Notes on fashion, style and culture

Monday, 30 July 2012

Marilyn Monroe - the naked truth

When researching Marilyn Monroe, I found the most discussed topics surrounding her were in fact not her actual films or her career as an actress, the medium through which she found global fame. A lot of the discussion focuses on her early demise but after that, the topic which is returned to again and again is that of her image, her looks and her famous body. There is an obsession with her famous curves, shape, size, people discussing her measurements, bra size, dress size, shoe size, that exists with no other person in history. Her name is constantly hauled into debates about whether skinny or curvy women are more attractive. She is the ultimate poster girl for the 'curvy woman' movement, despite having been a tiny 36-22-35 in her dress measurements for most of her life. Even when discussing Marilyn Monroe's impact as a fashion icon, her enduring image – indeed the image she perpetuated herself as the world’s supreme sex siren – it was what was underneath her clothes (ultimately to her dismay – although she no doubt took advantage of it in her lifetime), which defined her and cemented her image as ‘Marilyn’. It is testament to the impact she made that she is still considered the number one sex symbol the world has known – despite being dead for fifty years.

Norma Jean Baker on one of her first modelling shoots
At the outset of her Hollywood career, as an aspiring actress while working as a pin-up girl, the Hollywood fan magazines at the time were calling for a more extreme sex symbol to compete with sultry Italian actresses such as Gina Lollobrigida who were invading Hollywood. Norma Jean Baker, a model, desperately wanting to break into the acting world, saw her opportunity, and she created the synthetic sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, which would give her all the stardom she could have wished for. In a prim 1950s Hollywood, Marilyn, who controversially posed for Playboy in her early career, seemed to avoid the derision that would have befallen, say Elizabeth Taylor had she done the same thing. Her sexuality seemed intrinsically linked to nature: ‘We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, but it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.’ Marilyn's role as a sex symbol appeared to come naturally to her – she projected an image of a woman utterly at ease with her sexuality and also aware of her attractiveness and its effect on those who came into contact with her both in person, and on camera.

Marilyn’s first Playboy shoot
According to the critic Jacqueline Rose, she portrayed an image of sex ‘without complexity, depth or pain, something that hovers above the human – which is why it is such a tease and also why, as others have pointed out, her image seems to have such an intimate proximity with death. Miller [Arthur Miller, playwright and Monroe’s third husband] was not immune to this: her sexuality came to seem, he wrote, “the only truthful connection with some ultimate nature, everything that is life-giving and authentic.” In Miller’s play After the Fall, a thinly veiled account and critique of his failed marriage to Monroe, his character, Quentin, a New York Jewish intellectual who marries Maggie [Marilyn], says of her,  “She was just there...She was just there, like a tree or a cat.”’

Marilyn and Arthur Miller
Today, people want to know about the woman behind the myth – the Marilyn who is more than a sex symbol. Indeed she is said to have hated being typecast as the dumb blonde.  Above all she wanted to be a serious actress. ‘I’d like to be a fine actress,’ she is reported as having said to the photographer George Barris at the end of her life: ‘I wanted to be an artist, not an erotic freak.’

There is also proof she wasn’t as vulnerable or needy as her myth perpetuates – at least when it came to her career.  In defiance against Hollywood's control of her image and also in objection to her low wages compared to other Hollywood stars of the day, Monroe took on the movie studios. For Monroe, money meant freedom and greater control of her image.

Marilyn and Paula Strasberg discussing scenes
Marilyn in discussion with Paula Strasberg

In 1954 she broke her contract with Twentieth Century Fox, leaving Hollywood for New York to set up her own film company with the photographer Milton Greene (she made sure she controlled 51 per cent of the stock). It was a scandal. Although the project was short-lived, she was at that moment the only star to have taken on the moguls and won. Fox agreed to give her script and director approval on all her films and to pay her $100,000 a film. A recently discovered letter of 1961 shows that she never gave up on her dream. At a time when the Hollywood studios were more or less writing her off, she wrote to Lee Strasberg – the head of the Actors Studio, which she’d been attending since she left Hollywood for New York – that she and her attorneys were planning to set up an independent production unit. ‘I’ll never tie myself to a studio again,’ she said, ‘I’d rather retire.’ ‘She wanted her fair share.’ says Rose. ‘She wanted some money to stop bigger money from controlling her fate.’ Marilyn’s struggle with the studio system has been seen by many as playing a role in her downfall. On her later films she was accused of being unprofessional and even mentally ill. Her defenders however, have suggested that in fact Marilyn was the victim of a studio system in its decline. That she was instead a harbinger of change in seeking an identity beyond the gilded crown Hollywood gave her.

