When a death is reported, the first task is to identify the body. Who was the deceased? If, however, that somebody has deliberately left as few clues to her real identity as possible, then the identification is all but meaningless.
In the early hours of August 5, 1962, a woman was found dead in a house in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood. The name she was identified by was Marilyn Monroe. It was that name by which she had become known to the world. The world was, by then, well acquainted with the actress, the movie star, the gossip column favourite bearing that name. Like the name, however, much of this public persona was invented, changed, or manipulated in order to suit new surroundings, to alter a history, to obliterate a reality.
Nevertheless, one thing was certain: A woman in her thirties lay dead. Little else would come to be known for sure of the woman’s last hours and the circumstances of her death; she died as she had lived—a mystery.
Like so much in her brief life, so too in her death there is little to go on. The person who died was called Marilyn Monroe. Who she really was—Norma Jean Baker, Norma Jean Mortensen, Mrs. James Dougherty, Mrs. Joe DiMaggio, Mrs. Arthur Miller—all or none of these, we shall never know for certain. All roles, all parts in the drama of a girl lost in the world, one searching for an absent father and for a mother from whom she had been taken far too early.
She was born in 1926, the year of Valentino’s death. Like the Italian heartthrob, she would come to inhabit the imagination of a generation. And like the silent star, she would come to be defined by her persona in ways she would never know, still less control.
Her first marriage was a poignant prelude to what was to follow…. A sixteen-year-old girl running from an orphanage towards domestic bliss—a home and a husband. By all accounts, she was a dutiful wife, keeping the couple’s apartment spotlessly clean. Some cynically claim this was her first role. In any event, it was not to last. War called her husband overseas. Thereafter, she found herself working in a Californian armaments factory. In late 1944, a photographer turned up one day at the factory. He was looking for a pretty face for a propaganda piece about the war on the home front. He met Norma Jean Dougherty. Soon after, as the camera shutter went epileptic, the subject being photographed discovered something unexpected. From that moment, Norma Jean found her focus in life—and, from then on, it was to be mediated through a camera lens. Whether she knew it or not, her life was changed forever. The marriage inevitably failed. Not many involving one so young last, this one appeared doomed from the outset—war, separation, and now the awakening in a young wife of a desire in which her husband could play no part. And so, James Dougherty was forced to step aside.
From that afternoon with a professional photographer, it was as if she was hypnotized by the lens; but also, from that day hence, she understood the camera in a way few others have. Photographers who worked with her repeatedly stated that she was able to transmit this understanding to the camera in a way that transcended the norm. When her talent was unearthed, so too was an ambition. Soon, she was in demand for still-photography modeling assignments. This proved lucrative work, but, even then, she knew where the real money lay. More importantly, it was upon paths that lead her away from the past.
The daughter of a father who had abandoned both mother and child, she was left in the charge of a single parent unable to cope; the child was taken into a state-run home. What did or did not take place there—there are conflicting accounts, not least from her—we shall never know. What we do know is that a lonely, frightened child lived there surrounded by strangers. There is a curious fact from that time–an oddly prophetic one. From her bedroom, she could see the nearby RKO Studios. At night, the studio’s neon sign would light up her room. To the child, alone in the dark, it must have seemed as if the studio was a “lighthouse” calling her to some safer harbour. Frequently, she would then talk of being a movie star. No one paid any attention, but each night, in the darkness, the light would reach out to her with a promise bright enough to eclipse the drab institution she called home.
By 1946, she had used her modeling connections to make it as far as Hollywood. Today, in view of what was to come next, her road to movie stardom could appear easier than it really was. Hollywood was not that far for a girl who had grown up in California. There were, however, many Norma Jeans in Hollywood, models wanting to be actresses. The ascent that followed was not as rapid as the later myth-makers asserted. Hers was no overnight sensation. It would be four years before she had small, if eye-catching, parts in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve. Another three years would pass before her breakthrough came in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Then the gates opened. She was admitted to that brightly-lit chamber where her deepest desire lived: movie stardom. When that moment came, she grabbed it as if it was a life raft—in a strange way it was, albeit ultimately one unable to sustain her in the many waves that would buffet her life thereafter.
