life remembers marilyn

Life was one of the most popular American magazines of the 20th century, with a strong emphasis on photojournalism. It lives on today as an online photo archive, and occasionally publishes special editions in honour of iconic Americans. During the 1950s and 60s, one of their favourite cover stars was none other than Marilyn Monroe, and this tribute is long overdue.

The 128-page magazine is available now in the US, and in the UK at WH Smith. It may also be published as a hardback book this autumn. Photographs of Monroe throughout her life are reproduced in good quality, and about two thirds are black and white.

There is also a biographical text, which is fairly general but well-researched and (mostly) accurate. It is increasingly difficult to pin down the facts of Monroe’s life because so many conflicting accounts have been given, from more or less credible sources. The narrative told here offers a decent introduction, and the photographs tell their own story.

The cover photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstadt in 1953, and has been altered so that Marilyn’s lips and fingernails look much redder than they were that day, building on the instantly recognisable myth of Monroe.

Rare childhood snaps create a fascinating document of the young, brunette Norma Jeane, growing up in Depression-era Los Angeles. Her hopeful innocence jumps out of every picture. A passport photo of Norma at 13, her eyes looking dreamily upward, is enlarged to fit a full page.

By contrast, a Gordon Parks portrait from 1956 shows Marilyn at the height of her sex appeal, pouting for the camera.

Marilyn was first featured in Life when she was still an upcoming actress. Along with seven other starlets, she was photographed by Philippe Halsman for a spread entitled, ‘Eight Girls Try Out Mixed Emotions.’ Marilyn enacted terror in one shot, laughter in another.  Halsman would shoot Marilyn’s first, most iconic Life cover in 1952, where she sizzles in an off-the-shoulder, cream silk dress; and another in 1959, where she leaps in delight.

Another of Halsman’s photos shows a young Marilyn lifting weights, and is contrasted with a shot by Ernst Bacharach, where she reads a film script. Marilyn’s sincere quest to be respected for her achievements, and not just admired for her gorgeous body, would dominate her later career. The magazine includes some of the best shots by her favourite photographers – Andre De Dienes, Milton Greene, Sam Shaw, Eve Arnold, Cecil Beaton.

Marilyn felt more confident as a model than she ever did as an actress, perhaps because the process was more intimate. And whereas in her film career she was forced to make the best of her typecasting as a ‘dumb blonde’, as a model she was sometimes able to express herself with greater subtlety.

Stills and on-set candids from Marilyn’s most successful films – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, The Misfits – show the star at her most brilliant. Even in paparazzi shots, Marilyn rarely lost her natural grace.

A shy, deeply insecure woman in private, she nonetheless seemed utterly at ease when surrounded by fans – as the pictures from her wartime tour of Korea illustrate.  Other photos chronicle her marriages, divorces and of course, her legendary appearance at John F. Kennedy’s birthday gala, just months before her death.

When the Life internet archive was unveiled last year, a series of photographs by Edward Clark, of an unknown Marilyn in 1951, were uncovered for the first time. She is pictured, looking demure and pretty, in Griffiths Park, L.A., ethereal as a wood nymph sighted in the forest. Just one of these shots is included in the magazine.

Only two of Marilyn’s eleven Life covers are shown, and while her interviews are often quoted, to reproduce these features in full would have made this a truly unique product, as the original magazines are now very rare. Though the dedicated fan will already know Marilyn’s life story, and will have seen most of the photos before, Remembering Marilyn is in itself a visual treat and sure to become a collector’s item.