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.

Kirkland’s Marilyn Inspires ‘Skinwork’ Project

Photographer Bettina Bogar was inspired by fellow Canadian Douglas Kirkland’s iconic 1961 shots of Marilyn between the sheets to launch Skinwork, a women’s empowerment project in aid of skin cancer awareness, on display at Toronto’s Artscape Youngplace until March 16, as Wing Tze Tang reports for the Toronto Star.

“When Toronto photographer Bettina Bogar visited a local art gallery a few years ago, she was struck by a picture of Marilyn Monroe, facing Douglas Kirkland’s camera wearing nothing but white bedsheets. ‘I thought, she feels so comfortable in her skin. I’ve never seen a woman feeling that good about herself,’ says Bogar, who decided to create her own shoot inspired by that iconic image … The photos celebrate the female figure and skin in intimate and varied detail, including close-ups of skin tags, scars and markings, all cast in a bright and beautiful light. None of the images were retouched.”

Meanwhile, a Douglas Kirkland retrospective opens today at the Palos Verdes Art Center in California – more details here.

Marilyn: Face of the Fifties

Marilyn by Ed Clark, 1950

Marilyn has been chosen as the face of the 1950s in a Marie-Claire article about changing beauty trends over the decades.

“Elegant hair updos are making a comeback on the fashion week catwalks, but their history is firmly rooted in 1950s fashion. Few beauty muses are more iconic than Marilyn Monroe, whose hourglass figure was the most desired female shape of the decade. She’s probably also a big reason why the best red lipstick is such a timeless classic beauty look.”

Marilyn: What Size Was She Really?

With Marilyn so often cited as an exemplar of ‘curvy’ beauty, comes the misconception that she was overweight. Several articles debunking this myth have appeared recently, on websites like Mental Floss and newspapers such as the Daily Mail.

The definitive article on this topic, however, comes from Immortal Marilyn’s Marijane Gray and can be read here.

UPDATE: Another excellent article on this topic has been posted by Scott Fortner on his MM Collection blog, measuring Marilyn’s true size from the original clothing in his possession.

‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?’

Marilyn by Ben Ross, 1953

‘Who Do You Think You Are, Marilyn Monroe?’ was the title of a panel discussion held at the BFI in June as part of their MM retrospective. Film programmer Jemma Desai chaired a wide-ranging debate that encompassed acting methods, body image and feminism. Film scholar Lucy Bolton, writer Jacqueline Rose (Women in Dark Times) and playwright/novelist/critic Bonnie Greer (Marilyn and Ella) share their perspectives on why Monroe’s life and work continue to fascinate – with Greer even suggesting that “Marilyn was a hundred times more radical than Arthur Miller could even begin to dream of being.” You can watch the discussion in full here.

Dr Gurdin and Marilyn

Marilyn by Ed Cronenwerth, 1948

The upcoming sale of Marilyn’s medical files (at Julien’s in November) has spawned many sensationalist headlines. As I said in a previous post, I don’t approve of this sale. However, the files have raised some important points which have largely been overlooked – so I’m going to briefly address some of these issues here.

Most of these stories pertain to plastic surgery, but the files (from the collection of Dr Michael Gurdin) actually prove what sites like Danamo’s MM Pages have been saying all along – that Marilyn had very few surgical enhancements:

“1. Prior to the shooting of Ladies of the Chorus, (1948) Dr. Walter Taylor, an orthodontist specializing in cosmetic surgery, fixed her front teeth, which protruded slightly.
2. In 1950, Johnny Hyde arranged for her to have her nose and chin surgically perfected. The details are unknown. Rumor has it that they removed a piece of dead cartilage from her nose and added cartilage to her chin.”

The sale of the files was originally reported in an interesting article by Eric Kelsey and Sharon Reich for Reuters:

“The set of six X-rays and a file of doctors’ notes that offer a partial medical history of the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actress from 1950 to 1962, are expected to fetch between $15,000 and $30,000 at auction on November 9-10, said Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills, California.

The notes written by Hollywood plastic surgeon Michael Gurdin appear to confirm speculation that Monroe, who epitomized glamour and set a standard of movie star beauty during the latter part of Hollywood’s golden era, went under the knife for cosmetic reasons.

The seller, who is so far unnamed, received the items as a gift from Gurdin.

Gurdin’s notes include references to a 1950 cartilage implant in Monroe’s chin, which he observed to have slowly begun to dissolve.”

