Assaulted by a Hollywood mogul, killed by the Kennedys? – The Irish Times
In May, a portrait of a woman was sold at auction in New York for 195 million dollars, or around 191 million euros, a record for a work by an American artist and any artist of the 20th century. That month, also in New York, there was an uproar when a dress the woman had once worn was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gala by a reality TV star. The dress is said to be the most expensive dress in the world; its owner paid nearly $5 million for it. To ensure its safety, it is normally kept under special conditions in a dark vault.
The woman in the portrait, the woman who once wore the dress – to sing happy birthday to President John F Kennedy in Madison Square Garden – was, of course, Marilyn Monroe. The brightly colored serigraph of her, the work of Andy Warhol, is the most famous of his pop art works. Kim Kardashian, whose stunt was wearing the Monroe dress at the Met, has responded to criticism for wearing a deceased woman’s clothes by insisting, bizarrely, that she had “so much respect” for her.
In life, Monroe was noticed far beyond Hollywood and in ways very different from the corny image of the sex bomb that is the leitmotif of her modern iconography. Twenty years before exercise became fashionable, she took up running. She voraciously read serious literature, Dostoyevsky in particular. As early as 1950, studio executives had found it necessary to warn her not to be seen reading politically radical books. Before the decade was out, Monroe would marry Arthur Miller, just as the playwright was being investigated for his dalliance with communism. She supported the nascent civil rights movement in the United States. She was a founding member of Sane’s Hollywood branch, the Committee for Sound Nuclear Policy.
Yet 60 years after her death, Monroe’s vivid presence in world culture – only Diana, Princess of Wales rivals her hold on the public imagination – allows for no nuance. The star’s massive street art can be seen from Istanbul to Penang, Cannes to Vancouver. A Monroe silk scrunchie celebrating her “authenticity, self-acceptance and self-confidence” sells for €50. A “hyper-realistic life-size silicone figurine statue” is a snap at just under €15,500.
Monroe is still a lucrative – and usefully changeable – asset. The Montblanc Marilyn Monroe Special Edition Pearl Ballpoint Pen is yours for €775. A lamp depicting Monroe with the wind blowing her skirt is just €180. All over the planet, Monroe’s features decorate everything from cookbooks to coffee mugs, from handbags to ties. Countless Facebook groups, Pinterest boards, Instagram accounts and fan sites – Marilyn Remembered, Our Marilyn, Immortal Marilyn, the Irish Marilyn Monroe Fan Club – are devoted to her.
I wrote a biography of the star in 1985, seeking to penetrate the jungle of facts about him and emerge with something of the rough truth about his life and his controversial death. Since its publication, the appetite for all things Monroe — especially the more devious side of her legacy — has only grown more voraciously. In recent months, millions of people have watched a Netflix documentary based on the interviews I recorded for this book. In September, Netflix will premiere Blonde, a highly anticipated fiction film starring Ana de Armas.
It’s being billed as a biopic – and, by its director, Andrew Dominik, as an “emotional nightmarish fairy tale”. It is adapted from the novel of the same name by American author Joyce Carol Oates, which was published in 2000. The novel, Oates wrote in a preface, was a “radically distilled ‘life’ of Marilyn Monroe”. By radically distilled, she explained, she meant that she had been very selective, that she had used real-life facts and characters – she credited my biography as one of her main sources – but that she had freely imagined many other things.
In Oates’ 700-page novel, the main character is usually named Norma Jeane, the name Monroe was born with and known until her film career took off. Later, she is Marilyn Monroe. During World War II, the novel’s Norma Jeane works at Radio Plane, a company that does wartime work – and the future star worked at such a company. Later, when she rose to fame, she married first “the ex-athlete” and then “the playwright” — clear references to Monroe’s husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller.
The mostly miserable sexual experiences dominate Blonde – emphasizing the tyranny and betrayal of many of her men. At the start of the book, Norma Jeane is raped by a Hollywood studio tycoon who is given the name MZ. The rape scene is written graphically, sparing no detail. Mr Z has been interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to Twentieth Century Fox founder Darryl Zanuck. Monroe’s real-life recollection of “casting couch” sexual encounters, but there is no suggestion that any of those were with Zanuck. In interviews with almost 700 people, I found nothing to suggest that a Hollywood producer raped Monroe.
