And he makes a convincing case that her death was due to an accidental overdose, not a suicide.

But whether or not she got to know JFK between the sheets on that one occasion, her association with the Kennedys - including her famous "Happy Birthday" song to Jack in 1962 - adds to the mystique of her enduring image.

Steinem gives some thought to what directions Marilyn's career might have taken had she lived much longer. She writes:

The woman who feared most of all becoming a joke, being used or victimized, was succumbing to her greatest fear. Only Norma Jeane would have known the cruel distance between the nightmare of the nonperson she believed herself to be and the dream of the public Marilyn — and that distance was diminishing. She felt "unimportant and insignificant," her last psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, explained. The main mechanism she used to bring some feeling of stability and significance to her life was the attractiveness of her body."
Greenson was a well-known figure in the psychiatric profession; he was a friend of Anna Freud. But you have to wonder about his discretion blabbing about her like this, although I don't know what kind of permissions she may have given him or even exactly what the profession's ethics demand in that situation. (Steinem doesn't cite her source for that quotation, so it could even have been a statement in the public record from some legal inquest, for all I know.)

Steinem found a tragic element even in imagining the directions her later career might have taken:

[I]t's difficult to imagine the later Marilyn with enough personal strength, or enough acting tones beyond her sexual and childlike ones, to convey the lessons of a woman of fifty, much less [an older one]. Even now, with women's acting range and age expanded by the feminism that began in the 1970s, long after Monroe's death, it's hard to imagine a current Marilyn Monroe crossing those boundaries. Could she have made a Shirley MacLaine-like transition to such roles as the mother in Terms of Endearment? Could she now be portraying real women in history with any of the strength of Cicely Tyson or Jane Fonda? Might she have followed the example of Shelley Winters, her contemporary and a roommate when both were starlets, by creating wonderfully frumpy roles, or nurturing new talent and directing plays at the Actors Studio? Could Marilyn have defeated her debilitating addictions and returned to health as Elizabeth Taylor has done? Could she even have found refuge in those few parts that depict aging sex goddesses - roles like those played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek?

To follow the acting paths of MacLaine or Fonda, this woman who could not control her own life would have had to make us believe in the personal power of other women. To become fully an actress, Marilyn should have done entire plays on stage; yet she was often so fearful that she forgot her lines, even in the short scenes that moviemaking allows. To kick her addictions to sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and alcohol would have meant admitting them — and the private terrors that made them necessary. To play herself as an aging sex goddess would have required a cruel self-vision and the willingness to act out the fate she feared most.
So, sure, there's something irrational about it. But let's face it. Whose life story would most people find more interesting: Marilyn Monroe's or Dick Cheney's?

Sometimes a good story is just a good story!


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