Was Marilyn Really a Feminist?

Marilyn returns to Los Angeles after her triumphant studio battle in 1956 (photo from the Frieda Hull collection)

An extract from Michelle Morgan’s upcoming book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, has been published in L.A. Weekly. Looking not only at Marilyn’s life but also the culture surrounding women in her time, Michelle brings some much-needed historic nuance to our perception of what it is to be a feminist.

“Since she was such a complex character, Marilyn Monroe found herself stuck in the middle of two different types of women: those who were disgusted or intimidated by her glamour and wanted her to tone everything down, and those who loved her look just as it was and wanted her to stop trying to be taken seriously.

It could easily be argued that Marilyn suffered frequent frustration because people wanted to pigeonhole her into being just one kind of personality. This undoubtedly came as a result of her unique and modern outlook on life—one more fitting to the twenty-first century rather than the 1950s. She was actually a modern-day feminist, though the very idea struck the nerves of many at the time.

Although vulnerable and complex, Marilyn was a strong woman who consistently fought for what she believed in. However, because of the confusion and stigma related to the word, it is highly unlikely that she would ever have considered herself a feminist in 1955. Friend Norman Rosten further doubted that she would have joined the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and argued that in terms of economic equality, she had already proven herself.”

Marilyn Featured in Ella Fitzgerald Biography

Marilyn is featured in a new book by Geoffrey Mark. ELLA: A Biography of the Legendary Ella Fitzgerald is fully illustrated, and in the text, Mark describes the two iconic women as ‘true girlfriends, each had the other’s back as both felt overworked, put-upon, and under-appreciated by the men in their lives as well as their employers.’

The story of Marilyn’s helping Ella secure a nightclub engagement in Hollywood has been somewhat exaggerated over the years (more info here), but there does seem to have been a genuine affinity between them. Geoffrey Mark gave his take on their friendship in an interview with Stephanie Nolasco for Fox News.

“Mark told Fox News Fitzgerald’s estate gave his book ELLA their blessing and he had full cooperation from the star’s recording companies. Mark also assisted Fitzgerald in her later years and befriended her inner circle. Mark insisted that despite Fitzgerald’s sweet, sunny voice that easily lit up any stage, few fans know the full measure of the cruelty she endured as a child before finding fame.

‘It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances,’ said Mark. ‘Ella’s mother died in a car accident. And the man who was her mother’s companion, turned to Ella for comfort. He drank too much and forced himself on Ella, forcing her to run away from home… And because she ran away… the government grabbed her and stuck her in this awful place where children were sent — far away from where she was living.’

‘Marilyn Monroe began going to Ella Fitzgerald’s concerts and nightclub gigs,’ Mark explained. ‘She struck up a conversation with her and what they found out was they had both been teenagers forced out on their own, they had to survive for themselves, they both had to deal with being women in a business that was completely dominated by men… And Marilyn saw how Ella was treated sometimes for being black, for being overweight and for being in the jazz world.'”

Bringing ‘The Girl’ to Birkbeck

A new book by one of Marilyn’s best biographers, Michelle Morgan’s The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, is due to be published in May. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy, and will be reviewing it in due course. (And rest assured – you’re going to love it!)

But wait, there’s more – if you’re in London on the afternoon of May 16, Michelle will be discussing her book from 2-5 pm with Gabriella Apicella, Underwire Film Fest founder and ardent Monroe fan, and Catherine Grant, Professor of Screen Studies at the Birkbeck University cinema on Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. The conversation will be followed by a Q&A – more details here.

Marilyn Book News: Broken Dreams, and More

Several Marilyn-related titles have been published in Europe recently. First, and most peculiar, is Marilyn Monroe: Broken Dreams, from Germany’s Oio Books, blending photos of Marilyn with digitally melted images. The author is named only as ‘An Idiot.’

Die Sünde der Frau (The Sins of Woman) is a German translation of Dutch author Connie Palmen’s 2017 book profiling Marilyn alongside writers Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles: all of whom, Palmen believes, were rebellious women who paid a high price for freedom.

And in France, a new children’s book from the Quelle Histoire series introduces younger readers to Marilyn.