Also in direct contradiction of her image as a ‘dumb blonde’ who toed the line, is her support of the civil rights movement. When the Mocambo nightclub in Los Angeles was reluctant to hire a black singer named Ella Fitzgerald, the owner received a personal call from Monroe, who offered to take a front table every night if he hired Fitzgerald (as Monroe had promised, the press went wild and Fitzgerald, by her own account, never had to play a small jazz club again). Fitzgerald never forgot. Monroe, she said later, was ‘an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times’.

Marilyn and Ella Fitzgerald at the Mocambo Club
The contradiction between Marilyn’s public sex symbol persona, which she played up to the public, and the more serious actress she wanted to be, undoubtedly caused her personal torment and played a significant part in her downfall. As she said herself  ‘a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a’s nice to be included in people’s fantasies, but you also like to be accepted for your own sake.’ And indeed it was an image that would exact a price. Amy Greene Andrews, widow of photographer Milton Green, one of Marilyn's closest confidantes, claimed she believed Monroe ‘loved her life’, but what Monroe had not bargained for and could not reconcile was the gulf between her image and her real self. In her later life she made the following statement which shows a woman not only deeply aware, but also at great odds with her personal and public persona:‘I’m a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me, because of the image they’ve made of me and that I’ve made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much, and I can’t live up to it.’

Eve Arnold captures Marilyn filming The Misfits
Monroe endures as the great female icon of the 20th century – fans are intrigued by the woman behind the image – and the tragedy that befell someone who, on the face of it, appeared to have the world at her feet. Indeed it is perhaps her vulnerability, as well as her beauty which still endears her to so many people today. In so many pictures of Marilyn there is an intrinsic sadness in her eyes and demeanour. Rather than feeling threatened by her beauty, women empathise with her and want to be her friend, and men want to save her. She is the ultimate image of the little girl lost – the lonely child who grew up in orphanages wanting to be loved, who went on through sheer grit and determination to become the most famous and most desired woman in the world.

Marilyn was a welter of contradictions – voluptuousness and vulnerability, innocence and experience, part angel, part seductress – someone who brought joy to so many but who could be so unhappy herself. The ditzy blonde she played in so many of her roles clashes with what we know of her as someone who clearly had great self-knowledge and intelligence and was only too aware through a life filled with its own share of tragedy, that the Hollywood veneer covered not only its own seedy underbelly, but was projecting an image of her that was ultimately a sham. Marilyn Monroe was an illusion – a character, an idealisation of womanhood that not even Marilyn Monroe herself could live up to 24-7. When Marilyn declared herself a failure as a woman, it was as a failure of the idealised version of Marilyn Monroe, not of her true self. But towards the end of her life, the gulf between her real self and Marilyn Monroe had become so blurred, even Marilyn herself appeared to be struggling with the reality of who she was and what was expected of her. After all, none of her fans knew the real her – it was Marilyn Monroe they were in love with. Had Hollywood unwittingly set up the potentially vulnerable Norma Jean to fail?

Marilyn as Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot
In what is probably her most loved role as Sugar Kane, in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Marilyn was at her least happy, doped up on pills, infuriating her co-stars with her constant re-takes and turning up late for filming, if she turned up at all. Possibly the greatest comedy ever committed to film was made with likely the unhappiest actress in one of its lead roles. Monroe was known to have particularly hated this role, believing no woman would be so stupid as to beleive these two drag artists weren’t men.

The recent film which cast Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, My Week With Marilyn, in fact, went out of its way to portray the woman behind the glamorous image. Harvey Weinstein, one of the producers of My Week With Marilyn, describes Marilyn’s dicotomous nature as ‘innocent, sexual and intelligent ... an alchemist's dream’.