In Oates’ novel, however, the most blatant historical libel is aimed at Monroe’s involvement in 1962 with “the President.” “The President”, from an extremely wealthy Irish-American family, is a clear reference to Kennedy. In the novel, the President peremptorily demands to see Monroe, repeatedly has sex with her, and then becomes inaccessible until “the summons” returns.
Monroe is sent to the White House. There’s more sex, chatter about communist Cuba and Fidel Castro, and more sex. Back in Los Angeles, she dreams that the president has made her pregnant. Then comes another summons, another flight east. She sings “Happy birthday, Mr President” at Madison Square Garden. Then, on his return to Los Angeles, desolation and death.
In the novel, death “rushes towards her” in the form of a “passionless and ruthless” man, an assassin. The man is unsure if his mission is to “protect the president from the blonde whore of the president” or if the real purpose is “to harm the president to be associated with the blonde whore”. Using a key given to him by someone identified as RF, the assassin breaks into Monroe’s house at night while she is sleeping. Then, armed with a syringe loaded with a fatal dose of a sleeping pill, he thrust “the six-inch needle up to the hilt into his heart”.
Oates’ novel makes it clear that references to “president” in the book are to Kennedy. And no one would interpret his reference to RF as code for anyone other than RFK, the brother of the President and Attorney General, Robert F Kennedy.
Why am I calling Oates’ “fictional” account of dalliance with the Kennedys “historical libel”? Credible information suggests that Kennedy had fun with Monroe. Her brother Robert, according to research, also had some sort of secret connection to her. There is no evidence, however, that they or anyone else murdered her. Is it defensible to write and publish this scenario in a novel, especially when the individuals involved are still fresh in memory? A scenario that might suggest the president’s brother was aided and abetted – ordained? – murder?
When Oates’ novel came out, her defense was that, in a work of fiction, she “had no special obligation” to the facts. In my view, that is not the case. The people she named in her novel were real people with real reputations – and historical legacies – and such fictional fabrication is unduly cruel. The fact that the persons concerned are deceased is not a defence.
Will the next film spin the same tale? Dominik said the film would be “critical of America’s sacred cows”, including Kennedy, and that “there’s something in it to offend everyone”. It is obvious that the film will push the limits. Netflix would have insisted on hiring an editor to “curb the excesses” of production. Even so, it has an NC-17 rating, which in theory prohibits viewing by anyone 17 or younger in the United States.
Dominik doesn’t mince his words. He says the film is what you would want from “the NC-17 version of the Marilyn Monroe story”. He continues, “If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience problem.” More soberly, he affirms that the film would not have seen the light of day without the #MeToo movement; that he recounts what it’s like “to be an unloved girl, to go through Hollywood’s meat grinder…how childhood trauma shapes an adult who is torn between a public self and a private self “.
After seeing a rough cut, Oates deemed the film “brilliant, very disturbing, perhaps most surprisingly a totally ‘feminist’ interpretation”. Dominik has since ventured that “Blonde will be one of the 10 best movies ever made”.
“The magnitude of the Monroe myth is impossible to measure,” wrote Professor Sarah Churchwell. More books have been written about the star than about any other artist. More than 20 films already offer a fictional version of the story of his life. Will the upcoming film be an indulgent bath in her sex life and conspiratorial fantasy about her death, or deliver something worthwhile?
John Huston, who directed Monroe’s first substantial film, The Asphalt Jungle, from 1950, as well as the last she completed, The Misfits, from 1961, said: “People say that Hollywood broke her heart, but that’s rubbish – she was observant and tough-minded… In some ways she was very astute. He added: “She went all the way from personal experience in everything , leaned in and pulled something out of herself that was unique…She found things about the woman in herself.”
“How do you write a life story?” Monroe herself wondered during an interview just before her death. “Because real things rarely come into circulation. It’s usually the wrong things… It’s hard to know where to start, you know, if you don’t start with the truth. – Guardian
Anthony Summers is the author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. An updated edition has just been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson