by Michael Sones
“I want to grow old without facelifts. I want to have the courage to be loyal to the face I have made.” Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe, one of the most famous women of the twentieth century, was born Norma Jean Mortenson in June, 1926, in Los Angeles, USA. She was Marilyn, the legend, and now nearly forty years after her death, she still has all the allure of a mythic icon. Her story, her legend, has touched the hearts of the generations.
Marilyn’s mother was no Queen, nor married to a King. Instead she was a single parent, with few resources and mental health problems which made her feel unable to care properly for her new baby daughter. Marilyn’s childhood was peppered with various foster home placements which contributed to a deep insecurity which accompanied her throughout her life. She would later say of herself, “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.” But it was not her feeling of not belonging that the world found so appealing, although her apparent vulnerability and fragility engendered sympathy in many. It was, first and foremost, her obvious physical attractiveness that brought her to the attention of what would become an admiring public.
She first married at sixteen to Jimmy Dougherty, a man five years older who worked at an airplane plant. A couple of years later, in l942, when America was deeply entrenched in the war, Marilyn chanced to be photographed as part of a publicity campaign to highlight the contributions of women during the war. Her photos were immediately popular and led to a successful modeling career. At one time she could be found on the front covers of over thirty magazines. She had beautiful skin, clear blue eyes that seem to sparkle, thick blond hair and a body that men adored and women wished they had. The hair colour was not her own as her natural hair colour was brown. Did she know that as a blonde, she might have more fun?
Sadly, as her own career took off her marriage ended. Marilyn landed a contract with Fox Studios in 1946 and it was at this time that she dropped the name Norma Jean and adopted the one that was to become famous, Marilyn. She borrowed this name from the actress Marilyn Miller and Monroe was the name of her maternal grandmother. Why did she do this? Was she somehow trying to begin a new life, putting her painful beginnings behind her? “No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl. All little girls should be told they are pretty, even if they aren’t.”
Marilyn’s first real acclaim as a actress followed on her performances in the Asphalt Jungle (1950 ) and All About Eve (1950). A second marriage to baseball superstar, Joe DiMaggio, followed in 1954, but within the year it ended, due apparently to a conflict about Marilyn’s career choices. Some will have it that Joe wanted Marilyn to stay at home and out of the public eye where she attracted so much attention. He was opposed to her presenting herself to the troops in Korea, which she did anyway, and which was to affect her profoundly. The response to her show was overwhelmingly positive. Marilyn was later to comment about it “Gee, I never thought I had an effect on people until I was in Korea.” This naiveté was to lead some people to assume that her beauty was only skin deep and that an exploration of her mind would find it shallow and empty. This saddened Marilyn and made her more determined to be taken seriously and not seen just as a “blond bombshell”. “I don’t want to play sex roles anymore. I’m tired of being known as the girl with the shape.”
A third and final marriage to Arthur Miller, a renowned playwright, was also to be unsuccessful, terminating after five years in 1961. Her dependency on drugs suggests that her life had become more painful than she could bear. At times she could feel very isolated in spite of the public’s interest. “It stirs up envy, fame does. People.feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you and it won’t hurt your feelings like it’s happening to your clothing.” Marilyn’s death followed in 1962, under suspicious circumstances, and probably from an unintentional overdose of the drugs on which she had become so dependent. Her sad and tragic death was in spite of her having been voted the “World’s Most Popular Star” that same year, and just weeks before she was to have remarried Joe DiMaggio.
While beauty is desirable to women, Marilyn’s experience would suggest that perhaps there is such a thing as a surplus of beauty. She herself noted that she had become an object of desire or interest to people, but as a thing, like a piece of clothing, rather than as a person, with needs and feelings. Where Cleopatra was noted for her intelligence and was powerful and could be ruthless, (as when ordering the death of her sister, Arsinoe), Marilyn was not known for her cunning or her intelligence; it pained her deeply that people felt her beauty was only skin-deep. The failure of three marriages, too, may be significant. What are the inherent difficulties in maintaining a marriage where one of the partners is so universally desirable? In terms of evolutionary biology, the advantage of choosing an attractive mate is that she is likely to be healthy and capable of reproduction and the successful passing on of genes. But if she attracts so much attention from so many rivals, the male may feel that many more resources are required to maintain his position vis a vis his mate than he is either able or willing to give. Too, her apparent “perfection” in physical terms, may only serve to underline frailties or imperfections in her intellectual, spiritual or emotional make-up, so that her partner may move from an perspective of seeing her as ideal to one of devaluing her.