Marilyn while filming The Seven Year Itch.
This contradiction is also played out in her clothes – the glamorous outfits she is known for – the billowing white halter neck from The Seven Year Itch and the bubblegum pink satin strapless evening dress dripping with diamonds from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes contrast sharply with her clothing worn in her own time. This dichotomy was noted by Marilyn herself when she declared with typical  aplomb: ‘I like to be really dressed up or really undressed. I don’t bother with anything in between.’

Marilyn on the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
According to her dressmaker and her personal maid, Lena Pepitone, who was in charge of mending Marilyn's clothes and other functions (like bathing and laundry) Marilyn’s clothes, if anything, were there to highlight what was underneath. She wore her clothes ‘like skin’. Pepitione claimed Marilyn regularly wore clothing so tight that they would split at the seams, requiring Lena to do a lot of mending.

As a result, Monroe’s clothes were often criticised. No less an authority than Joan Crawford carped at her ‘vulgarity’. However, for Marilyn, her ‘if you've got it, flaunt it’ attitude to dressing was getting her noticed. Hems were weighted to achieve the requisite cling. She would place marbles in her bra or sew buttons into the bodice of her dress for the permanent pert-nippled look. Biases were cut so tight that she could not sport underwear – in fact, she was often sewn into her dresses, to achieve the perfect fit. However, rather than harm her reputation, this information, infuriatingly to her detractors, only added to her allure.

Photographed by Eisenstaedt at home, relaxing
Some Hollywood writers accused her of knowing nothing about fashion, but in 1952 she hit back: she was too buxom, she said, to wear Parisian fashions. Like most women, she didn’t have a boys’ figure, as did the Parisian models. In ordinary life Marilyn dressed casually: T-shirts, capri pants and flat shoes. In My Week With Marilyn, this is made abundently clear in one scene where it is shown that ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is a character - she ‘turns on’ for the press. In the scene, she is with Alan Clark, the young Englishman who befriends and is seduced by Marilyn while she is filming The Prince and the Showgirl in Pinewood Studios in 1956, as they are caught in front of a throng of paparazzos who catch up with her while she and Alan are strolling the grounds of Eton. Marilyn turns to Alan and coyly exclaims ‘Shall I be her?’ meaning should she give the press the Marylin they expect. With that, we see her snap physically into ‘character’, leaning against a wall with her shoulders back, chest out, one toe raised and pointed to emphasise the curve of the hip and leanness of her leg. The film clearly suggests that ‘Marilyn‘ was something she was able to ‘turn on’ when required. In particular, it suggests that the real Marilyn was in fact, not only rather different from her public image, but only too aware of it.

Michelle Williams as Norma Jean turns on Marilyn Monroe
In a recent article in The Guardian, Jess Cartner-Morley discusses Marilyn’s toned down style in depth. She writes: ‘in the 1950s her off-screen wardrobe was remarkable for its cool, pared-down colours, its modernity and simplicity. Hers was a simple, confident, typically American style. Jill Taylor, the film’s costume designer, based the wardrobe she designed for Williams on pictures of Monroe from the period. “I found a wonderful photo of her taken during the time the film is set, cycling in the English countryside. She is wearing capri pants, flat loafers and a chunky navy cardigan. She had a very natural, understated way of dressing. I think she was rather ahead of her time, in fact.”’

Marilyn and Arthur Miller take in the English countryside
Cartner-Morley says ‘Marilyn’s wardrobe in the film still looks right today. When Williams-as-Monroe lands at Heathrow, she wears a grey sheath dress under a cream trench, with black sunglasses and a battered tan leather holdall. It is an outfit that would work perfectly in 2011: the tonal mix of grey, tan and black gives what could be an overly ladylike outfit a modern edge. The Max Mara-style camel cashmere coat, in which Marilyn gets mobbed outside the Asprey store in Bond Street, could also walk straight off-set and into a contemporary wardrobe.’

Marilyn is mobbed outside Aspreys on the set of My Week With Marilyn
She continues: ‘The colours Taylor chose for Williams are a strict palette of neutrals: white, cream, beige and black. “White and cream lifts the skin,” says Taylor, “and complexion is part of the character – it was that luminosity that made Marilyn stand out among all the other blonde wannabes.” It gives her a sophistication that stands out against the English characters in their knitted browns, and school-blazer blues. “I wanted to show the difference between the English and Americans. We were so much more traditional and uptight,” says Taylor.’

