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A novel biography by Norman Mailer

So we think of Marilyn who was every Man’s love affair with America, Marilyn Monroe who was blonde and beautiful and had a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice and all the cleanliness of all the clean American backyards. She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex, and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin. Across five continents the men who knew the most about love would covet her, and the classical pimples of the adolescent working his first gas pump would also pump for her, since Marilyn was deliverance, a very Stradivarius of sex, so gorgeous, forgiving, humorous, compliant and tender that even the most mediocre musician would relax his lack of art in the dissolving magic of her violin. “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need,” was the sentiment she offered from the works of Mary Baker Eddy as “my prayer for you always” (to the man who may have been her first illicit lover), and if we change love to sex, we have the subtext in the promise. “Marilyn Monroe’s sex,” said the smile of the young star, “will meet every human need.” She gave the feeling that if you made love to her, why then how could you not move more easily into sweets and the purchase of the full promise of future sweets, move into tender heavens where your flesh would be restored. She could ask no price. She was not the dark contract of those passionate brunette depths that speak of blood, vows taken for life, and the furies of vengeance if you are untrue to the depth of passion, no, Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her. If your taste combined with her taste, how nice, how sweet would be that tender dream of flesh there to share.

In her early career, in the time of Asphalt Jungle when the sexual immanence of her face came up on the screen like a sweet peach bursting before one’s eyes, she looked then like a new love ready and waiting between the sheets in the unexpected clean breath of a rare sexy morning, looked like she’d stepped fully clothed out of a chocolate box for Valentine’s Day, so desirable as to fulfill each of the letters in that favorite word of the publicity flack, curvaceous, so curvaceous and yet without menace as to turn one’s fingertips into ten happy prowlers. Sex was, yes, ice cream to her. “Take me,” said her smile. “I’m easy. I’m happy. I’m an angel of sex, you bet.”

What a jolt to the dream life of the nation that the angel died of an overdose. Whether calculated suicide by barbiturates or accidental suicide by losing count of how many barbiturates she had already taken, or an end even more sinister, no one was able to say. Her death was covered over with ambiguity even as Hemingway’s was exploded into horror, and as the deaths and spiritual disasters of the decade of the Sixties came one by one to American Kings and Queens, as Jack Kennedy was killed, and Bobby, and Martin Luther King, as Jackie Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis and Teddy Kennedy went off the bridge at Chappaquiddick, so the decade that began with Hemingway as the monarch of American arts ended with Andy Warhol as its regent, and the ghost of Marilyn’s death gave a lavender edge to that dramatic American design of the Sixties which seemed in retrospect to have done nothing so much as to bring Richard Nixon to the threshold of imperial power. “Romance is a nonsense bet,” said the jolt in the electric shock, and so began that long decade of the Sixties which ended with television living like an inchworm on the aesthetic gut of the drug-deadened American belly.

In what a light does that leave the last angel of the cinema! She was never for TV. She preferred a theatre and those hundreds of bodies in the dark, those wandering lights on the screen when the luminous life of her face grew ten feet tall. It was possible she knew better than anyone that she was the last of the myths to thrive in the long evening of the American dream—she had been born, after all, in the year Valentino died, and his footprints in the forecourt at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre were the only ones that fit her feet. She was one of the last of cinema’s aristocrats and may not have wanted to be examined, then ingested, in the neighborly reductive dimensions of America’s living room. No, she belonged to the occult church of the film, and the last covens of Hollywood.

She might be as modest in her voice and as soft in her flesh as the girl next door, but she was nonetheless larger than life up on the screen. Even down in the Eisenhower shank of the early Fifties she was already promising that a time was coming when sex would be easy and sweet, democratic provender for all. Her stomach, untrammeled by girdles or sheaths, popped forward in a full woman’s belly, inelegant as hell, an avowal of a womb fairly salivating in seed—that belly which was never to have a child—and her breasts popped buds and burgeons of flesh over many a questing sweating moviegoer’s face. She was a cornucopia. She excited dreams of honey for the horn.

Yet she was more. She was a presence. She was ambiguous. She was the angel of sex, and the angel was in her detachment. For she was separated from what she offered. “None but Marilyn Monroe,” wrote Diana Trilling, could suggest such a purity of sexual delight:

The boldness with which she could parade herself and yet never be gross, her sexual flamboyance and bravado which yet breathed an air of mystery and even reticence, her voice which carried such ripe overtones of erotic excitement and yet was the voice of a shy child—these complications were integral to her gift. And they described a young woman trapped in some never-never land of unawareness.

