Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Bernie Taupin said she lived her life like a candle in the wind.

She played a dumb blonde to perfection yet she wasn’t at all dumb; she wasn’t even blonde. She was arguably the most explosive sex symbol of the twentieth century - and also one of its most tragic celebrities.

Born of a mentally unstable mother in 1926, young Norma Jeane Mortenson soon became a ward of the state and trailed through a string of foster homes, frequently the victim of sexual abuse.

Somehow Norma Jean became Marilyn the sex goddess, Everyman’s fantasy; but the reality of what lay beneath the peroxide hair and the breathless voice was something very different.

“No one ever told me I was pretty when I was a little girl. All little girls should be told they’re pretty, even if they aren’t.”

In her early twenties Norma Jeane was one of Blue Book's most successful models, appearing on dozens of magazine covers. It brought her to the attention of a 20th Century Fox film executive who told her she would become the next Jean Harlow and renamed her Marilyn Monroe.

One of her early films saw her gain equal top billing with Charles Laughton and a star-studded cast - for just a minute of screen time. Most of that minute was spent walking away from the camera. As critic Constance Bennett remarked: "There's a broad with her future behind her."

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”

In 1954 she married one of America’s great sporting icons - Joe di Maggio. Neither of them suspected then that her star would soon eclipse his. The marriage was short lived. Joe’s traditional values did not sit easily with Monroe’s public persona; Ed Sullivan described her onscreen performance of ‘Heat Wave’ as "one of the most flagrant violations of good taste" he had ever witnessed.

But it was the iconic skirt blowing scene in “The 7 Year Itch” that led to a huge row between the couple; shortly afterwards, they divorced.

She enjoyed huge public adoration but her private life was a mess. By the time she played “Sugar” in “Some Like it Hot” the writing was on the wall. She was proving to be a difficult and temperamental star; Curtis described their love scenes as "like kissing Hitler".

“I’ve been on a calendar, but I’ve never been on time.”

Her first husband had introduced her to barbiturates and she had been hooked on them ever since. She had also attempted suicide on at least one occasion. By 1961 her dependence on alcohol and pills had taken a huge toll on her health. That year she divorced her third husband, the writer Arthur Miller, and booked herself into a psychiatric clinic.

Ironically her last completed picture was called ‘The Misfits’. Clark Gable’s wife later claimed Marilyn’s behavior on set brought on her husband’s fatal heart attack shortly afterwards.

“Dreaming about being an actress is more exciting than being one.”

In 1962 she started filming “Something’s Gotta Give” - and it did. On May 19 she attended the birthday celebrations of John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden and famously sang “Happy Birthday Mister President.”

Looking at it now, the clip is achingly poignant.

“I have too many fantasies to be a housewife. I think I am a fantasy.”

Since childhood, she had been unable to cope with any form of rejection or criticism; her hypersexuality, insomnia, substance abuse and disturbed interpersonal relationships were all symptomatic of terrible childhood trauma.

JFK was the last man Marilyn needed in her life right then; a notorious womanizer, he ended their brief affair by ignoring her increasingly frantic phone calls and then sending younger brother Bobby to sort out the mess.

His wife Jackie was reportedly unhappy about the very public birthday serenade and had threatened to divorce him if he didn’t get rid of her, and that would have ruined his chances of re-election. Besides, he had already tired of her. She was just another notch on a well-carved bedpost.

“To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I’m working on the foundation.”

On August 5, 1962, Monroe was found dead at her home in Brentwood, LA. She was 36 years old. The coroner found a large quantity of barbiturates in her bloodstream and ruled it a probable suicide. But conspiracy theorists still maintain she was murdered, with the two Kennedy brothers as well as the CIA and the Mafia complicit.

Less fancifully, it is alleged that JFK was the last person she called.

And so the candle was snuffed out halfway through. She was buried in a private ceremony wearing her favorite green Emilio Pucci dress and holding a small bouquet of pink teacup roses. For the next 20 years, DiMaggio had red roses placed in a vase attached to her crypt.

“Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.”

She is now one of History’s most famous women; and also the least understood. As she herself said:  

“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 anyone or anything else.”

See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, and more history from Colin Falconer at:

From History and Women

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