Marilyn: America’s Lusty Blonde

Marilyn by Eve Arnold, 1960

The Village Voice is no longer in print, but much of its illustrious archive remains online – including ‘Blond Lust‘, a piece by Teresa Podlesney from 1993, questioning whether blondness still signified the white feminine ideal, or an increasing freedom of choice.

“Like every other choice we have in the supposedly ‘color-blind’ United States, the choice to be blond should be made so as to prove that one can make it, to prove that one is American. Today’s more effective hair coloring, and the continued main­streaming of wigs, enable blondness to be achieved by those with even the most resis­tant hair. Yet the democratization of blondness is not simply the story of perfected cosmetic technology. Blondness is where our changing notions of race and gender come together.

The blondness that attracts media atten­tion today is a blondness that blatantly conjures up images of the 1950s. Madonna and Linda Evangelista, the Kikit and Guess models, are/were all one-tone bleached blonds, their attraction lying precisely in their display of the obviously artificial. This is the key: bottle blonds are not simply women with fair hair. Bleached blonds are a complete and excessively visible package of a femininity considered ‘conventional’ since the height of its expression on the movie screens of the 1950s: dramatic make­up, usually with dark lashes and red lips; large or prominently displayed breasts; highly coded fetish-sexy attire; and, just as taken for granted but ostensibly lying out­side of the realm of constructed characteris­tics, white skin.

The feminine woman was once opposed to the sexual woman, sexuality in this con­text rendered too savage, too animal-like, the realm of those nonwhite races that had yet to assimilate Christian cultural values. In the ’50s, however, fascination with fe­male sexual behavior — driven by the popu­larization of Freudian psychoanalysis, the Kinsey report, and the secularization of so­ciety — allowed a conflation of femininity with sexuality. For an increasingly image­-organized culture, femininity was defined in terms of what was visible, and visibly sexual. Blonds were assured their promi­nence in this visual reinvention of feminin­ity in 1953, when Marilyn Monroe graced the pages of the first issue of Playboy.

Marilyn, Drew, JFK Jr. and a Notorious Cover Story

Over at Esquire, Kate Storey reports on George, the political magazine launched by John F. Kennedy Jr. in the 1990s. While some were shocked by the 1996 cover featuring actress Drew Barrymore as Marilyn, the original idea – to have ex-girlfriend Madonna pose as John’s mother, Jackie Kennedy – was even more daring, and a step too far even for the pop superstar. So why was John so willing to send up his own family myths? As the article reveals, it seems that Junior was ahead of his time in exposing fake news…

“With Madonna out, the September cover took a decidedly different turn—instead of referencing his mom, Kennedy chose to nod at another well-known woman in his dad’s life: Marilyn Monroe.

Drew Barrymore was posed in a nude-colored cocktail dress and platinum wig, with a mole perfectly placed on her left cheek. The idea came from George’s executive editor, Elizabeth Mitchell, who suggested it as a fiftieth-birthday tribute to President Bill Clinton. The reference: In May 1962, in front of fifteen thousand people during a Democratic-party fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, Monroe had famously serenaded Kennedy’s father ten days before his forty-fifth birthday with a breathy, seductive ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’ The subtext to the song, of course, is that the president and the actress were rumored to have had an affair.

That photograph might seem a strange choice for a man who adored his mother—even stranger than asking Madonna to impersonate her—but the thing was, according to Mitchell, Kennedy never believed anything had happened between his dad and Monroe. ‘He just thought it was sort of tweaking the expectations of the public,’ she says all these years later.”

Another aspect to this story is that Drew Barrymore is a lifelong Marilyn fan. As a teenage starlet, she was photographed in her bedroom, surrounded by Monroe posters. In a 2010 interview, Drew named Marilyn among her fantasy dinner guests; and in 2014, she filmed an introduction to Bus Stop with TCM host Robert Osborne.

Madonna as Marilyn, 1993

And while Madonna’s fascination with Monroe is well-known, she had already pipped George to the post by singing ‘Happy Inauguration Mr. President’ on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1993, marking Clinton’s electoral victory.

Norman Rosten: Marilyn’s Poet Friend

Norman Rosten (1913-1995), a poet and playwright dubbed the ‘Bard of Brooklyn’, was a friend of Arthur Miller from their college days at Ann Arbor in Michigan. He met Marilyn through another mutual friend, photographer Sam Shaw, in 1955. Norman and his wife, Hedda Rosten, soon grew close to Marilyn, and he was one of the last to speak with her at length the day before she died. Marilyn would bequeath $5,000 for the education of his daughter, Patricia Rosten, in her will.

In 1973, Norman published a memoir, Marilyn: an Untold Story, and he also provided the text for Sam Shaw’s pictorial tribute, Marilyn Among Friends. Sadly, Arthur Miller would never forgive Norman for going public (although Miller wrote about Marilyn in his own autobiography, and drew on her memory in several plays.)

