'In Death, She Is Everybody's, and We Can Make Her Follow Our Script. Victim, Vamp, Feminist, Tramp'

Article excerpt

ONE week from today it will be exactly 50 years since the death of Marilyn Monroe. Much harder to accept is the idea that she was ever really alive. Her friend Eve Arnold, the Magnum photographer, once told me a story about sitting in on a magazine interview and seeing the actress casually brushing her pubic hair as the journalist readied her tape recorder. But even as I was smiling and noting down this anecdote, I couldn't quite believe that it had ever happened. Marilyn Monroe, at least to those born after her fatal drug overdose in 1962, has never seemed like a creature of flesh and blood and hair. She is made from peroxide and celluloid; she smells of ink and money. She is all mask, no face.Although she has the most chronicled life of any showbusiness star, and was by any measure an extremely complex human being, there is, in both her appearance and the premature end to her life, a seductive blankness, a smooth surface on to which anyone can project their own agendas and fantasies. She was a screen idol, both idol and screen.This is the single most important reason for our enduring fascination with Marilyn Monroe. In death, she is everybody's, and we can make her follow our script. Victim, vamp, feminist, tramp - we cast her as we wish.The concept that a celebrity is public property, an idea which has found its fullest expression in our era of phone hacking, arguably begins with Monroe. She welcomed this to an extent, regarding intrusion - the wolf-whistling and flashbulbs and extended microphones - as a sort of validation.As a very pretty girl, she was used to it. She had a pleasant memory of walking to school, how passing workmen would honk their car horns and wave; how the neighbourhood paperboys would deliver free papers to her home and allow her to ride their bikes, laughing, into the caressing wind. We would regard this, these days, as rather creepy, but Norma Jeane, as she was then, soon came to consider that her apparent sexual magnetism could lead to wider fame. The schoolgirl leered at by commuters would, when she was a little older, visit Grauman's Chinese Theatre and try to fit her foot into the prints left in concrete by established stars. She wanted, in a sense, to give herself to the world, a drive perhaps rooted in an early childhood where no one seemed to want her.She belongs to the world now. One can buy the sense of being near her. The remaining crypt in her row at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles is available for around a quarter of a million dollars. The house in which she died was sold two years ago for around dollars 3.5 million. A 1999 auction of her belongings raised almost dollars 13.5 million; a sheet of monogrammed notepaper on which she had written, in pencil, the words "he does not love me" went for dollars 12,650 - presumably to someone who believed that they loved her very much. More significant, though, than the ownership implied by these commercial transactions is the way that Monroe can be co-opted by such an array of groups. She is available to everyone from drag- queens to social historians, to whomever cares to write their narrative across the notepaper of her short life.There is at the moment, for instance, a resurgence of the idea that Monroe was a feminist before her time. A new book by the academic Lois Banner, who had previously dismissed the actress as a sex object, argues that she was in fact a precursor of 1960s feminism and that the famous photo in which she is laughingly holding down her billowing skirts as she stands above a subway grate shows her as a "woman on top" - aware of her erotic allure and using it for her own ends. "Is she one of the women," wonders Banner, "who changed the world's attitude towards women?" She also notes, as has the feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, that Monroe's public discussion of the sexual assaults she had suffered as a child in foster care was an important step that made it easier for other women to disclose their own experiences of abuse. …