Originally Posted on The Huffington Post: Marilyn Monroe was born on June 1, 1926. If she were alive today, she would be celebrating her 86th birthday, not an impossible age to reach these days of increasing longevity. The date of her birth was important to her. A deeply spiritual individual and a believer in astrology, she considered her sign — Gemini, identified with “the twins” — to be an indicator of who she was. Geminis supposedly have shape-shifting personalities that swing between opposites: happiness and sadness; kindness and narcissism, shyness and ebullience. Such swings were standard for Marilyn, who could be so shy that she would stammer in confusion; so bold that she could swear like a trooper; so mesmeric that she drew everyone’s attention; so ordinary that she drew no attention. She could be withdrawn or ebullient, downcast or laughing, with an ability to make hilarious puns or tell jokes. She could be a seductress to men or a buddy, playing pranks as one of the boys.
She was proud of her mercurial self, as difficult as it could be to handle. A reporter once asked her: “Did you know that you were born under the same sign as Rosalind Russell and Judy Garland?” Showing her considerable intelligence, Marilyn replied: “I know nothing of these people. I was born under the same sign as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Queen Victoria and Walt Whitman.”
We don’t know how Marilyn celebrated her birthdays in the foster homes in which she was raised: probably with a cake and candles on the cake that she blew out after making a wish, which was the practice then, as it is today. On her birthday in 1952, Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth-Century Fox, her studio, told her that she had won the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — a role coveted by many Hollywood actresses. It was an amazing birthday present, especially since she was celebrating her birthday alone in her suite at the Hotel Bel-Air, before she went to Niagara, New York, to make the movie Niagara.
In 1955 Henry Rosenfeld, a manufacturer of women’s dresses in New York and a wealthy friend and occasional lover, gave her a 200-carat diamond bracelet for her birthday, with the note, “I want you to be happy above everything else in the world.” (Marilyn owned mostly costume jewelry; the real diamonds must have thrilled her.) Marilyn and Henry, who met by accident in New York in 1949, when she went on a tour to promote Love Happy, were very close throughout the rest of her life; before Marilyn married Arthur Miller, he was jealous of Henry.
Some years later, on June 1, 1962, during the filming of Something’s Got to Give, Fox executives had a very negative reaction to her birthday. They were so angry with her for leaving filming in late May to go to New York to sing at the John F. Kennedy birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden that they paid no attention to her thirty-sixth birthday. In fact, they failed to show up when Evelyn Moriarty, her stand-in, brought a birthday cake and a bottle of champagne to the set to honor her. It was a serious insult. Even worse was her firing a week later.
But the indomitable Marilyn fought back, using publicity as her weapon. During the next several months, she posed for major photographers George Barris and Bert Stern, showing that she was as beautiful as ever. She did interviews for Life, Redbook, and Look, presenting her side of the story. Unsolicited letters from the public to Fox about the matter were overwhelmingly in her favor. Before she died, Fox reinstated her, agreeing to a contract in which she would be paid $1,000,000 for completing Something’s Got to Give and a second picture. Her death on August 5th cancelled the arrangement. With her goals achieved, commanding the adulation of the nation, she had clearly won her struggles with Twentieth-Century Fox.
Originally posted on The Huffington Post: From the earliest of times, humans have ennobled outstanding individuals as icons of the imagination to represent transcendent cultural meanings. Our icons can be saints or sinners; the word “icon” (derived from the Greek word “eikon,” meaning “image”) entered modern English in the late 19th century by way of the small portraits of saints with gold halos that originated in the Byzantine Empire and became all the rage in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
Even today, centuries later, we extol Cleopatra and Joan of Arc as overarching representatives of Western culture, symbols of female strength and fascination. We still revere Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy as symbols of the United States in the 20th century. Given her continual representations in cultures worldwide, Marilyn Monroe is also becoming a major historical icon. Why has this happened? Why has a girl from humble circumstances become a secular goddess? My students today have never heard of the great film stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but they all know Marilyn Monroe.
In the first place, she died young, under perplexing circumstances, creating a mystery that everyone has tried — and failed — to solve. She may have committed suicide; she may have been killed. And, only 36 when she died, she was at the height of her beauty; we have no images of an aging Marilyn. She is fixed in time and space, eternally young, eternally beautiful. Moreover, beginning with Madonna and extending to Lady Gaga, many major female performers have drawn from Marilyn to create their image, extending Marilyn’s fame in the process. Is there anyone unfamiliar with the image of Marilyn in the bright pink dress with the pouf on the back singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” or standing in the white dress with the skirt flying up in the scene on the subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch?
As time goes by and thousands of photographs of her surface, taken by amateurs as well as esteemed professionals, we realize that Marilyn was indeed the major photographic model of the 20th century. Her nude photographs are unsurpassed in the genre of aesthetic nudes. She became dramatic and comic in turn in representations of her as a sad ballerina by Milton Greene, as an innocent geisha girl by Cecil Beaton, or as an Eve coming to life as a “leopard in the bulrushes” by Eve Arnold. Above all, she lived a life beyond measure. She was the greatest hetaera in history since Cleopatra, as she married the greatest baseball player and the greatest playwright of her age and had affairs with great actors and directors, and with the Kennedy brothers, perhaps the greatest politicians of her age.
Above all, Marilyn created an image for the ages, in one of the great personal transformations of the American experience. A failure as an actress through high school, an ugly duckling until great beauty descended on her with puberty, she overcame her debilitating shyness to create a public person with many personalities, each unique, and all interconnected. There was a glamorous Marilyn, a comic Marilyn, a deeply sensual Marilyn, and a Marilyn who was an excellent businesswoman. The greatest screen personality since Greta Garbo, she could, like Garbo, project happiness and sadness in her eyes at the same time. Those eyes were mesmerizing; even today we easily fall under her spell. She is the child that is in all of us, the person we want to protect, as well as the sex goddess we want to possess.