Spanish Novelist Retraces Marilyn’s ‘Nevada Days’

Bernardo Axtaga is a Spanish author whose 2014 novel, Nevada Days – a fictionalised account of his nine-month stay as writer-in-residence at the Centre for Basque Studies – is now available in English, and the early chapters include several references to Marilyn and The Misfits.

She is first mentioned when Axtaga flips through a copy of The Misfits: Story of a Shoot, Sergio Toubania’s monograph of the Magnum photographers who documented the production. “Individually, the photographs were really good,” Axtaga comments, “… but perhaps because the photographs were the work of different photographers, seeing them all together jarred somehow.”

He later visits Pyramid Lake, and is surprised to find no postcards from The Misfits in the gift shop.”There was one, I seemed to remember, that would have been perfect: Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable lying next to each other on the shores of Pyramid Lake. I asked the waitress, but she had never heard of the film. Nor was she interested in Marilyn Monroe.”

The final, extended passage about Marilyn occurs during a long drive, while Axtaga is talking to his wife Angela about Arthur Miller’s stay at Pyramid Lake in 1956, where he wrote the short story that would become The Misfits while waiting out his first divorce, and conducted a long-distance relationship with Marilyn, who was filming Bus Stop. Axtaga imagines Marilyn’s anguished telephone call to Miller from the set, as described in Miller’s autobiography, Timebends.

Axtaga then recalls the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch (1955), where Marilyn’s character, ‘The Girl’, sympathises with the monster in yet another movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon. (This was foreshadowed in an earlier episode, when Axtaga’s young daughter cries at the end of King Kong.)

As the author forms his own impressions of Nevada, Marilyn disappears from the novel. But her ghostly presence reflects how an outsider’s preconceptions about American life  can be shaped by literary and cinematic mythology.

Terenci Moix: ‘The Day Marilyn Died’

El día que murió Marilyn (or ‘The Day Marilyn Died’), an award-winning 1969 novel by the Catalan author Terenci Moix, has been reissued in Spanish. Moix, who died in 2003, was fascinated by the iconography of classic Hollywood, and a vocal critic of the Franco regime. An annual prize for LGBT literature has since been established in his name. Here’s the synopsis (via Google Translate…)

“The vital itinerary of the protagonists, two young people who were twenty years old in 1962, develops a kaleidoscope formed by their memories of childhood and adolescence during the fifties and sixties – the cinema, the comics, religious education – confronted with the memory of their parents about the Barcelona of the thirties and the civil war.”

Selected covers from previous editions

Marilyn in the ‘City of Myths’

Martin Turnbull is the author of the ‘Garden of Allah’ series of novels set during Hollywood’s golden age. Previous books have covered the making of such classic films as Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane; historic events from World War II to the Red Scare; and threats to the movie capital from television and gossip rags. Now Marilyn’s conflict with Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck is featured in the just-published eighth instalment, City of Myths. Although his books are fictional, Turnbull has an encylopedic knowledge of Old Hollywood, and City of Myths begins, Marilyn is re-shooting scenes for River of No Return with Jean Negulesco (seen in the above photo), after clashing with director Otto Preminger. City of Myths is available in paperback or via Kindle – and it’s also on offer as part of an Amazon ebook bundle with Turnbull’s other novels.

“When you live in a city built on shifting sands of myth, it can be hard to know which way is up. Kathryn Massey spends her days spreading rumors and keeping secrets. Losing herself one headline at a time has left Kathryn’s personal identity scattered—and dumps her at the narrow end of the bargaining table with the man she trusts the least. Gwendolyn Brick has simpler aspirations. As a costume designer, her sights are set on glamour, not heights of fame. But her friendship with Marilyn Monroe puts her directly into the crosshairs of studio head, Darryl Zanuck—and he’s someone you don’t say no to. Marcus Adler is stuck in a much more precarious situation. Exiled in Rome but under the spell of an unexpected romance, he’ll have to learn to say goodbye to everything he’s accomplished in order to give love a chance. In City of Myths the road through Hollywood bears sharply to the right as those who dare to play its game can easily become lost in its intoxicating glow.”