PRINT January 1994


Marilyn Monroe

MARILYN MONROE, OUR FAVORITE goddess, was born to bridge the gap between life and death, innocence and experience, high culture and low. This fall alone, while the New York Opera was celebrating its golden anniversary with the world premiere of an opera based on her last day, the USA cable-TV network was screening yet another scurrilous docudrama, Marilyn and Bobby: Her Final Affair. Just business as usual: Monroe’s image graced the first issue of Playboy (December 1953) even as Willem de Kooning was painting his own Marilyn, 1954.

This year, devotees can celebrate the 40th anniversary of Marilyn’s apotheosis. It was in 1953–54 that Monroe became indistinguishable from her image—so much so that whatever she might do, she would never seem out of character. Her bombshell performance in Niagara, followed by the back-to-back release of the comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, made her the nation’s number-one box office attraction for 1953. It was the deadly siren of Niagara—per the title, a force of nature—who would provide Andy Warhol with the basis for his multiple Marilyns, whereas the proto–Pop art of Blondes and Millionaire presented Marilyn in the cartoon role of “Marilyn Monroe.” Yet there is no particular movie that can be considered the definitive Monroe vehicle.

Only weeks after Playboy’s glorification, Monroe commandeered every tabloid front-page in America by marrying the greatest of all baseball players, Joe Di Maggio. (Appropriately, Di Maggio fell in love with Monroe after seeing her photo in a newspaper.) Life proclaimed it “THE MERGER OF TWO WORLDS”: “Two huge fan clubs found their differing interests focused, for the moment, on the same event.” The stars had shrouded their plans “with the secrecy of an atomic test, [slipping] into San Francisco’s city hall unnoticed.” Still, an eyewitness account was broadcast over a national radio hookup—the judge first shoved aside by crazed reporters, then mobbed by them.

Marilyn and Joe planned to honeymoon in Japan. As their plane approached Tokyo, an American general invited them to entertain the American forces in Korea. Di Maggio was unenthusiastic but Marilyn was primed to cheer up the GIs manning the peripheral Fort Apache of the Free World. According to C. Roberts Jennings, then a reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes, “The announcement of her visit spread like wild grass fire across the tense neutral zone. . . . Some [GIs] actually wept. Others froze in a sort of yearning silence.”

The war in Korea was finally over—the truce signed in summer 1953, just before the release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The Red Tide had temporarily begun to recede and America was beachcombing for new icons. Chiang Kai-shek aside, Marilyn may have been Korea’s greatest beneficiary. Indeed she told Jennings that she felt she owed her success to the war: “When I first started in I had several little parts at Fox. Then the letters began pouring in from Korea and my studio was so impressed they began to give me wonderful parts.” Thanks to Korea, she said, her fan mail “jumped from 50 letters to 5,000 letters a week.”

February 16, 1954: Marilyn arrives in Korea. Her entrance is magnificent. Anticipating the Playboy-bunny scene in Apocalypse Now, she asks the helicopter pilot to swoop down over the troops in the field so she can wave to them. Lying on the helicopter floor, Marilyn extends her upper torso fully outside the bay (a pair of hefty enlisted men holding her legs) as the chopper repeatedly strafes the front.

The star, who has never before played to a live audience, has pulled together an act out of numbers from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire. In her posthumous memoir, My Story, Monroe describes waiting in the wings before her first performance and hearing the roar of the crowd drown out the music. An agitated officer rushes her out on stage, afraid that the audience will riot. At the last of Monroe’s ten performances (during which she entertains some 100,000 troops) the troops do riot. Forced to wait for hours in subzero cold, some 6,000 members of the 45th (“Thunderbird”) Division stomp down the barriers and throw rocks to clear the stage for Marilyn. The next morning she returns to wish them goodbye, but instead of sayonara uses eleewah, Korean for “Come here,” and precipitates another mad stampede.

Marilyn left Korea with a mild case of pneumonia, but told Jennings that her work there had been her “greatest experience with any kind of audience,” “the best thing” that had ever happened to her. She reported to Di Maggio that until then she had never “felt like a movie star.” Back in Hollywood, she confided in gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky that “for the first time in my life I had the feeling that the people seeing me were accepting me.” My Story ends with the chapter “Korean Serenade.”

The image of Monroe performing for ecstatic troops in the cold was transmitted around the globe. Meanwhile, the inspector general of the Army Forces Far East launched a full-scale investigation into her activities in Korea, and an irate article in the New York Times juxtaposed her tour with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of the army: while “Senator McCarthy demeaned his position by bullying and browbeating officers of the Army,” the “weaknesses in service morale [were] epitomized by the visit of Miss Monroe to Korea. On two occasions during the visit of the motion picture actress, troops rioted mildly and behaved like bobby-soxers in Times Square.” It was surprising that McCarthy hadn’t picked up on this, for “their conduct must have delighted the Communists and all who hope for signs of degradation and decline in the United States.”

Monroe disturbed the peace again when The Seven Year Itch started shooting in New York later that year. Illuminated by a blaze of publicity, she posed legs akimbo above a subway grating so that the rush of air billowed her skirt up nearly to the level of her solidly haltered breasts. As the situation recapitulated a risqué staple of nickelodeon two-reelers, the icon expressed a paradoxical mixture of childlike naïveté and ecstatic sexual display. There were 15 takes of the skirt-blowing scene, shot at two in a September morning on the corner of 51st Street and Lexington Avenue for a crowd of a hundred photographers and reporters, several thousand cheering onlookers, and one irate husband. (On October 4, 1954, it was announced that the Monroe/Di Maggio marriage was over.)

The climax of Marilyn’s career as a “studio-manufactured” celebrity, The Seven Year Itch was merely the excuse for the publicity photograph—or, rather, photographs. Scores of images were generated during the display, which the Catholic weekly America labeled “New York’s Disgrace.” They rippled out along the wire services, circulating throughout the world for nearly a year before coalescing the following June in the form of a four-story cardboard Marilyn clutching her skirts above Times Square: our Venus rising from the foam of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

“Even The Daily Worker doesn’t publish sexy pictures which help erode the moral basis of American democracy,” America complained. But The Daily Worker was the one place where you would be guaranteed not to see Marilyn. The personification of milk and honey, a vision of abundance for the average Joe, she was the pure embodiment of the Pax Americana. (Her death would mark the onset of that era’s decline.) To one auto-industry observer, the 1955 Chrysler’s newly elongated, blatantly forward-thrusting, gaudily two-toned design was so exciting yet accessible that it suggested a new mantra for consumption and desire: “Marilyn Monroe as a housewife.”

J. Hoberman reviews films for The Village Voice, New York.