America's greatest sex symbol was born in a charity hospital to a single mother who would soon go crazy, never acknowledged by her father. She dreamed of becoming a star, but more than that, lamented that her mother had never wanted her.
"I wish she had," she wrote in girlish curvy script. "I still wish she had."
I happened upon this book on the fourth floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble: MM-Personal: From The Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe by Lois Banner and Mark Anderson (Abrams). I'd read about this illustrated collection, the contents of two gray metal filing cabinets, and frankly I thought: Oh, no, the detritus of even her life can't be that compelling.
I was wrong.
Flipping through the pages, I was pulled in by the photos of old handwritten notes, typed business correspondence, letters from fans and her stepchildren when she was married to Arthur Miller--and so much more--with photos tucked around the sides and sometimes splashed across the pages, like a schoolgirl's scrapbook of her life. The format makes the material so much more inviting than it would have been told in straight text. I felt like I was discovering secrets. The mother of a young soldier in Korea wrote to thank MM for entertaining the troops. An enterprising young man asked if he could promote his business with her photo because "Sex sells--and Marilyn Monroe is sex."
And she pondered the meaning of it all in wistful little notes like the one saying she wanted to be more than a sex symbol, she wanted to be an artist.
"It was all right for a few years," she wrote, "but not now."
Ironically, she was an artist, a gifted comedienne not given her due until after her death--and an artist of sexual theatre, a woman who presented herself in ways to arouse men while making it clear that in sex, the pleasure would be hers too. We haven't had anything like MM since there was MM. Partly we remember her for the sad part of her story, an unwanted child who couldn't have the children of her own she desperately wanted or find lasting love. Most of us can relate to that story in one way or another.
Largely we remember her because she defined a certain kind of female sexuality, rich, ripe, sensuous, lusty with a touch of wit and sophistication and above all, unapologetic. Look at her photos and catch one of her old movies, especially "Some Like It Hot", and find yourself asking, Whatever happened to sex in the movies?
Culturally speaking, what is sexy now?
Last year, Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine" gave the most genuine and believable sexual performance by a woman. She played an ordinary-bright young woman with goals who got carried away by her lust for a man who would never aspire to anything better than a job that allowed him to have a few beers in the morning. But the sex was perfect: real, intense, needy, angry. Hot.
Why don't we see (and read) more of that?
American culture panders to the lowest common denominator and is heavily influenced by a loud minority of prudes and other judgmental types, determined to limit everyone's freedom of sexual expression to that which does not threaten them. So we are reduced to American Sexy: girls dress like Porn Star Barbie, boys never outgrow fart jokes and leering. Real life, especially the sex, is too messy for us.
In Marilyn's day, night time talk show guests discussed art and culture, politics and international affairs. Girls aspired to be women; and boys aspired to be men. We are more sexually repressed now than they were then.
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