Death and the Maiden: Marilyn Monroe Remains a Subject of Lurid Fascination, but Still We Refuse to Acknowledge Her Artistic Achievements

By Churchwell, Sarah | New Statesman (1996), November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Death and the Maiden: Marilyn Monroe Remains a Subject of Lurid Fascination, but Still We Refuse to Acknowledge Her Artistic Achievements


Churchwell, Sarah, New Statesman (1996)


To the roll-call of such original stories about the death of Marilyn Monroe as Marilyn: the Final Days, Marilyn: the Final Truth, Marilyn: the Last Sitting, Marilyn: the Last Take, Marilyn: the Last Months, Marilyn: the Last Word and The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, we can now add Michel Schneider's Marilyn's Last Sessions, Doubtless we can soon expect Marilyn: the Last Gasp. I am tempted to posit the emergence of a new subgenre of "faction" - the dernier manque. These works never manage to deliver the last word, although each in turn feels like the last straw.

To be fair, this may have something to do with how many of them I read for my 2004 meta-biography, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, which looked at the competing, unreliable stories about Marilyn's life and death. Upon hearing at a talk that I had read more than 300 books about Marilyn, a member of the audience once demanded: "Didn't you have anything better to do with your life?"

This aggressive rudeness both reflected and was licensed by the reflexive disdain that so many enjoy feeling about her. My book finally became about this paradox: we insist that Marilyn is beneath our contempt, even as we write endlessly about how wonderful she was and how sad we are that she is gone (we're not, really, but that's another story). From Joyce Carol Oates to Elton John, everyone gets inline to sing. Goodbye, Norma Jeane. Bonjour, tristesse.

Schneider's contribution to this endless elegy won the Prix Interallie in France when the novel was published there in 2006- My hopes, Fleetingly, were raised-and then I remembered that the French also consider Jerry Lewis a genius. Schneider is certainly a more elegant stylist (or his translator is) than the vast majority of people who write about Marilyn, and he is capable of the occasional slanting insight.

However, his book has two insurmountable problems. First, it is largely based on the ostensibly non -fiction Victim: the Secret Tapes ofMar-ilyn Monroeby Matthew Smith, a book so egre-giously stupid that it makes almost everything else written about Marilyn look at least competent - which is quite an achievement, in an underachieving sort of way. Victim purports to "summarise" transcripts of Marilyn's sessions with her psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson, whose dubious behaviour on the night of her death had much to do with the subsequent emergence of conspiracy theories.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Many of those theories can be traced to a pamphlet called The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe (1964), written by Frank A Capell and published by his own imprint, Herald of Freedom, described as "a national anti-communist educational biweekly", which claimed to maintain "files on two million people who have aided the international communist conspiracy". Capell was also the author of 857 Reasons for Investigating the State Department and Henry Kissinger, Soviet Agent; he was an avowed enemy of the Kennedys. Coincidentally, his pamphlet was the first to suggest that the Kennedys might have killed Marilyn.

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, it is a history that Michel Schneider fails to acknowledge, using Smith's fantasy of Green-son's transcripts as the primary source for this (admittedly fictional) reconstruction of Marilyn's relationship with her psychoanalyst.

The other, bigger problem is that the novel accepts the false premise of almost every book about Marilyn by asking whether she committed suicide or was murdered. "Who killed Marilyn, if she didn't kill herself?" demands a journalist early on. Later Greenson says: "We'll never know the truth about what happened because suicide and murder are only mutually exclusive hypotheses when you're dealing with conscious acts and motives. In the unconscious, suicide is virtually always a form of murder and murder can sometimes be a form of suicide." This is the kind of silliness that gives Freud a bad name.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The endless, pointless debate about Marilyn's death depends on an excluded middle that some of us like to call "accident". …

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