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Marilyn Monroe, now and forever -- and ever!

Liz Smith

"CANNOT believe that Marilyn M. is dead. She was such a good-hearted girl, so pure, really, so much on the side of the angels. Poor little baby. God bless her."

Truman Capote to literary critic Newton Arvin, in the summer of 1962.

THE ABOVE quote comes from the second volume of Gary Vitacco-Robles' "Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe."

This massive book covers the years 1956 to '62 and beyond -- into Monroe's mythology, deification and after-death debasement.

As with the first volume, this works reminds me so much of the sane and excellent 1968 Fred Lawrence Guiles bio, "Norma Jean." This, along with Maurice Zolotow's colorfully brilliant 1960 book, "Marilyn Monroe," are starting points for all things MM.

Vitacco-Robles presents his many facts without sensation or much agenda. Nothing is hidden, but what is revealed is not made to seem extraordinarily lurid. Monroe had deep-seated emotional problems, issues with prescription drugs and she liked her champagne a bit too much. Get in line, Hollywood and much of the rest of the world!

The book covers so much of Monroe's life and in such detail it would be pointless to zero in on any particular chapter/era. Suffice to say the author uses only the best, most reliable sources. I would note, however, that his chapters on the controversial filming of "Some Like It Hot" and the examination of her death are especially interesting.

When the realities of her existence in her final days are chronicled without tabloid excess, speculation and invention, it is hard to get aboard the murder bus. Most likely, she overdosed accidentally or had a sudden depressive moment. (She did not wake up in the morning intending to kill herself that night.) Tales of her planned "explosive" press conference to "take down" the Kennedys are ludicrous. This was 1962 and she was Marilyn Monroe, not Donna Rice or Monica Lewinsky -- or Kim Kardashian. She was a real star with real plans to continue her threatened-but-still-viable career. She did not want to destroy her only security! Also, no matter her private rages -- which were said to be towering -- she was never vindictive or critical of anybody publicly.

Not even Billy Wilder or Tony Curtis or Joan Crawford. Crawford was obsessed with being a "lady." And in her mind, MM, with her skin-tight gowns and flamboyant image was no lady. That Crawford was famously promiscuous with countless leading men, directors and producers didn't get in the way of Joan's view of herself.

The idea MM would attempt to openly revenge herself on JFK or RFK is theater of the absurd. (The Housekeeper and the Psychiatrist Theory is also fairly ridiculous.)

READING BOTH volumes, it is fascinating to realize that during her lifetime, Marilyn Monroe led a public life that was almost pristine as compared to her sisters in sex-symbolism -- Lana, Rita, Ava, Liz. Marilyn looked a certain way, but her actions were mostly discreet. There were no dead bodies (Lana) ... careless parenting claims (Rita) ... bullfighters (Ava)...or wrecked marriages (Liz!) in MM's wake.

Only after Marilyn's death did the world eventually know the extent of her issues -- tremendous fear of inherited insanity, casual sexuality ("She slept with men as a way of saying 'thank you' ") and long-term substance abuse. She was betrayed after death by scores who knew her and many who didn't. (Arthur Miller used her dead body to promote his last financial success, "After The Fall" in 1964.)

Joe DiMaggio remained true.

The "Icon" volumes are invaluable for anybody who wants to know about Monroe in a real sense -- what her name and fame was during her lifetime. Now, 52 years after her death, she is written up and idolized as if she was still with us. But the image has been turned into something quite different.

Younger fans confuse what they see celebrated by today's self-exploitive stardom and tell-all mentality. They don't realize it has nothing to do with the system within which Marilyn both cooperated and battled. Pat Newcomb, Marilyn's last press rep, once said, "Marilyn never told everything to anybody." Although Marilyn would be delighted by her enduring fame, she would be appalled by the invasions of her privacy -- because so many of those invasions are total fiction.

The elusive Newcomb told another writer: "Marilyn controlled everything. Nobody really had power over her decisions."

And in the end, Marilyn's self-empowerment is what should be celebrated. She dragged herself up from nothing and made herself -- as the New York Times wrote in its obit -- "one of the most famous stars in Hollywood history." This after only a brief decade; a decade that was punctuated by long absences from the screen, and mostly miserable material. (Her best, most entertaining and satisfying film is 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Superior even to the great "Some Like It Hot.")

"If she'd been dumb, she would have been much happier," said Shelley Winters. But Monroe couldn't be happy as "just" a sex-symbol -- although she held onto that image fiercely -- too fiercely, perhaps. Was it so illogical to want to reach higher in life, to learn more, be more? In Monroe's lifetime the answer was a resounding "Yes!" More than the memory of her traumatic semi-orphaned childhood, the pain of being mocked for daring to raise herself higher was a daily, crushing blow.

THE last man to photograph Marilyn, for Life magazine, was Allan Grant. He took a series of pictures to accompany her famous interview, published just two days before her death.

Grant observed: "As she talked to me, she stopped being the provocative, sexy movie star. I suddenly saw a real flesh-and-blood woman, warm and sweet. She told me about the books she read and her interest in designing furniture, and all the things nobody knew or cared about ... I was quite moved."

That feeling of being moved by Marilyn, inexplicably, is her great legacy. (Not her beauty or her talent, although both were considerable.) That sense of fragility under the flash made her a legend in life, a historical figure in death.

"A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing," she said in that Life interview. Well, she wasn't and she isn't.

And we must continue to speak of her in the present tense because her life and career and death are still as significant -- celebratory and cautionary tales -- as they were on the unhappy Sunday morning in 1962 when the world woke up to the news it had lost something they didn't realize they'd miss so much.

(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)

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