Marilyn, Lana and the American Dream

"We don't need nobody - cause we got each other..." - Lana Del Rey, November 2012
“We don’t need nobody- cause we got each other…” – Lana Del Rey, November 2012

The latest issue of British music mag Clash takes the American Dream as its theme. Up-and-coming singer Allie X is pictured inside with a portrait of MM, while cover girl Lana Del Rey names Marilyn among her idols:

“I ask Lana about her choice of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis as heavenly spirits in the Garden of Eden for her short film, Tropico. ‘I wrote a little monologue for everyone who came to the premiere of Tropico. When I was studying philosophy my teacher told me that it’s okay to feel like the people you’re closest to aren’t alive anymore. Sometimes that is the best company to keep. It’s about the people that pondered the same questions as you did, and had the same sort of life mentality as you. I was upset and inspired by that premise.

‘I knew then, really, that my closest friends would be people I have never really met before. I was different and I didn’t know many people who felt about mortality how I did. As a result, I do feel a personal connection with the icons: John Wayne, Elvis. I loved how nice Marilyn was, I related to her. Finding girls who were as loving and warm as her is hard.’

Like Lana, Marilyn Monroe wasn’t one without her detractors. ‘Success makes so many people hate you,’ she once said, ‘I wish it wasn’t that way.'”

And in a separate article headlined ‘What Drives the American Dream?‘, Joe Zadeh considers Marilyn as an American icon:

“Then there was Marilyn Monroe: widely associated with sexual appeal, femme fatale roles and the chauvinistic adoration of the troops, her foster-home-to-film-noir story inspired millions too, and a nude appearance in Playboy broke traditional conceptions of female behaviour for American society.

As the years rolled by, the wheels started to fall off the Dream’s systemic and idealistic prairie schooner. First, its leading lady died, analysed perfectly in the words of biographer Graham McCann: ‘The legend of Marilyn Monroe leads one into the bourgeois truisms of Western culture: that fame does not bring happiness; that sexuality is destructive; that Hollywood destroys its own children.'”

‘No Vacancy’: Niagara’s Motel Culture

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Marilyn as Rose Loomis, ‘Niagara’ (1953)

‘No Vacancy, Honeymoon Suites or By-the-Week: Motel Culture of Niagara’ is a new exhibition at the Niagara Falls History Museum, reports Niagara This Week. On display until September 7, ‘No Vacancy’ the resort town’s ‘motel culture’, which was memorably represented in the 1953 thriller, Niagara, starring Marilyn and Joseph Cotten as a fatally mismatched couple, staying in a motel in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage.

Backstory: Marilyn on Madison, 1962

Writing for the Worcester Telegram today, Liz Smith explores the backstory behind a fan photo taken as Marilyn left John F. Kennedy’s birthday gala at Madison Square Garden. There’s just one problem – the photo isn’t included! I’ve found a file photo which seems similar, but will update this post if the real one is identified.

“Sometimes people write in ‘correcting’ us with nothing more than their opinion. And then there are people who have a story to tell. Such as Stephen William Stern. He took a fabulous shot of Marilyn Monroe, the night she sang for President Kennedy. Here is Stephen’s tale:

‘I always knew where she lived and I was always a Marilyn fan ever since I saw Love Nest in 1951. I thought she was fabulous and I felt she was the most interesting of the stars at the time.

‘All these autograph collectors always knew who was in town and where they were staying. Some people would tell me things and some wouldn’t, but I always read the gossip columns, so I was aware of this event where she was supposed to sing for the president’s birthday.

‘I went to 444 E. 57th, her building. The sun was still up when Marilyn came back from rehearsals for the show. She was dressed in slacks and a blouse, if I remember correctly. I waited there for what seemed a long time for her to change and come back out.

Marilyn leaves her apartment building for Madison Square Garden. (Screencap from footage by James Haspiel)
Earlier the same day, Marilyn was spotted outside her apartment building.(Screencap from footage by James Haspiel)

‘There were several people then that were trying to get photographs and autographs. When she came out and made it through the lobby, it was a mad scramble for us to get a picture on her way to the limo. Some people succeeded, I guess. But she was in a hurry and as soon as she got into the limousine, they just took off!

‘Some of my friends and I jumped into a cab and made it to 50th Street between 8th and 9th where there was this big metal door on the side of the old Madison Square Garden. We made our way inside only to have the police notice us, so we flew up the stairs.

‘I looked down to the stage and realized that we had missed Marilyn. She must have just gone off because there’s the president on the stage and I had no interest in the president. I was there for one reason and that was to see Marilyn!

‘We all got up then and went down the regular stairs to the main level where I saw her in the lobby in the distance. I think she was talking to Milton Berle. I hesitated to take a picture because I didn’t want to call attention to myself, so we went out to 49th Street.

