By Martin Kemp
It’s John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday at Madison Square Garden on 19 May 1962. Only it’s not. His real birthday is ten days in the future. The compelling mass schmaltz that Americans do with an underlying, knowing absurdity saturates the event. After she has characteristically missed her cue on at least two occasions, the host Peter Lawford finally (and with inadvertent irony) introduces the “late Marilyn Monroe”.
In a glittering faux-nude dress tighter than her own skin and enveloped in a soft fur wrap, that most desirable of female bodies shuffles with exaggerated mini-steps towards the podium, like a penguin on speed. Her floss hair has long given up any pretence to organic life. She is unwrapped by Lawford and ups the sexual ante with mute lip squirming directed at the microphone, which she holds tenderly like a living member. Everything is comically kitsch yet irresistibly powerful.
“Happy Birthday to you…” The little girl’s voice haltingly rings out, quietening the raucous auditorium — a ghostly and troubling echo of a past innocence. The reality is a deadly cocktail of her own desperate desirability and the blood-sucking exploitation of the society that made her. A monstrous tiered cake, flaming with the requisite number of candles like a funeral pyre, is borne in on a stretcher, shoulder-high. Her death was to arrive at the age of 36 in a little over two month’s time.
“That” dress sold for $1.26 million dollars in 1999, exceeded by the white “air vent dress” which auctioned for mighty $5.6 million in 2011. From Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch in 1955, she wore this second iconic dress when with girly delight, pausing over a subway vent ostensibly to cool her “hot pants” (words cut from the final version of the film). The mock-innocent display of her assets, expensively insured, is a stylised act in which we all become complicit.
There are other truly iconic Hollywood stars of course. Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stand at the head of the pack, yet they achieve under a third of the 90 million Google hits for Marilyn Monroe. On the other hand, she is nearly matched by Elvis Presley. Dying young and messily can provide a considerable posthumous boost in the quest for legendary status. All four stars have been “Warholed” in famous patches of pop colour, as was Jackie Kennedy, but it is Marilyn’s face that has really stuck. Taking his cue from a publicity shot issued in 1953, Warhol gives us her invitingly open lips so very red, hooded eyes that promise sensuous dreams and hair of kitsch gold that says I’m for sale. That’s all that is needed. Norma Jeane Baker had become the mask called Marilyn Monroe.
Why has her image not only survived but blossomed in the half-century since her death? There is no set formula for the highest levels of iconicity, beyond the essential ingredient of inherent visual impact. We can, however, recognise an aura of contributory factors. The “affair” with JFK that meant more to her than the philandering and charismatic president, is crucial to her death and after-life. Her rise from the ill-used Norma Jean to Hollywood’s hottest property embodies the “American dream”.
She was lucky, and all icons need luck. She fell at the right time into the best possible directorial hands of Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953) and the great Billy Wilder (The Seven-Year Itch, 1955). Both had the vision and skill to consummate her love affair with the camera. Her marriages to a great baseball slugger and an archetypal American writer — the “Egghead and the Hourglass” — testify to the siren song of her unmatched sexuality and to her need to be possessed by powerful men.
Her lumpy descent into chemically-induced confusion elicits hopes that even the less powerful might be her ‘daddy’ (the name she called her first husband). There are the gaping lacunae in her well-documented life that allow legends to flood in: the lurid stories of relationships, not only with JFK but his brother Bobby, Marlon Brando, and Tony Curtis; the recurrent bouts of mental disturbance; and even her death. Suicide or murder? There were potentially powerful interests at work. The bigger the supposed conspiracy, the better it is for the icon.
As a teenager I totally missed out on the magnetism of Monroe. She seemed unreal, remote. I couldn’t enter the knowing game she was playing. I sought the sexy girl next door, even if Brigitte Bardot only barely fitted the bill of my fantasy. Encountering Monroe’s key films much later I became irresistibly drawn into the seductive complicity of her act and by a fascination with what she might be saying about who really lived behind the mask. I would like to have helped her, which is absurd.
Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor in the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford. A renowned figure in the world of art, he is the author of Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon, The Oxford History of Western Art, Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man, Leonardo, and Seen | Unseen: Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope. He blogs at Martin Kemp’s This and That.