Helen Mirren as Paula Strasberg to Michelle Williams’ Marilyn
The black polo-neck and houndstooth capri pants which Marilyn wears to a read-through in the film represent how she really dressed. ‘When you see photos of her at the Acting Studios, that is the sort of thing she wore,’ Taylor says. Indeed, the real Marilyn bought a white roll-neck sweater from the veteran London cashmere label N Peal during her stay in England. John Vachon’s photos of a younger Marilyn photographed with her then-boyfriend Joe Di Maggio in 1953 show her canoodling and flirting but wearing black and white checked trousers with a knitted white polo shirt, buttoned right to the neck. Very chic, very contemporary – and strikingly demure. Eve Arnold’s famous portraits of Monroe a few years later, on the set of The Misfits in 1960, also show this almost tomboyish style, with the actor wearing jeans, a white shirt, and a denim jacket.

Marilyn and Joe D Maggio photographed by John Vachon in 1953
Taki Wise, one of the gallerists behind Picturing Marilyn, an exhibition of portraits of Monroe that has just opened in New York, says of her that ‘when she was photographed, she didn’t pose – she evoked a mood.’ Her clothes, too, were more about evoking a mood than modelling a particular fashion. ‘In fact, to be honest, I get the vibe that Marilyn wasn’t all that interested in clothes,’ says Taylor.

‘Tomboy’ Marilyn on the set of  The Misfits, photographed by Eve Arnold
There was no greater publicist for Marilyn Monroe than Marilyn herself. She was able to manipulate her image to great effect. When she was on the threshold of global fame in Hollywood, Marilyn used her body to get where she wanted. In her own words, she summed up her approach: ‘As soon as I could afford an evening gown, I bought the loudest I could find. It was a bright-red, low-cut gown and it infuriated half the women in the room because it was so immodest. I was sorry in a way to do this, but I had a long way to go, and I needed a lot of advertising to get there.’

One of the most enduring images we have of Marilyn Monroe is a video taken several weeks before her death where she famously sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy at his birthday party at Madison Square Garden. Guests at the event  said her $6,000 dress was so tight she was sewn into it.  Documentary film maker, Patrick Jeudy, made Marilyn: The Last Sessions based on the book by Michel Schneider who narrates the film, based on Monroe’s tape recordings with her last psychoanalyst, Dr Ralph Greenson, before her death. Schneider comments in the film that ‘they didn’t understand, it wasn’t her dress that was her skin, but her skin that was a piece of flesh clothing. It was her skin that prevented her from being naked.’

The dress Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to President Kennedy
In the documentary we hear Marilyn reveal to her analyst that she actually struggled with the medium of film, confessing to a fear of words. She muses: ‘with words it’s so hard, but it’s so easy for me with my body.’ She goes on to discuss her preference for photography as a medium of expression. Schneider says that when she felt low, she would call upon photographer friends to meet with her to take her picture. According to Schneider, she felt able to express difficult emotions through photography far more effectively, as there was no speech, no language to stutter over, only her image.

Photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt at home
The photographer Eve Arnold developed a lifelong friendship with Monroe. The two seemed to have a mutual understanding of each other as artists and shared a love of photography As a result, they formed a working partnership which produced some of the most memorable and mesmerising shots of Monroe. Arnold claimed in the 1987 documentary Eve and Marilyn: ‘ Over the years I found myself in the privileged position of photographing someone who I had first thought had a gift for the still camera and who turned out had a genius for it.’ Eve wrote: ‘I never knew anyone who came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have – unconsciously – judged other subjects.’

Eve Arnold’s eerily prophetic shot of Marilyn on the set of The Misfits
Most actors are uncomfortable before the still camera, Arnold noted, but with Marilyn the opposite was true. ‘She didn’t have to learn lines as she did for her movies,’ Eve commented. ‘She could let her imagination range freely without concern for onsistency or continuity, she could be a different Marilyn for each photographer or each frame of film.’