If in any doubt of the keenness of her ambition then, take a look at the opening sequences of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There she is on stage with Jane Russell—they are a comedic double act, singing of the vagaries of courtship. Russell was by any measure the greater star. She had been one while her co-star was still a dreaming girl in an orphanage. Yet, from the start, Monroe steals the scene, and, later, the film. There was no stopping her now. Her desire, or was it her need, was infinitely greater than Russell’s. Perhaps even in Hollywood, there were few actors who possessed the emptiness that she needed so desperately to fill… or was it to hide? No matter how good Russell is in those opening frames—and she is good—she is nothing to the luminosity of her co-star, a star intent on burning up the screen.
Surprisingly, by her death, she had made relatively few films: only twenty-nine in all, and only ten as a fully-fledged star over a period of just eight years. Nevertheless, in every frame she knew the power she wielded. In a curious pact with the camera, she unleashed forces that would later come to dominate her. Perhaps she was unaware of this, as so much in which she was engaged was motivated by unconscious need. The camera, however, had captivated her—more so than any human love would—and it was never to let her go. It was as if the more she gave to the camera, the less there was of her to survive. The translucent beauty who is unveiled in 1953—almost unreal in her glittering attractiveness—is, less than a decade later, sunk to a dead-eyed-casualty.
The young Norma Jean had married a workingman; Marilyn, the bit-part actress, married an American legend: Joe DiMaggio. The wedding’s publicity proved more permanent than the marriage though. The athlete-spouse gave way to the intellectual, playwright, Arthur Miller. At the height of her fame, Norma Jean was to be strangely suffocated by this last union. By then, however, it mattered little, perhaps. Married or not, she was sinking fast.
Before the child had seen the light of day, the night was gathering. Her grandfather had died in a state asylum; his wife, given to insane rages also ended her days in such a place. And, then, of course, there was her mother. Gladys Pearl Baker was to spend much of her daughter’s life incarcerated in mental institutions, Gladys’ brother having already long since killed himself. All her life, the dread shadow of madness and self-destruction, would inch closer to Norma Jean, no matter how dazzling her escape into the brightly-illumined silver screen.
If increasingly unreliable off screen, the girl who had become Marilyn Monroe was a stunning presence on it. Even when she had played bit parts, more established actors would complain of her “stealing scenes;” she couldn’t help it. She had a singular quality that appears only rarely. Strangely, it was not enough for her. Soon she exchanged the money and acclaim of Hollywood for the then fashionable “method acting” of the New York stage. She submitted to the overheated theatricals of Strasberg and his devotees in some misplaced attempt to validate what was already perfection on screen. While Strasberg and Miller sought to “authenticate” her gift, they missed the point. Her time with them was not about exploring acting technique. It was more likely the search of a troubled infant for her father.
She never knew her father. At the height of her fame, she would attempt to contact the man her mother had identified to the young Norma Jean as her biological father. By then, married and respectable, the man refused to take the movie star’s call. Many years previously, in the orphanage, she had ripped from a magazine a picture of Clark Gable and put it on her wall. She then proceeded to tell the other children that Cable was her father. Her last completed film, The Misfits, had Cable as one of her co-stars. This, too, was an ending of sorts, as, days after filming concluded, Gable was dead. Her imagined father was now gone, too. Alone and drifting on an ocean of sadness, there was little to hold her. She must have known that the shadow that had stalked her all those years in the Californian sunshine was, finally, about to envelope her.
Her final role at an anonymous residence in the early hours of an August night in 1962 is still shrouded in mystery. Suicide, whether deliberate or mistaken, or, as some still maintain, murder… no one knows for sure what really happened. More than a definite ending, it has the air of a disappearance.
In life, she did not know the look of love she craved: desire, yes, love, no. Instead, she was to become entranced by the stare of the camera lens. It promised her much. In the end, it took even more. A mere child, with no one to warn her, she was too young to realize that in the eye of the lens there would be no escape, nowhere to hide… her film negative finally running blank on a summer night in 1962.
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