Or is it that behind the gift is the tender wistful hint of another mood? For she also seems to say, “When an absurd presence is perfect, some little god must have made it.” At its best, the echo of her small and perfect creation reached to the horizon of our mind. We heard her speak in that tiny tinkly voice so much like a little dinner bell, and it tolled when she was dead across all that decade of the Sixties she had helped to create, across its promise, its excitement, its ghosts and its center of tragedy.

Since she was also a movie star of the most stubborn secretiveness and flamboyant candor, most conflicting arrogance and onrushing inferiority; great populist of philosophers— she loved the working man—and most tyrannical of mates, a queen of a castrator who was ready to weep for a dying minnow; a lover of books who did not read, and a proud, inviolate artist who could haunch over to publicity when the heat was upon her faster than a whore could lust over a hot buck; a female spurt of wit and sensitive energy who could hang like a sloth for days in a muddy-mooded coma; a child-girl, yet an actress to loose a riot by dropping her glove at a premiere; a fountain of charm and a dreary bore; an ambulating cyclone of beauty when dressed to show, a dank hunched-up drab at her worst—with a bad smell!—a giant and an emotional pygmy; a lover of life and a cowardly hyena of death who drenched herself in chemical stupors; a sexual oven whose fire may rarely have been lit—she would go to bed with her brassiere on—she was certainly more and less than the silver witch of us all. In her ambition, so Faustian, and in her ignorance of culture’s dimensions, in her liberation and her tyrannical desires, her noble democratic longings intimately contradicted by the widening pool of her narcissism (where every friend and slave must bathe), we can see the magnified mirror of ourselves, our exaggerated and now all but defeated generation, yes, she ran a reconnaissance through the Fifties, and left a message for us in her death, “Baby go boom.” Now she is the ghost of the Sixties. [. . .]

She was born on June 1, 1926 at 9:30 in the morning, an easy birth, easiest of her mother’s three deliveries. As the world knows, it was out of wedlock. At the time of Marilyn’s first marriage to James Dougherty, the name of Norma Jeane Baker was put on the marriage license (Baker by way of her mother’s first husband). On the second marriage to Joe DiMaggio, the last name became Mortenson, taken from the second husband. (Even the middle name, Jean, was originally written like Choreanne for Corinne). There is no need to look for any purpose behind the use of the names. Uneducated (that familiar woe of a beautiful blonde), she was also cultureless—can we guess she would not care to say whether Rococo was three hundred years before the Renaissance, any more than she would be ready to swear the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow didn’t come about because his railroad trains couldn’t run in the cold.

Historically empty, she was nonetheless sensitive—as sensitive as she was historically empty—and her normal state when not under too much sedation was, by many an account, vibrant to new perception. It is as if she was ready when exhilarated to reach out to the washes of a psychedelic tide. So, talking to one publicity man, it would seem natural in the scheme of things that her last name was Baker—maybe that sounded better as she looked at the man’s nose. Another flack with something flaccid in the look of his muscles from the solar plexus to the gut would inspire Mortenson.

Since it was all movie publicity, nobody bothered to check. To what end? Who knew the real legal situation? If the mother, Gladys Monroe Baker, had been married to Edward Mortenson, “an itinerant lover,” he had already disappeared by the time Marilyn was born; some reports even had him dead of a motorcycle accident before Norma Jeane was conceived. There may also have been some question whether Gladys Monroe was ever divorced from the first husband, Baker, or merely separated.

And the real father, according to Fred Guiles, was C. Stanley Gifford, an employee of Consolidated Film Industries, where Gladys Baker worked. A handsome man.

Shown a picture of him by her mother when still a child, Marilyn described him later “wearing a slouch hat cocked on one side of his head. He had a little mustache and a smile. He looked kind of like Clark Gable, you know, strong and manly.” In her early teens, she kept a picture of Gable on her wall and lied to high school friends that Gable was her secret father. Not too long out of the orphanage where she had just spent twenty-one months, then veteran of numerous foster homes, it is obvious she was looking for a sense of self-importance, but we may as well assume something more extravagant: the demand upon a biographer is to explain why she is exceptional. So, in that part of her adolescent mind where fantasy washes reality as the ego begins to emerge, it is possible she is already (like Richard Nixon) searching for an imperial sense of self-justification. Illegitimate she might be, but still selected for a high destiny— Clark Gable was her secret father.

That she would yet come to know Gable while making The Misfits (know him toward the end of her life down in the infernal wastes of that psychic state where the brimstone of insomnia and barbiturates is boiled, her marriage to Miller already lost, her lateness a disease more debilitating than palsy), what portents she must have sensed playing love scenes at last with the secret father, what a cacophony of cries in the silence of her head when Gable was dead eleven days after finishing the film.