‘She came out and got into the limousine and they started moving. It was a busy Saturday night in New York and around 8th Avenue, the limousine stopped. I ran up to the window. Marilyn seemed to be trying to open the window. She wanted her picture taken, but the chauffeur had locked the window. I said to myself, There she is! And she was looking fabulous, so I angled the camera and took the shot.'”

Happy Bloomsday, Marilyn

Photo by Fraser Penney
Photo by Fraser Penney

The novelist James Joyce, who died in 1941, never knew Marilyn Monroe. But she is indelibly associated with his masterpiece, Ulysses, after Eve Arnold photographed her reading it in 1955. Today is Bloomsday, the day in which Ulysses is set, named for its hero, Leopold Bloom.

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Many have raised doubts about whether Marilyn was really reading Ulysses. But at the time, she was rehearsing its final monologue – in the voice of Leopold’s wife, Molly Bloom – for her acting class with Lee Strasberg.

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I suspect both MM and Joyce would find the enduring power of these image curious, yet delightful. Writing for Time magazine, Richard Conway pays tribute to the most famous picture, and the anniversary it marks, in today’s ‘Backstory’ blog.

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“The 1955 shoot was reportedly done off-the-cuff: The two had traveled to the area because Monroe was visiting poet Norman Rosten, and she had brought along a copy of the book. When they stopped at a beach, Monroe whipped out the novel as Arnold was loading film into her camera. Arnold started taking pictures. During the shoot, Monroe read the book aloud and revealed that she liked to dip into it, rather than read it chapter by chapter. (The same reading method, incidentally, favored by many Joycean scholars and passionate ‘amateur’ literature fans, alike.)

That’s according to the research of Doctor Richard Brown, author of the essay Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Post-Cultural Cyborg? and several books on JoyceBrown discovered this when, in 1993, he received a letter from Arnold after he had contacted her asking about the photograph. Brown tells TIME that he sees the image as part of a sub-genre of Marilyn photos, quite different from the puckered, glamorous shots we are used to — namely, pictures of her reading books.

In light of this, and perhaps unfairly, many who see the Ulysses picture seem to ask — was she actually reading it? The answer is likely straightforward: of course she was.

‘We know much more about her as a reader after the [1999] Christie’s auction of her books,’ Brown says. ‘And I mean, why shouldn’t she have read it? On one level there’s a documentary fact with this image. If you see someone in a picture reading a book, then they are reading that book.’

Others have questioned if the shoot was staged — perhaps Arnold had asked her to take out the novel — but given the photographer’s professional reputation, this seems very unlikely. Arnold and Monroe had a long-standing relationship, having both collaborated from the early 1950s right up until Monroe’s last completed movie, The Misfits, before her death in 1962. Arnold is said to have been the only photographer Monroe trusted.

‘Eve wouldn’t have set this up,’ asserts Brigitte Lardinois, former Cultural Director at Magnum Photos London and author of several books on Arnold. ‘Maybe if she had been sitting in a demure dress on an antique chair, it would have had a different effect.’

‘But she’s reading in her bathing suit here,’ Lardinois says. ‘It’s all pretty natural.'”

Sinatra, DiMaggio and Marilyn

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Writing for the New York Times, Michael Beschloss looks back at the infamous ‘Wrong Door Raid’, and the shattered friendship of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio.

“Americans learned about what came to be called the ‘Wrong-Door Raid’ when Confidential magazine revealed it two years later. Furious and embarrassed (even though Sinatra had ostensibly been trying to help him), DiMaggio scarcely spoke to Sinatra afterward.

Maintaining the hope of reconciling with Monroe, he was later incensed by sporadic reports that his ex-wife had taken up with Sinatra. When Marilyn died in 1962, the distraught DiMaggio barred him from her funeral.

DiMaggio’s tabloid estrangement from Sinatra is painful to recall because, in retrospect, these two men of the same generation (they were born and died within roughly a year of each other) probably did more than anyone else of their time to bring Italian-Americans into the mainstream of their country’s popular culture.”

Marilyn, Pharrell and ‘Mr S’ Movie Plans

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In her latest column for the Chicago TribuneLiz Smith suggests that Mr S: My Life With Frank Sinatra – George Jacobs’ 2003 memoir – may be adapted for the big screen. Jacobs, who was Sinatra’s valet for 15 years, died late last year. Rumour has it that Pharrell Williams – whose latest hit is called ‘Marilyn Monroe’ – hopes to star.

