“When we can recognise an actor by a set of icons, we can also recognise how completely that actor and their work have entered our culture and our consciousness.” A snapper board, a ukulele, and a birthday cake; the imprint of red lipstick, a bottle of Chanel No. 5, and a white halter dress blowing in the wind above a subway grate. These are all visual signifiers of the ultimate Hollywood bombshell, Marilyn Monroe.
Biographic: Marilyn is the latest entry from publisher Ammonite Press in a series devoted to recreating the lives of iconic personalities with a blend of facts and graphics, each in hardback format and under 100 pages. The concept was pioneered by illustrator Matt Carr, while Brighton-based author Katie Greenwood has also provided a narrative context to previous titles on two artists, Degas and Cézanne. Other subjects in the series include Audrey (Hepburn, of course), and Einstein, whom Marilyn admired.
“Gorgeous, charming, witty and generous, Marilyn often wore her heart on her sleeve,” Greenwood writes in the book’s introduction. “Privately, Marilyn found it increasingly difficult to integrate her public persona with her own self-image … [with] feelings of rejection and a deep desire for approval spilling over into all areas of her life.”
Nonetheless, Greenwood refuses to define Monroe in the narrow terms of victimhood, noting “the luminosity of her screen presence”; how she “came to personify both the allure of superstardom and [its] negative consequences”; and “the seeming paradoxes that her life embodied: fragility and strength, innocence and sexuality, vulnerability and power.” While the Biographic premise can only skim the surface of Marilyn’s story, it is distinguished by sound research and is mercifully free of the misattributed quotes and Maileresque factoids which have distorted so many ‘serious’ biographies.
The book is divided into four sections, with the first exploring her brief, but eventful lifeline. From the outset, Norma Jeane’s fate was indelibly connected to the fledgling movie capital. She was born in 1926, as Greta Garbo made her Hollywood debut in The Torrent, and flapper Clara Bow refused to sign Paramount’s morality clause. The first talking picture would be released the following year.
But for a poor child in Los Angeles, nothing else was certain. Even her family tree is incomplete, as she would never meet her real father. Norma Jeane’s last name would change frequently in her childhood years, from Mortenson, to Baker, to Dougherty; and although she found fame as Marilyn Monroe, she would not adopt the name legally for almost a decade. Her subsequent marriages, and the pseudonyms she often used to protect her privacy (Faye Miller, Zelda Zonk) further complicate her mutable identity.
The instability of her early years can be glimpsed in a diagram mapping the various homes she shared with foster carers, family and friends, and other displaced children. By the end of her life, Marilyn had resided in at least 43 different addresses. Her rise to fame began during World War II, when a photographer discovered her working in a munitions plant. A modelling career and the longed-for movie contract followed, but stardom would take years of hard work and raised hopes. Her life’s trajectory paralleled that of original blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. Along the way she would collect many father figures, but her health was always frail (physically and emotionally), and like Harlow before her, she would never grow old.
In the second section, ‘World’, we learn that Marilyn owned more than 400 books, from Ulysses to Colette; her favourite tipple was champagne (Dom Perignon 1953); and she was married to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, who dominated their own fields as she did hers. Beauty secrets are revealed alongside her iconic movie costumes; her Hollywood haunts and jaunts to England and Korea are also covered. More ominously, her addiction to prescribed medications, and chronic unpunctuality hint at the turmoil within (during filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, she arrived late to the set fifty times in a 53-day shoot.)
“Please don’t make me a joke,” Marilyn pleaded with a reporter before her death in 1962. “I want to be an artist, an actress with integrity.” This quote precedes the third section, ‘Work.’ She may be remembered as Playboy’s first (unwitting) centrefold, but photographer Philippe Halsman was the first to put her on the cover of LIFE magazine. A bar chart shows how her salary increased with her fame; and perhaps more significantly, her fierce ambition put her at odds with Twentieth Century Fox, leading her to study acting in New York, and establish Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1955. While she only made one film under the company’s name, she made the transition from studio contract player to freelancer with a profit share in later years.
“It’s not that I object to doing musicals and comedies – in fact I rather enjoy them,” she told broadcaster Edward Murrow during a rare television appearance. “But I’d like to do dramatic parts too.” A pie chart shows that 32% of her output was in comedy, but her dramatic roles, though less popular, followed behind at 20%. Three of her most notable films – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, and The Misfits – are examined in detail, and soundbites from her best directors reflect those whom, like John Huston and Billy Wilder, helped guide her finest performances; while others like Howard Hawks viewed her chiefly as a phenomenon. “Did you ever see on the screen, ‘this picture was directed by an ignorant director with no taste?’” she asked in exasperation, before answering her own question: “No, the public always blames the star.”
Her musical achievements are also explored, from her friendship with singer Ella Fitzgerald and movie themes like ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, to her risqué performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ at a gala for John F. Kennedy. The fourth and final section considers Monroe’s legacy in terms of the multi-million-dollar auction prices paid for her personal property; and her wide-ranging influence on pop artist Andy Warhol, Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, and Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ video.
A ‘Typographic Marilyn’ diagram shows the words most commonly used to describe her, from ‘blonde’ and ‘nude’ to ‘love’ and ‘suicide’. We look back at the many accolades she received (beginning as Artichoke Queen in a small California town in 1948, and signing off as World Female Film Favourite at the Golden Globes in 1962.)
The book concludes with capsule biographies of all the people who impacted Marilyn’s life – such as agent Johnny Hyde, and analyst Ralph Greenson. And in a parting salvo, Katie Greenwood brings us up to date with the #MeToo campaign and praises Monroe as an “early whistleblower,” while noting that gender ratios in today’s Hollywood are still dominated by men. The final word rests with Marilyn: “They say I’m whistle bait. Could be, but I’m forever meeting guys who don’t stop at a whistle. I’ve learned to handle them all.”
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