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.

‘Norma Jean and Marilyn’ in the Age of #MeToo

As first reported here, Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino – who starred in the 1996 mini-series, Norma Jean and Marilyn – have both become leading voices in the #MeToo movement following last year’s Harvey Weinstein scandal. In an article for the Austin Chronicle, Britt Hayes admits that recent events have led her to view Norma Jean and Marilyn in a different light.

“Norma Jean & Marilyn premiered on HBO in 1996, when I was just 11 years old. My father was, like most baby boomers, quite smitten with Monroe – the Hollywood bombshell whose life was cut short following a drug overdose in 1962. Posters featuring the platinum-haired, sleepy-eyed icon adorned my father’s workspace. Naturally, I was curious about the only woman ever permitted to take up permanent residence in a space that was usually off-limits. And so my own infatuation with this breathtaking Hollywood tragedy began, and by 1996 I was well-versed in the woman, the myth, the legend that was Marilyn.

The HBO film admittedly hasn’t aged that well (the acting in particular is quite soapy), but its more ambitious elements – such as daydream sequences in which Norma Jean/Marilyn recalls and reimagines her traumatic upbringing – evoke the waking-nightmare surrealism of David Lynch. It feels more voyeuristic than conventional biopics, due in large part to the bold visual choice of having Judd’s Norma Jean interact with Sorvino’s Marilyn during the latter’s most crushing personal moments, as when she doubts her talent or makes choices that might stifle her career (like marrying Joe DiMaggio).

Judd’s Norma Jean is tenacious and resilient, having endured – as told via recurring flashback – repeated physical and emotional trauma at the hands of various men throughout her life. From predatory father figures to former lovers who underestimated and devalued her, Norma Jean learned early on that her body was both a tool and a weapon, capable of making her dreams a reality just as easily as it could destroy them. Sorvino’s Marilyn fights to repress this past, changing her name to ‘kill’ Norma Jean and, when that doesn’t work, using an assortment of prescription drugs to finish the job.”

While this perspective may be valid in general terms, Norma Jean and Marilyn is flawed in many ways – not least because it is based on Norma Jean: My Secret Life With Marilyn Monroe, the 1991 memoir by her self-proclaimed lover, Ted Jordan. There is no evidence of a relationship between Marilyn and Jordan, whose book is so riddled with factual errors and salacious fantasy that even the most ardent conspiracy theorists now agree that it should be treated as hokum.

Additionally, it’s something of a tired old trope to depict Marilyn as a split personality just because she changed her name. Many other actors did the same and still do, but I’ve yet to see the biopic, Marion and the Duke! On a more serious note, while Marilyn, like other actresses, experienced sexism in Hollywood, she was never simply a victim. And frankly, she deserves a lot better than Norma Jean and Marilyn.