Personally, I found Mr S rather overblown and trashy, so I don’t hold out much hope for this project – although it might be interesting to see a different view of Sinatra’s world. However, Liz – who has been documenting the show-business scene for over half a century – thinks otherwise…

“Well, there’s going to be plenty of Sinatra-style ring-a-ding-ding if plans to film Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra come to fruition. You remember Mr. S. It was the memoir of Frank Sinatra’s longtime valet George Jacobs. The book, published in 2003 is wildly entertaining. Perhaps too wild.

It was co-written by William Stadiem, the man who gave us Marilyn Monroe Confidential, which purports to be the memoirs of Lena Pepitone, Monroe’s Manhattan maid. It, too, is pretty wild. Several years after the book had become accepted as fact, Ms. Pepitone, whose relationship with the English language was not expert, admitted that the whole thing was ‘made up.’

But I have to say, Mr. S has always had the ring-a-ding-ding of truth, to me. The tantrums, jealousies, hookers, spontaneous generosity, obsessive love for Ava Gardner, his protective attitude toward Marilyn Monroe — all fell within what I knew about Frank, at least in his younger days. (By the time I met Mr. S, he had mellowed considerably.) After 15 years with Sinatra, the savvy, observant Jacobs was canned after he took Frank’s then-wife, Mia Farrow, out dancing at the legendary Candy Store discotheque.

Several years ago, Chris Rock was attached to the project, but that fell through. Now — so grinds the rumor mill — it is the hot singer Pharrell Williams who wants to portray George Jacobs! Pharrell is said to be a major Sinatra fan, and his signature over-size hats are a nod, some say, to Frank’s famous fedoras.

And Pharrell’s latest single is titled ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ a song that pays homage to Miss M. and other alluring ladies. If the movie happens, how about Scarlett Johansson as Monroe? — well, after Scarlett gives birth, naturally. (One of Jacobs’ most colorful memories of Monroe was when she would model high heels for him. She was always looking for the shoe that would make her legs look longer. What made these modeling sessions memorable, according to Jacobs, is that she modeled the heels in the nude.)

Speaking of Ava, good luck on casting that incredible beauty.

BUT, who would play the pivotal role of Mr. S? Chris Pine, perhaps best known for Star Trek, is said to be wanted. (I know, I know — why not George Clooney? But Jacobs’ book centers on the 1950s and ’60s. Clooney is just a shade too mature.)

Right now, this is simply chatter from the innards of Warner Bros. who own the rights to Mr. S. Of course, the still-protective Sinatra family will likely chime in.

That ring-a-ding-ding might not be terribly melodious.”

Kenneth Turan’s ‘Not to Be Missed’

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Not to Be Missed: Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film is a new, very personal book by Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the Los Angeles Times. His selection includes two movies from Marilyn’s early career, The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve.

“Though she is eighth billed, a young Marilyn Monroe is a standout…even in this heady ensemble, so much so that ‘an officially authorized stunning hand-painted porcelain collector doll’ of the actress in her All About Eve party dress now sells for twice its original $195 Franklin Heirloom Dolls Price. Cast largely because of the efforts of her mentor, powerful agent Johnny Hyde, Monroe impressed Mankiewicz, he later wrote, as having ‘a breathlessness and sort of glued-on innocence about her that I found appealing.'”

Behind the Scenes of ‘Love Happy’

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Love Happy (1949) was the final, and least popular Marx Brothers film. Today it is chiefly remembered for a short scene pairing Groucho and a young Marilyn. Writing for Pop Matters, Jose Solis takes another look at this comic curiosity.

“It seems as if the film created a rift in the siblings’ relationship, as Groucho would pretty much go on to disown this film from existing within the canon of official Marx Brothers’ movies, going as far as to completely ignore it in his autobiography. It seems as if the only cause of pride he found in the film was his ‘accidental’ discovery of an actress who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s brightest icons: Marilyn Monroe, who would be dead little over a decade after the film was made.

Love Happy is by no means a bad film—it has some of the funniest scenes in the Marx Brothers’ filmography. When watching the movie, however, its problematic production history is obvious. For example, there are no scenes featuring all three brothers together, despite director David Miller’s sly hints teasing the audience into believing this will occur at some point. (Miller would go on to direct camp classic Sudden Fear starring Joan Crawford). There is an epic scene towards the end that seems to promise us of the explosive encounter to come, which then never materializes.

By the time they made the film, the Brothers weren’t even performing together as an act. Perhaps Love Happy is nothing but a reminder of the power money has over artists. Perhaps it’s an interesting reminder of how Hollywood has time and time again made people who weren’t on the best terms work together to create something. Or, perhaps, it should simply be remembered or thought of, as the movie where Marilyn first took the world’s breath away, at least for a few seconds. (Her ‘official’ debut would come the following year in All About Eve).”