Marilyn, ‘Meng Lu’ and the Asian-American Dream

The Chinese-American author Meng Jin, whose debut novel Little Gods is published this month, writes about Marilyn’s influence for Vogue today.

“While Jin Ge is my legal and formal name, my family calls me Mengmeng, a pet name chosen by my mother, after the American actress Marilyn Monroe, known in Chinese as Meng Lu. Mengmeng is an almost absurdly soft complement to Golden Ax: Meng means ‘dream.’ My mother named me after Meng Lu for one reason only: She wanted me to be beautiful …

I knew little about Marilyn Monroe and didn’t care to know more, wrapped up as she was in the confounding model of womanhood that was my mother. Perhaps I resented my mother, not just for imposing a standard of beauty on me but for picking an impossible one: Did she really believe her skinny Chinese daughter could grow up to be a blonde bombshell? It wasn’t until years later, when I stumbled upon an image of Monroe in Vogue, with a bright-orange X over her naked body, that I began to wonder about the woman behind the famous face. Was the image my mother idealized as constructed as the immigrant’s idea of the American dream?

After all, ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a fiction. Norma Jean Baker, a wholesome brunette, was born to a schizophrenic mother and an unknown father and spent her childhood in and out of California orphanages and foster care. When her legal guardian moved out of state, she married at 16 so that she wouldn’t have to return to an orphanage. Eventually she divorced her husband to pursue modeling and acting, bleached her hair, and took a more memorable name.

My mother didn’t know any of this when she named me Mengmeng. In a way, my mother’s ignorance was Monroe’s own doing. The actress was so talented at reinvention that she disappeared into her own image. But [Bert] Stern’s photograph, taken in 1962, just weeks before she died from a barbiturate overdose at the age of 36, hints at the layers between fiction and reality … she had asked to see the images before they went to print. She returned them half destroyed: with bright X’s over the ones she did not like … For Marilyn, the desire to be seen was perhaps never closer to the desire to disappear.

Of course, my mother’s obsession with beauty was never just about beauty. When she left her hometown at 15, she was ridiculed for her country clothes, her accent, her field laborer’s dark skin. In Shanghai, where city folk looked down on outsiders, she’d tried hard to blend in. Her preoccupation with fashion was also part of an effort to erase the peasant girl she no longer wanted to be. In many ways, immigrating to America was the culmination of her self-creation.

It was also the beginning of many years of hardship. In Shanghai, my mother was a practicing physician, but in America she had to start over as a lab tech and research assistant, eventually redoing years of grueling residency. My parents raised me on students’ salaries while sending money back to their families in China. We lived below the poverty line; somehow, my mother had won a new life where she was once again the poorest of the poor. Meanwhile, her heavy accent and unfamiliarity with societal norms meant she had to work twice as hard to prove herself. Again she studied the ways of those around her: how Americans dressed, how Americans talked, how Americans laughed easily with people they barely knew.

But wasn’t this what she wanted all along? Assimilation, the process of becoming an American, assumes, to some extent, the erasure of who you were before. This is what I see in the photograph and the X: an act of obliteration that is simultaneously an act of creation.

For Norma Jean—perhaps for many of us—the drive to become oneself is inescapably intertwined in the dissolution of that same self.”


Marilyn Book News: Shooting Stars, Bombshells & More

Fabrice Colin’s Shooting Star – a French novel for young adults about ‘Marilyn, Hollywood, and the birth of an icon’ – was published in October 2019.

Coming in March, Bombshells: Five Women Who Set the Fifties on Fire is the first book by Shar Daws, author of the Loving Marilyn website.

Monroe scribe extraordinaire Michelle Morgan has two publications ready for us this year, both approved by Marilyn’s estate. First up is Marilyn: Collectible Magnets and Mini Posters, coming in April.

Then in July, Day by Day With Marilyn, an undated 12-month planner, includes ‘notes on happenings in Marilyn’s life on given days of the year, to keep you inspired; quotes from the legend on love, career, womanhood, and life in general; more than 60 full-color and black-and-white photographs.” throughout. 

Marilyn’s Last Screen Test

David Thomson is another film critic who doesn’t rate Marilyn’s screen performances all that highly, but often feels compelled to write about her. He provided an introduction for Anne Verlhac’s MM: A Life in Pictures (2007), and also mentions Marilyn in his 2012 book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us. In it, he credits most of her best work to her directors, and even suggests Michelle Williams did a better job of being Marilyn than she did (in My Week With Marilyn.) Nonetheless, he can’t deny her enduring appeal…

“She was always in her glory in stills, like a kid raised on fan magazines and their suspended moments of desire and splendour. When she moved on film, in real time, she often became more awkward and exaggerated. But she was enough of a pin-up girl – and there was a luxuriant but tasteful spread for a nude calendar – that she was signed up by Twentieth Century Fox. They decided to call her Marilyn Monroe. She was one of the last studio fabrications and she would die still attached to Fox in anger, grief and litigation.

She would marry Joe DiMaggio, the model of baseball, and then Arthur Miller, the intellectual, leftist playwright. It was a search for happiness, but a kind of nationwide casting, too. There were also affairs … Norman Mailer never quite got over the frustration that he was not included and he wrote a rhapsody to her that was driven by his never knowing her.

What was she like on-screen? More or less, fifty years after her death, everyone has seen some of Marilyn’s films. A lot of them were thankless studio assignments. In many she is being mocked by her own pictures … Studios no longer had reason or the skills to look after their wayward stars, and no one ever knew how to plot a career line for Monroe, or have her remember it …

Marilyn Monroe was never in charge, and that is why the public felt a helpless publicity at the news of her suicide …. Her actual achievement, in stills and movie moments, was slight compared with the work of Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, or Meryl Streep. But if anyone today is asked to do a painting of the history of the movies (or a book jacket), chances are they do Chaplin tipping his hat to Marilyn, with her standing over that subway grating in New York, where the rush of a passing train turned her white skirt into a parachute. She taught us to see that great images were lost children, and we walk on in dismay …”

Thomson also writes at length about Some Like It Hot, and the hair and wardrobe tests filmed with Marilyn for the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, which are in some ways more haunting than the scenes she completed (perhaps because she was unhampered by the dated script.)

“The test is in colour but silent. She wears a white dress with a black floral pattern and she is talking to the director George Cukor. She is herself, not the character for the film, and as beautiful and confident as she ever managed on film, as if aware it was her best shot. Some said that, in the last couple of years, Monroe was so drugged that she had difficulty focusing her eyes. That doesn’t show in this test. She is presence itself and suggests she might have been a smart woman and not just ‘Marilyn’.”

Marilyn and the Fox Blondes

Marilyn with Betty Grable in 1953

Film historian Jeanine Basinger is not a great fan of Marilyn – in her 2008 book, The Star Machine, she made the puzzling claim that Monroe was unpopular with filmgoers, though the statistics tell another story. Marilyn also rates a mention in Basinger’s latest book, The Movie Musical, in the context of Twentieth Century Fox’s long line of blonde musical stars.

Marilyn shoots the ‘Heat Wave’ number for There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)

“A discussion of Fox blondes, from [Alice] Faye to Monroe, defines the Fox musical factory system, but it has to begin with a blonde who started the trend but is seldom included in the pack. She’s a very little blonde: Shirley Temple. All the famous musical Fox blondes overlapped in film … [June] Haver appeared with Monroe in Love Nest (1951) and [Betty] Grable, the most famous musical star of them all, gave a boost to Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953.) The Fox blondes were powerhouses: Temple, Faye, Grable, and Monroe were all top-ten box office draws … Faye is closer in looks to Marilyn Monroe – the big, wide-set eyes, the lush mouth, and the vulnerable look combined with a zaftig body. [Grable was smaller, leaner and zippier – she gave off the energetic zeitgeist of the war years.)

Marilyn Monroe was neither a great singer or a great dancer, but she was good enough. Everyone accepted her breathy vocals as part of who she was, and her dancing was made into far more than it was by the great choreographer Jack Cole. Cole gave her hand gestures, hip movements, and head turns that had rhythm and attracted an audience’s eye …

Monroe was something of a challenge for Twentieth Century Fox. The studio apparently didn’t originally see her as a musical star … Monroe made only two pure musicals for Fox, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954.) She also sang in Niagara (1953), River Of No Return (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and Let’s Make Love (1960), usually with some dancing connection …

Monroe as a musical star in a typical Fox musical was not the Monroe who is usually defined as vulnerable, with a sad and wistful quality, a soul yearning for understanding while suffering the cruelties of an uncaring world … In both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and There’s No Business Like Show Business, Monroe was self-confident, playing a woman who knew how to use men if she had to in order to achieve her career goals. Monroe has one enduring solo (with a chorus of men): her immortal ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ …

The best movie by which to evaluate Monroe as a musical performer is There’s No Business Like Show Business. She’s surrounded by top-drawer names who’ve each spent a lifetime in the game … Monroe doesn’t have the musical chops of a single one of these players. She is, however, Marilyn Monroe. What she’s got doesn’t necessarily need musical chops, and she’s not a terrible singer/dancer, just not a highly skilled one … Cole’s choreography is constructed to show off Monroe’s body and to use the audience’s established sense of her as a sex object, but without being offensive about it …

‘After You Get What You Want’ has a bold lyric that feigns innocence … [Monroe] looks nude, and she’s in the best shape of her life … She’s beautiful and young and lush, all pure sex, and yet despite all this, there’s a strange air of innocence about her. That was the thing Monroe had that made her famous. It wasn’t just sexiness, though she had that in abundance …

Monroe’s second song is a full-out production number with elaborate costumes and a chorus of dancers – a Cuban thing with costumes, bongo drums, and palm trees. There’s a full choreography for the ensemble, and it’s too much for Monroe … Monroe handles ‘Heat Wave’, but she didn’t need all the clutter around her.

‘Lazy’ is a PhD thesis. It’s played as a rehearsal for a number to be done by Monroe, [Donald] O’Connor, and [Mitzi] Gaynor. Monroe is dressed in tight capri pants, a low-cut V-neck top, and a brightly coloured cummerbund. She lolls on a chaise longue, singing the song in a languid style. While she sings, draping herself around the sofa … the other two dance around her … The less she does, just showing off her body, the more they do, showing off their superb dancing. It’s a musical contrast: sex vs. talent. And it’s devilishly clever from a business point of view …

Marilyn Monroe ended the Fox blonde cycle. She became too big for its limiting label, and the time for the concept was over, as the studio moved towards its death. She was never defined by her musical performances, and her career didn’t impact musical history much, but it did impact the career of the woman originally put under contract to become the next Fox blonde: the talented Sheree North, who is practically unknown today …”

Mitchum Goes West With Marilyn

The Western Films of Robert Mitchum, a new book by Gene Freese, focuses on the actor’s many roles as ‘Hollywood’s cowboy rebel’ from the 1940s-70s, including his collaboration with Marilyn.

River of No Return opposite iconic sex symbol Monroe is one of Mitchum’s most popular and enduring titles, not a classic by any means but an entertaining, entirely pleasant and colourful film to view. It was a 20th Century Fox loan-out, shot in CinemaScope and stereophonic sound in the heart of the Canadian Rockies … Otto Preminger was an odd choice to direct the picture. It was his sole Western.

Regarding his chemistry with Monroe, the film relies on their growing desire for one another as they begin to see the other in a different light. That wasn’t good enough for Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck, who requested that Preminger add a body massage and an aggressive kissing scene that appears out of character for the extremely laid-back Mitchum … Already out of his element on the film and on to another project, Preminger refused to film the scene. Director Jean Negulesco helmed the footage of physical contact between the two stars in the late fall of 1953 … ‘She actually bit me in our little wrestle scene,’ Mitchum said. ‘I didn’t mind it.’

Monroe was impressed by Mitchum and talked of their passionate embrace in the film’s pressbook: ‘This is a brand new experience for me. I have never had a romantic love scene with a rugged he-man. It’s quite enjoyable’ … Monroe was happy for the opportunity to wear shoes on the film due to Mitchum’s height. She usually had to go barefoot because of being paired with short male co-stars, but Mitchum towered above her throughout. She expounded on Mitchum in the pressbook, revealing, ‘He’s one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met. He’s a man’s man, the outdoor he-man type, but he possesses a great inner strength … I had always heard he was one of the nicest guys in the business. It was wonderful to discover that the legend was not only true – but an understatement.’

Mitchum had known Marilyn Monroe back when she was a teenager named Norma Jeane Baker and married to his Lockheed pal Jim Dougherty … Fox no doubt wanted to play up the smouldering physical attraction between sex symbols Mitchum and Monroe, but for some of the filming Monroe’s baseball player boyfriend Joe DiMaggio was present. Mitchum maintained that he never found Monroe sexy despite her screen image. To him, she was a sad and confused soul.

If 20th Century-Fox was unable to play up a love affair between the two stars, they could emphasise the dangers of the location … At one point on the river, Monroe’s wading boots filled up with water and Mitchum had to rescue her from drowning, to the delight of the publicists. On another occasion, the stars were on a raft that became lodged on the rapids after a safety cable snapped. Stuntman Norman Bishop had to go out in a lifeboat and rescue the actors … but Monroe wouldn’t get on the boat unless the ill Mitchum did at the same time. Publicists again attributed the rescue to Mitchum. Finally, Monroe slipped on a stone in the riverbank and sprained an ankle. When she was outfitted with a leg cast, Mitchum started calling her Hopalong.