Among Marilyn’s fans, however, Rosten is regarded as a ‘mensch’, and one of her few associates to emerge with much credit. In an article for the Huffington Post, the children’s author and illustrator, Melanie Hope Greenberg, shares her own fond memories of Norman.

“In the mid-1980’s I had read excerpts of a memoir about the iconic celebrity, Marilyn Monroe, in the New York Post. It was written by Monroe’s close friend, Norman Rosten, Brooklyn’s first poet laureate, novelist, playwright, and college friend of Arthur Miller, Monroe’s husband. I remember riding home on the subway and recognizing Rosten from his photo in the newspaper as we both departed the Borough Hall Station in Brooklyn Heights. I never dreamed that a few years later he and I would collaborate on a reissued book of poetry and publish a picture book together.

During the late 1980’s a community of writers and poets gathered in Brooklyn Heights at a children’s bookstore on Montague Street. Cousin Arthur’s Book Shop was a delightful resource in our neighborhood. The shop featured children’s events as well as poetry reading for adults … I officially met Norman Rosten at the front counter of Cousin Arthur’s where they gave away the free cookies.

During that time I was also a freelance graphics artist designing Cousin Arthur’s news and event posters. The Tramontes hired me to work on a book their poetry press planned to reissue and publish. Songs For Patricia, Rosten’s book of poetry for his daughter, was originally published in 1951. Norman’s teacher and poet friend had a print shop for book production at Wingate High School in Brooklyn. Norman and I traveled together and bonded during our ‘Wingate H.S. Adventure’. He was a ball of energy at 73 years old. I was more than half his age and out of breath chasing him up the school’s stairwell to the print shop.

Norman became a mensch mentor. He was grounded and did not take himself too seriously. He was wise and aware of the glories and pitfalls of fame. A kind neighbor and gentleman whenever I saw him on the street. I understand how Marilyn Monroe must have felt safe with Norman and acknowledged as an artist.”

While researching this story, I learned that composer Ezra Laderman, who collaborated with Norman on a Marilyn-inspired opera, died in March 2015. From Laderman’s New York Times obituary:

“Mr. Laderman (pronounced LAD-er-man), was a prolific composer of symphonic, chamber and vocal music, as well as a bevy of works for traditionally neglected instruments like the viola and the bassoon. But on account of its subject matter, it was Marilyn, commissioned to honor the 50th anniversary of the New York City Opera, that made him known to the general public.

Mr. Laderman’s eclecticism was on abundant display in Marilyn, which received its world premiere at City Opera on Oct. 6, 1993, with the soprano Kathryn Gamberoni in the title role. The opera, with a libretto by the poet Norman Rosten, was performed under the baton of Hal France; Mr. Laderman’s score fused tonal, atonal and serial elements with jazz, folk and pop motifs evocative of Monroe’s era.

The production garnered advance publicity round the world, with every performance sold out well ahead of time. The reviews were mixed at best, with some critics embracing the score for its stylistic range but others dismissing it as a pastiche.

In an interview with The Hartford Courant in 1994, Mr. Laderman was asked what lessons he had drawn from the critical response to “Marilyn.”

‘One lesson is that a lot of people apparently thought Marilyn Monroe was not a suitable topic for an opera,’ he replied. He added: ‘I disagree.'”

Lady Gaga’s Birthday Serenade

Lady Gaga helped celebrate the ten-year anniversary of former president Bill Clinton’s Foundation and his 65th birthday at the ‘Decade of Difference’ concert last night at the Hollywood Bowl. The singer took the stage for three songs, plus a Marilyn Monroe-esque ‘Happy Birthday’.

Clinton admitted, “I got nervous when Gaga said she was planning to have a Marilyn moment. I thought, my God, I get Lady Gaga and I will have a heart attack celebrating my 65th birthday.” Rather gracelessly, Gaga quipped,”I’m having my first real Marilyn moment. I always wanted to have one, and I was hoping that it didn’t involve pills and a strand of pearls.”

But Gaga is only the latest in a long line of Monroe impersonators – Madonna, to whom Gaga is often compared, sang ‘Happy Inauguration’ to Clinton, MM-style, via Saturday Night Live in 1993.

Wild Strawberries: ‘Life-Sized Marilyn Monroe’

‘Life-Sized Marilyn Monroe’ was originally released in 1993 in an EP by Canadian indie band Wild Strawberries. The track can also be heard on their 1995 album, Bet You Think I’m Lonely.

Video

Booker T is playing on the radio
Jimmy Dean he plays on my mind
Someday soon I'm gonna' wipe your filthy boots
When I expose you
You Philistine, your Philistine eyes
You can take your five and dime
Shove it in your Elvis records
You can send your valentines
To your very own life sized Marilyn Monroe
You keep singing everyday's the fourth of July
I keep wondering why
I don't know how I ever met you,
Don't know why I can't forget the way you tease me
You Philistine, your Philistine eyes
You better stop calling
Kicking my love around
I don't care if you're another Rudolph Valentino
I don't care if you're the marrying kind
You better stop calling
For my love