Whereas in her film roles, Marilyn was often typecast as a ‘dumb blonde’, as a model ‘she could call the shots, dictate the pace, be in control.’ Even in her early ‘cheesecake’ poses, or with more experienced photographers like Eve’s old mentor, Richard Avedon, Monroe’s joyful, innocent persona transcended cliché. ‘No matter how the photographer tried to use her in terms of his own personality and style,’ Eve remarked, ‘it is always she who imposes herself to have the final look.’ Arnold commented that although candid shots of Monroe were almost impossible, Marilyn liked Eve’s looser, more informal, more intimate approach to photographing her – in stark contrast to the rigid, posed photographs of the studios.

But working with Marilyn presented unusual challenges. ‘A camera anywhere near her would bring out a mob,’ Arnold remembered, adding, ‘the idea of the candid shot was impossible with her. She always knew – as though, wherever she was, whether in a dressing room, resting on a plane or walking in the desert, her own built-in mechanism sensed the camera and responded before the first click was heard.’ Nonetheless, Monroe was at her most creative when being photographed. ‘If it is true, as some has said of her, that all her life she pursued a search for a missing person – herself –’ Arnold mused, ‘then perhaps Marilyn, a creature of myth and illusion, found herself not in the fleeting film image, but in the photograph, which would seem to give her concrete proof of her being.’ 

George Cukor, director of Something’s Got to Give, her final unfinished film, also commented on her fear of words. He stated that Marilyn ‘preferred to let her body do the talking’, she hated words so much. In fact, in the famous photoshoot which took place on the film’s set, where we see Marilyn nude in a swimming pool, it was in fact Marilyn who suggested being nude for the shots, not the photographer. Lawrence Schiller, the photographer on the set of Something’s Got to Give – reports that the reason behind this was that she was concerned about being paid less than Elizabeth Taylor at the time of filming, and the issue was bothering her.  When she felt her popularity was waning, or felt under threat from her peers, it was her body she would return to boost her popularity, but also through which she felt she best expressed herself. Schiller commented: ‘She suggested jumping into the pool clothed, but coming out nude – a kind of resigned awareness of where her bankability lay.’

Lawrence Schiller claimed this the best photo of his career

This rather sad recollection tells of a Monroe with a resignedness as to what the public wanted from her – or at least what she thought they expected. He says ‘When the shoot was over, I rang the magazine and it hit me: wow, she did it! I realised at the same moment how desperate she was. When she had nothing left, to prove that she could still get more publicity than anybody else, out came the birthday suit again.’

It was as if she were coming full circle in posing nude, as she had done at the beginning of her career. The difference being at the beginning of her career she was entering the world of Hollywood as a wide eyed innocent, full of hopes and dreams for the future. In this final shoot, was a more cynical and fragile Marilyn – loved by the world, but ultimately lonely, addicted to pills and growing older in an industry obsessed with youth, plagued with ill health and studios seemingly determined to bring her down due to vague (and unfounded according to at was to be one of her final photo shoots it is interesting that Marilyn returned to her body to ‘do the talking’ for her. She chose to present herself to us at her most vulnerable – literally naked, when she felt not only vulnerable in her career, but also, with the foresight of what was to come in a matter of weeks, undoubtedly vulnerable in her personal life also. Marilyn literally stripped herself bare to her public. She gave everything of herself that there was to give, and the public greedily lapped up all she had to offer. Perhaps this is part of her ultimate allure – Marilyn truly gave herself to her public. She, it would seem, was prepared to give her audience what she believed they wanted in order to get in return the adoration she so craved. In return, her image was devoured by the media and the public alike. Marilyn, so unloved as a child, wanted so desperately to be loved as an adult, and ended up giving herself to a fickle Hollywood machine that could not provide her with what she desired emotionally. Ultimately, as the title of her last unfinished film tellingly foretold ‘something had to give.’

Lawrence Schiller later said the photos of Marilyn in the pool on the set of Something’s Got To Give, were the best photos he ever took – they were so entrenched with meaning.  For Schiller there is a sense of sadness and desperation in her actions. But there is also a sense of triumph. For Marilyn – it was through her skin that she felt her most expressive and empowered and as Eve Arnold commented – in control. She gave what she wanted to give, albeit with (according to Schiller) a sense of desperation at the state of her career – but it was her idea, her choice, her body to give. The photo shoot of Something’s Got to Give can be seen as Marilyn, saying her final goodbye to her audience, her way. Two months later, she was dead.

Marilyn on the set of her last film, the unfinished Something’s Got to Give

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