Back in Hollywood, the film’s action was redone in close-up with the principals in a studio water tank … Mitchum played up the CinemaScope danger for the press, saying, ‘… I’ve done things in this picture which would give some stuntmen the shivers. The amazing thing is how Marilyn and Tommy Rettig, who plays my son, have done them … I was so struck with admiration for my two companions. I almost forgot to be frightened for myself …’

Feeling that Monroe had a personality that was too fragile for Hollywood, Mitchum tried to look out for her in other ways. The greatest hurdle for Monroe to overcome on the film was a constant reliance on instruction and positive analysis from acting coach Natasha Lytess … As Preminger and the studio-approved Lytess were at great odds, Mitchum and assistant director Paul Helmick became go-betweens for Monroe and the director … Throughout the extended delays, [Mitchum] tended to drink, even wandering off for a beer with the locals at times …

‘She was very shy, very pleasant, very sweet,’ Mitchum said of Monroe in a 1980s WEDU TV interview. He continued: ‘But she was not too comfortable around people because I suppose her background had not prepared her for sort of easy sociality. She was convinced that she was not terribly pretty or sexy … At that time, I didn’t think she knew too many people who were very friendly to her. Growing up in that atmosphere of agents, directors and journalists, she seemed like a lost child … Her position in this atmosphere was like Alice in Wonderland. The whole thing was through the looking glass and she could not believe that anyone was very serious about her.'”

Marilyn’s ‘Mirror’ Review Goes to Print

My review of Amanda Konkle’s excellent book, Some Kind of Mirror: Creating Marilyn Monroe, is featured in the latest issue (#38) of UK fanzine Mad About Marilyn, alongside articles about Marilyn’s arduous promotional tour for the final Marx Brothers movie, Love Happy (1949); ‘A New Marilyn Comes Back’, first published by Movie Spotlight in 1956; and a profile of photographer Bruno Bernard, aka ‘Bernard of Hollywood’.

If you’d like to subscribe to Mad About Marilyn, please email Emma: emmadowning@blueyonder.co.uk

Marilyn Covers ‘Yours Retro’ for Christmas

Marilyn graces the cover of UK nostalgia magazine Yours Retro (Issue 21). It’s her third Yours Retro cover, making her their most popular cover star. And let’s not forget, she also topped the list in their recent special issue, 100 Greatest Movie Icons.

Inside, there’s a four-page feature by Michelle Morgan, ‘Marilyn … Becoming Mrs. Dougherty,’ about the teenage Norma Jeane’s first marriage and the beginning of her modelling career. To learn more on this topic, read Michelle’s excellent book, Before Marilyn: The Blue Book Modelling Years, now available in paperback.

Marilyn’s Prayer Book Sold (Again)

Marilyn’s Jewish prayer book or ‘Siddur’, given to her by Paula Strasberg when she converted to Judaism and married Arthur Miller in 1956, was resold yesterday for $8,750 at J. Greenstein & Co. in Cedarhurst, NY, reports Antiques and the Arts. Originally auctioned at Christie’s in 1999, it was resold for $26,000 at Greenstein’s in November 2018 (see here), before going under the hammer again at a lower price just a year later.

Interestingly, the book was published in 1926, the year of Norma Jeane’s birth; and was first gifted to one Kenneth Wasserman on August 4th, 1934 – Monroe would pass away exactly 28 years later. It seems to have passed through several owners, including a Marilyn Cooper-Smith, nee Miller (1931-2014) who like her famous near-namesake, also received it upon her marriage.

Marilyn Takes Us Back to ‘Cinematic’ New York

Marilyn is featured in Christian Blauvelt’s new guidebook with a difference, Cinematic Cities: New York – The Big Apple on the Big Screen. Published by TCM, the book features the subway grate on 52nd and Lexington where Marilyn filmed her iconic ‘skirt-blowing scene’ for The Seven Year Itch in 1954. The exclusive Sutton Place South apartment building where she resides in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) is also mentioned, although the exterior is only briefly seen and the movie was actually shot in Hollywood.

Of course, Marilyn would rent her own apartment at Sutton Place South for several months in 1956, until her marriage to Arthur Miller. Another cast member, William Powell, also had a prior cinematic link to Sutton Place, as footage from his 1936 comedy classic My Man Godfrey suggests the mansion where he works as a butler was also in the area (as it has a stunning view of the nearby Queensboro Bridge.)