What intrigues me most about the files is that they also mention the mysterious injury to her nose that Marilyn suffered in June 1962. It was attributed to a fall in the shower, although some biographers have disputed this.

Following the incident, Marilyn visited Gurdin’s office with her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson. These files are under the pseudonym ‘Joan Newman‘ – probably after Greenson’s daughter, Joan, and Leo Rosten’s novel, Captain Newman M.D., which was based on Greenson’s wartime experiences. Marilyn was reading the book in the weeks before her death. It was filmed in 1963, with Gregory Peck in the lead role.

At the time of her visit to Gurdin, Marilyn weighed 115 lb. And at 5 ft 6, this makes her quite slim – certainly not the plus-size beauty that some have claimed. Like all women, MM’s weight fluctuated at times – but even at her heaviest, she was still only 140 lb.

Finally, the files also reveal that Marilyn suffered from neutropenia – a low level of a white blood cell type, which can make patients vulnerable to bacterial infections.

Maybe this could help to explain why Marilyn was so susceptible to viruses throughout her short life. Also during filming of Something’s Got to Give, she caught a cold which quickly developed into acute sinusitis. Unfortunately, her bosses at Fox were unsympathetic, and her repeated absences from the set led to her being fired.

“The X-rays are dated June 7, 1962, after Monroe saw Gurdin following a late night fall and two months before the actress would die at age 36 from an overdose of barbiturates. The death was ruled a probable suicide.

The X-rays include Monroe’s frontal facial bones, a composite right and left X-ray of the sides of her nasal bones and dental X-rays of the roof of her mouth.

A set of three chest X-rays of Monroe from 1954 sold for $45,000 at a 2010 auction.

A self-published memoir by Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Norman Leaf in 2010 claimed that Monroe underwent cosmetic surgery on her chin in 1950, citing the same notes made by Gurdin, Leaf’s medical partner.

Leaf also states in his memoir that Monroe underwent a slight rhinoplasty procedure on the tip of her nose.

A radiologist’s notes included in the lot determined that there was no damage to Monroe’s nose from the fall, but a recent evaluation of the X-rays found a minute fracture, the auction house said.

Doctors used the name ‘Joan Newman‘ as Monroe’s alias on the X-rays which list her height as 5 feet, 6 inches (1.68 m) and her weight as 115 lb (52 kg).

Gurdin’s notes were first drawn up in 1958 when the actress complained about a ‘chin deformity’ and the note listed her married name, Marilyn Miller. She was married to playwright Arthur Miller from 1956 to 1961.

The notes also indicate that Monroe suffered from neutropenia, a low level of a white blood cell type, in 1956 while in England and had an ectopic pregnancy in 1957.”

Lady Gaga’s Blonde Moment

Lady Gaga responded to criticisms of her alleged weight gain via Twitter last night, sharing a photo of Marilyn with this quote, accompanied by a message from Gaga: ‘And thank to my fans who love me no matter what, and know the meaning of real beauty & compassion. I really love you.’

The supposed MM quote has been circulating on the internet for a few months.  However, it’s 100% fake, as Size Zero wasn’t introduced until 1966, four years after Marilyn died.

Feminism, Body Image and ‘The Marilyn Meme’

Marilyn Monroe was celebrated for her ‘hourglass figure’ and was defiantly curvy in an era when most women didn’t consider gym membership a necessity.

While I’m glad that women feel empowered by Marilyn’s body confidence, there is a danger in turning her into something she wasn’t. Monroe watched what she ate and exercised, like actresses today.

This is one reason why I don’t much care for the internet memes which proclaim Marilyn’s body type as ‘hotter’ than other slimmer women, often contrasting her healthy shape with unflattering paparazzi shots of modern celebrities, some of whom may suffer from eating disorders.

I find it cruel to champion one woman’s body while mocking another. It is true that many women feel pressure to be thin, but this does not justify picking on slimmer women as unattractive.

‘The Marilyn Meme’ is now the subject of an article by Heather Cromarty, published at Shameless, a feminist magazine aimed at young women.

For the most part, I agreed with Cromarty’s argument, but she let herself down in the last paragraph with her one-sided, ill-informed view of Marilyn:

“The Monroe Meme seems about the furthest thing from healthy. This is a woman who abused alcohol and sleeping pills later in her life, this is a woman who (probably) died due to depression. But, hey, as long as someone thinks she looks good, I guess that’s what matters.”

