The Abrams Discoveries series is a range of small paperbacks covering notable subjects in history, art, music and science. It provides a detailed but succinct look at individual topics, and a reference point for further study. Marilyn Monroe would doubtless have been amused to find herself scrutinised alongside King Arthur, Salvador Dali and the ancient Greeks. However, its title, The Last Goddess, is an appropriate one. The front cover uses that familiar image of Marilyn in a gold dress, cut to the navel, her spirit as elusive as a modern Mona Lisa. The back jacket includes a smaller still from her most successful film, Some Like It Hot.
The Last Goddess opens with a poignant quote from Marilyn herself, concerning middle age. As it turned out, this was one battle she would never have to fight. There follows a selection of shots from one of her last sessions with photographer Bert Stern. Author Jerome Charyn comments, ‘It’s not the variety or the fickleness that moves us, but the intensity of her delight, and her utter lack of vanity. She is with us, one of us, making us share all the chaos and contradictions inside her head.’
The book is crammed with well-chosen photographs and a concise, but surprisingly insightful text. While considering Marilyn’s mother (who had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised when her daughter was just nine), Charyn notes that in many ways, Gladys was a woman ahead of her time, possessing ‘a kind of bravery and pizzazz…(she) fought against America’s puritanical convention that a woman could only be defined within a marriage.’ After Gladys vanished from Marilyn’s life, the young girl became an unwilling ‘vagabond’, drifting between foster homes – yet her earliest influences were strong, independent women.
Charyn recognises Marilyn’s early brilliance as a model, comparing her to that other pin-up of the fifties, Bettie Page – ‘What distinguished Bettie and ‘Jean Norman’ (one of Marilyn’s first pseudonyms) from every other model was their sense of play and how they could pull the viewer right into the photograph.’
In covering Marilyn’s starlet years, Charyn acknowledges the seedier side of Hollywood but largely avoids the trap of relying on rumour and hearsay. He observes that Marilyn’s breakthrough role, as a gangster’s moll in The Asphalt Jungle, held echoes of her relationship with agent Johnny Hyde. Charyn then offers an intriguing analysis of her brief appearance in All About Eve: ‘Marilyn is the real Eve, who subverts the narrative line and makes the story stand still.’ Marilyn’s unique gift, her ability ‘to render everyone else in a scene invisible’, carried her through a slew of forgettable B-movies and finally made her a star.
It also made her almost impossible to direct, and her battles with the film studios were notorious. She was slated for her dependence on acting coaches, her chronic unpunctuality, her demands for multiple retakes, and her tendency to blow her lines. At the root of Marilyn’s rebelliousness, perhaps, was a sense of injustice. Charyn notes that ‘It was only her ‘star power’…that had gotten her the least bit of recognition or respect. Nobody seemed to care about her acting or even consider that she could act.’
Marilyn’s escape to New York in 1955 offered her the chance to start anew, and find herself. For a while it seemed that she had abandoned glamour. It may have been liberating that she was ‘not a beauty machine’ when she studied at the Actor’s Studio, or when she formed a production company with Milton Greene. Marilyn’s popularity was never in question, and her audacious life ensured that she was much more than just a movie star, but a woman who ‘managed to cut a very wide swathe right through American culture.’ Her endearing honesty when the scandal of her nude calendar broke, her brushes with other icons from the worlds of sport, theater and politics all added to her mystique.
Charyn shows that the real tragedy of Marilyn’s life was not that she was weak, or a victim, but that she was constantly underestimated by others. He interprets her public swansong, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy, not as vulgar or pathetic, but the proud, defiant act of a sexually confident woman. One journalist recalled, ‘It was quite a sight to behold, and if I ever saw an appreciation of feminine beauty in the eyes of a man, it was in John F. Kennedy’s eyes at that moment.’
In a puritanical society that feared female sexuality, Marilyn was often misunderstood. Even after her death, biographers have depicted her as a tormented soul, doomed from the outset. While there may be a grain of truth in this notion, it doesn’t explain her enduring appeal almost half a century on. The Last Goddess is only a summary of Marilyn’s life, and doesn’t claim to unravel her every last thought. But Charyn does succeed in celebrating her remarkable talent, which has outlasted most of her peers.
The book ends with a selection of documents, including a reproduced obituary from the New York Times; extracts from Norman Mailer’s ‘factoid’ biography and the memoirs of Marilyn’s sometime lover, Elia Kazan; an essay by Sarah Churchwell, and a passage from Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Blonde. A filmography, and information on each of the 130 pictures makes this a valuable source and useful introduction to the legendary Marilyn Monroe.