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The Inscrutable Life and Death of Marilyn Monroe

Fifty years ago, late on August 4 or in the early hours of August 5—so little can be said of her with certainty—Marilyn Monroe died, and began her life in legend. This was only 50 years ago, in Los Angeles, when she was a very important if vague person who may have known even more important persons. There were doctors in attendance, and then coroners; there were police investigations. The world decided it was shocked and stricken by the sudden departure of the 36-year-old, yet not surprised. Something like this had always seemed likely.

The first assumption was that the poor woman had killed herself. She was surely available for scenarios of fatal unhappiness: her third marriage had recently ended; she had no children; she was facing increased problems of drug-dependency; she had been dropped by the president and his brother Bobby; she had lately been sexually humiliated by the Rat Pack and associates at the Cal-Neva lodge in Nevada; she had been fired from a film by her studio for persistent lateness and unreliability; she was conferring with Communists and was such a political radical that the FBI thought her dangerous—or, more or less, she was the patron saint of all glowing and talented women who are abused, exploited, and mocked by cruel men, and she’d had enough.

We still don’t know how much of this diagnosis to believe. But with all those scripts in the air, no wonder her legend has gained sustained flight. She is a pool—deep or shallow, perfumed or toxic—in which every enquirer can see the reflection of their own agenda. She can be reshaped, dressed, undressed, posted and imagined, into any shape or storyline you wish. So there is sufficient “evidence” or suggestion available to say that the circumstances of her death were odd and contradictory enough to leave every interpretation open.

You take your pick: She died late on the fourth or early on the fifth. She committed suicide, or by accident she became confused and took prescriptions that were not safe together. She died on her back, on her side, or her front. The corpse was arranged and her bed sheets were being laundered as the police arrived. She took drugs orally or a suppository was forced on her. She was phoning someone; she was unconscious. Her housekeeper told different stories at different times. The doctors seem to have been intent on a cover up. At least one cop arriving at the Brentwood house thought it was murder. But there were other people there whose identity was never revealed. And why did Peter Lawford (the president’s brother-in-law) keep calling the house. And how was Marilyn’s agent certain she was dead at 10.30 p.m. on the fourth when he was at the theatre?

To which you can add: Monroe escaped the real lust of Norman Mailer but reduced the more kindly Arthur Miller to despair; she was a great actress thwarted by an unkind system, or she was a knowing sexpot who worked very hard on her looks and her voice to play the dumb blonde stupid men expected. She longed to play O’Neill or Chekhov, or was she in her element doing Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot? She was an Actors Studio tragedienne, or she knew that her career lay in movies that made dirty jokes behind her back. Keep all of those scenes, and what does it amount to—the plausible and human possibility that she was a mess who never worked her life out? There were even those who believed she was mentally disturbed (instead of just confused)—hadn’t her mother been insane? Hadn’t Norma Jeane Mortenson had a foster-home upbringing to prey upon those genes?

The movie career is insubstantial (Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both for Howard Hawks). It’s not a proper reward for the astonishing, shining desirability she projected, and the pathos that went with it. But could that fragile persona have been explored in a major film? The one area in which she hardly faltered was still photography. She loved the camera (and cameramen) and trusted its kindness. She was more at ease when being still and feeling the light flow off her face. In photographs, she could be witty, sad, erotic, wicked and intelligent, whereas live action made her tense, naïve, and likely to be laughed at.

But none of that explains why, 50 years after her death, she is latent, current, mysterious yet known. When she died, the popular explanation was suicide, and it has always been easy to believe that lovely, uneducated kids often get found out by fame and stardom. But any examination of her death teaches the lesson that hers is the first death in that haunting line of the ’60s that includes the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Lee Harvey Oswald. How can such notable people die in uncertainty? Are there really infinite intrigues in the world, or do we refuse to accept simple and obvious answers? It is a kind of religion. So the collection of stories attending her death are more potent than her films, and they provide an occult explanation for that gorgeous, plaintive look she had: “What do you think happened to me?”

We tell ourselves now that we are known in so many oppressive ways: Our identity is laid out in numbers ready to be stolen; all our e-mails are retrievable; increasingly, we are subject to surveillance, all meant for our “security,” but all contributing to its opposite. Monroe stands for this unlikely possibility: that in an age of mounting data and information storage, it is possible for someone beautiful and famous to be unknowable. She is our “rosebud,” a word or a look that never finds answer but which provokes so much speculation, a kind of lyric paranoia or plot-making. If you look at that face, “rosebud” falls into place, along with a modern realization: Beauty is not truth, but the remoteness of ever finding truth, no matter that you can’t take your eyes off the face. Film—still or movie—is not a record of reality or the truth 24 times a second. It is a revelation, or a show, that defies fixed meaning.