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The Myth of Marilyn

Excerpt from Drama Queens by Autumn Stevens

It’s not as though Hollywood had never produced a sex symbol before, for goodness sakes. From silent star Clara Bow on down, the film industry has colluded with film-goers in fixating on one erotic icon after another. Yet no other actress (and arguably no other woman) has ever seized the American imagination like Marilyn Monroe. Lovelorn foster child, radiant sex goddess, Presidential mistress, suicidal substance-abuseras we all know, there are a million angles to Monroe’s oft-told story – though angles, of course, were not what interested most of her fans.

Head-turning even in overalls, eighteen-year-old Monroe (born Norma Jean Mortenson) was working in a munitions factory when she caught the eye of an Army photographer. Soon to be divorced from her first husband, the then-brunette brunette beauty got around, as they say – and so did the resulting pin-up photos. Monroe went on to become a model, and soon Hollywood was knocking at her door. Yet for a couple of years, the would-be movie star could barely get past the casting couch. As she later admitted, she sometimes resorted to trading sexual favors for food. “I was hungry,” she explained, pressed to account for the nude calendar for which she posed at the time. Not that the proceeds could have kept her in groceries for long: Monroe netted $50 for baring her voluptuous bod, while the company that produced the calendar ranked in $750,000.

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Monroe appeared only fleetingly in her first film, Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (1948) – the remainder of her scenes wound up on the cutting floor. But her 1950 performance in The Asphalt Jungle resulted in an avalanche of fan mail. And breathless, babe-a-licious performances in several subsequent films – among them Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952). How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955) – made her into a genuine sex goddess. Of course, that impromptu City Hall marriage to Joe DiMaggio didn’t exactly tarnish her image. “We haven’t lost a star; we’ve gained a center fielder,” exulted one Twentieth Century-Fox executive when he heard that the news. But DiMaggio had a hard time handling his bride’s sexpot image, and the merger lasted only nine months.

Monroe, of course, had her own frustrations about being the source of so much prurient fascination. “If I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather have it sex than some of the other things they’ve got symbols for,” she conceded. Still, she yearned  to do more in her movies than wiggle, pout, and demonstrate the erotic appeal of subway gratings. Then, as now, “bombshell” was usually considered synonymous with “bimbo,” and Monroe was mocked rather than applauded when she huffed out of Hollywood to study at the Strasbergs’ Actors’ Studio in New York. Yet upon her return, she made Bus Stop (1956), considered by many to be her finest film. Her act of defiance also gave her the leverage to negotiate a much more favorable contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. In addition, it afforded her the opportunity to mingle with a more intellectual crowd, and to meet her third and patently mismatched husband, the playwright Arthur Miller.

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As for the steamier side of Monroe’s life, most of us can recite the whole heartbreaking story in our sleep. The drink and the drugs, the abortions and miscarriages, the compulsive couplings with Kennedys and co-stars, her tragic and controversial overdose at thirty-six – all are part and parcel of the Myth of Marilyn. And as biographers as disparate as Norman Mailer and Gloria Steinem have demonstrated, there’s a message for everyone (though not, it seems, the same message) in this fabled star’s still-haunting story.

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