I’m not saying that Marilyn didn’t have her issues with addiction and depression, but she also had many positive qualities and achieved a great deal in her life.

By condemning her because of the personal problems she faced, Cromarty under-estimates Monroe and the many women who admire her – not just for how she looked, but for all that she was.

Anatomy of a Sex Symbol

Marilyn by George Barris, 1962

Over at Joan’s Digest today, an article by Sheila O’Malley about Marilyn’s sexuality – the image, the reality, and how other women relate to her.

I have a lot of time for O’Malley, who has made many interesting posts about Marilyn – especially her acting – on her own website, The Sheila Variations. And I also think the subject of Marilyn’s sexuality is fascinating.

Unfortunately, the article got off to a bad start for me by quoting John Miner’s disputed transcript of tapes supposedly made for her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson (in which Monroe claimed not to have had an orgasm until her 30s.)

These tapes have never surfaced, and while I wouldn’t discount them entirely, there is something a little ‘off’ about the text. (Melinda Mason wrote in depth about this in her article, ‘Songs Marilyn Never Sang.’)

There is also an anecdote from Orson Welles about Marilyn’s supposed promiscuity which I’m not entirely sure of (Welles had his own peccadilloes, and thus was hardly a disinterested witness), as well as a quote by photographer Lazlo Willinger which is mistakenly attributed to Ernest Cunningham, who wrote a book about Monroe a few years ago, but never actually met her.

Nonetheless, O’Malley is right to note the disparity between Monroe’s ‘Sex Goddess’ image and her turbulent private life, and ‘The Anatomy of Marilyn Monroe’ is a thoughtful piece, especially towards the end:

“When working on a film, Monroe kept directors and crews waiting for hours while she holed up in her dressing room, staring at herself in the mirror.  What was she looking for?  Marilyn Monroe was second to none in crafting and perfecting her persona.  Every element of her ‘look’, her hair, her makeup, her clothes, she engineered with a specificity and a cold eye towards what ‘worked’.  John Strasberg, son of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s acting mentor, made the insightful observation: ‘It was clear that she was aware that she had created a female character in the tradition of the sad sack tramps of Chaplin and Keaton.’ It is not always easy to step into your fantasy of yourself, to take on the persona you have created.  Monroe’s looks were so startlingly beautiful and sexy, that on days when she felt low or panicked, it took an act of sheer will to step into that ‘sad sack tramp’ comedienne she had courageously created for herself.  The exterior was what was valued in Monroe.  Staring at herself in the mirror for hours, while keeping entire crews waiting, was not vanity. It took time to get the interior and the exterior in alignment.

Marilyn Monroe’s movie magic was in her ability to take her emotional interior and make it palpably visible to audiences.  In so doing, her actual interior was ignored, for years.  Staring at herself in the mirror was an act of searching, perhaps, an act of anxious exploration.  What is it that they see in me?  And can I see it in myself?  Can I actually feel, in myself, what it is that others see in me?  But where to even begin?’

 

Marilyn in the Age of the Hourglass

Marilyn on the set of ‘Let’s Make Love’, 1960 (photo by Richard C. Miller)

The recent passing of both Jane Russell and Elizabeth Taylor has stirred up nostalgia for the voluptuous sirens of the fifties – none more celebrated, of course, than Marilyn Monroe…

“In the hip, the bosom, the hair: More was more. Two curves were an hourglass. The arms carried a little flesh…

Lots of women, lots of movie stars were built like Taylor, full-figured, untoned, and uninhibited, with Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida completing an unmatched Trinity of mid-20th-century bodaciousness. From France, in the 1960s, there were Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve.

Jane Russell died on the last day of February, meaning that, in less than a month, the movies lost two of its last legendarily heavenly bodies. In 1953, Russell and Monroe, the strapping brunette and the iconic blonde, left their footprints, handprints, and signatures alongside each other at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Russell and the Trinity embodied male sex fantasies while appearing to play shrewd roles in their own objectification. The gaze only made them stronger, which is what some exotic entertainers mention when talking about the thrill of their work…

It’s not just our feelings about stardom that have changed in the last 50 years. It’s our idea of the body. One of the joys of watching AMC’s Mad Men’ is the arch pleasure it takes in the archetypal body of the 1960s woman. The camera doesn’t ogle the hourglasses and pear shapes. It seems to study them with a kind of documentary care…”

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe