Knowledge Bennett’s Pop Art Marilyn

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Orange is the New Black is not just a TV prison drama, but also the title of Los Angeles-based artist Knowledge Bennett’s first solo exhibit in New York, tracing the history of race in modern America through a Pop Art perspective. The show includes a section devoted to Marilyn, Good Girl Gone Bad (also the title of an album by Rihanna, who is featured elsewhere.)

Bennett’s portraits of Marilyn pay homage to Andy Warhol, but crucially they add a sharp political edge to the ‘gangsta’ images of MM that adorn T-shirt stalls across the globe. The artist spoke about why he chose to depict Marilyn this way in an interview with Art ON!

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“Quite often I seek to alter popular images in a very minimal way to tell a very different story. With my Marilyn Monroe series Good Girl Gone Bad, I simply added a tied bandana scarf around her head to make a statement of defiance and courage.

While researching the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, I was shocked to learn of Marilyn Monroe’s involvement and influence in helping to break the color barrier (in the entertainment industry) which existed during these times.

I developed a newfound respect for her and her contributions to society at large. To learn that this woman, who was mostly known only as a major film star and sex symbol, had the balls and compassion for others to go out on a limb and make this happen is something worth acknowledging.”

Marilyn: A Political Animal

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Marilyn had a lifelong affinity with the underdog and a passion for justice. Her hero was Abraham Lincoln. She was proud of her working-class origins, and defended husband Arthur Miller in his stand against red-baiting. She also supported the Civil Rights movement. In an article for Time, Lily Rothman interviews Marilyn’s biographer, Dr Lois Banner, on the subject of her ‘forgotten radical politics.’

“Those beliefs were a product of her time, Banner says: being born in 1926 meant that she was a child during the Great Depression … As a result of her own poverty and her close contact with people of other races, Monroe grew up with progressive views on race and what Banner calls a ‘populist vision of equality for all classes.’

Her background peeked through in her film roles, as she was often cast as a working girl … Even as Monroe stepped out in public in glamorous evening gowns, she favored blue jeans and flat shoes at home.

In 1956, when she married the playwright Arthur Miller, her working-class roots blossomed into full-on political fervor. In 1960, she became a founding member of the Hollywood branch of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy; that same year, as she kept a home in Roxbury, Conn., she was elected as an alternate delegate to the state’s Democratic caucus. She did not hide her pro-Castro views on Cuba or her support for the then-burgeoning civil rights movement.

Broadway was not affected by McCarthyism and anti-Communist investigations to the same extent as the movie business, but Miller was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee shortly before their marriage. Monroe was never called on, which Banner believes was because the anti-Communist Congressmen ‘thought she was just a dumb blonde.’ (In fact, some historians have theorized that Miller saw Monroe as a political shield.)

‘When you put it all together, [her political side] is pretty substantial. But in most of the biographies, including mine, it comes out as salt scattered on the biography, because one gets so fascinated by her psychological makeup,’ [Banner] says. ‘But the political involvements are no less real.'”

From ‘Love, Marilyn’ to ‘Miss Simone’

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Just released on Netflix, What Happened, Miss Simone? is a new documentary about legendary jazz singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. Director Liz Garbus’s previous film, Love, Marilyn, is reviewed at CraveOnline today, with critic Ernest Hardy considering the parallels between these two ostensibly very different women.

“Garbus performed a similar feat in her 2012 documentary Love, Marilyn, which is not as strong a film as Miss Simone (in part because it’s more flat-out worshipful of its subject, its transparent goal being to proselytize on Monroe’s behalf), but still builds an argument for Monroe as one of the most complex, misunderstood pop figures of the 20th century… the film ends up being quite moving, and an interesting complement to the Simone documentary. As Monroe’s insecurities and crippling loneliness are catalogued, and as she is historicized as someone who kicked off America’s sexual revolution while still being exploited and maltreated, you can’t help but juxtapose the battles of the most famous icon of white womanhood with those of Simone.

The singer/activist was making music at the same time Monroe’s career was in full swing, and her career was, in part, about battling the very racial and cultural fetishes Monroe embodied. Similarly, she was never financially compensated commensurate with what her work earned. Both women were self-made artists trapped in and penalized for personas they crafted (brilliantly, consciously but without awareness of the eventual costs); both strove hard to be the best artist they could; both created work and images deeply rooted in American mores and cultural signifiers but that continue to resonate with people around the world; and the internal worlds of both women swirled thickly with the fallout of their childhoods, throughout their turbulent lives. We should refrain from simplistic alignment of the two, but it’s worth noting where they and their work converge in complex conversations (about race, sex, gender, art, power and powerlessness) that won’t be silenced any time soon.”

‘Minding Marilyn’ by Dianne DeWilliams

Minding Marilyn is a short novel by Dianne DeWilliams, published via Amazon Kindle in November 2013. It is written from the perspective of Marveen, a widow who is moving from New York to a retirement home in California, to spend more time with her two grand-daughters. When she shows them a photograph of herself as a beautiful young woman in a nightclub, alongside Marilyn Monroe, they demand to know more.

Back in 1952, Marveen was hired as a maid to Monroe, then on the brink of stardom. While in reality there was no ‘Marveen’, Marilyn did employ a maid, Lena Pepitone, who later published a ghost-written memoir. Although Marilyn Monroe Confidential offered some insight into the star’s daily life, it was highly sensationalised. Her Los Angeles housekeeper, Eunice Murray, wrote a more creditable book, Marilyn’s Last Months – but she is more often remembered as the woman who discovered Marilyn’s dead body.

Hazel Washington, Marilyn’s studio maid, was also said to have written a manuscript about her memories of Marilyn, but it was never published; while her cook, Hattie Stevenson, was planning to move from New York to Monroe’s Los Angeles home before the actress died. Another maid, Florence Thomas, attended her funeral.

Like Marveen, these lesser-known figures in Marilyn’s life were African-American. As well as a re-imagining of Marilyn’s private world, Minding Marilyn explores what it was like to be a black woman in the USA during the 1950s and ‘60s, when endemic racism was being challenged by the growing Civil Rights movement.

Marveen’s story is told alternately through letters written to her mother during her years with Marilyn, and a contemporary narrative detailing her efforts to commit her memories to print. DeWilliams has clearly done her research; and while her tale is fictional, the factual background is mostly accurate.

DeWilliams also inputs minor details about Marilyn’s life – for example, her love of Judy Garland’s song, ‘Who Cares?’ These simple touches help to create a rounded and sympathetic picture of Monroe’s personality.

It is well-known that Marilyn was ahead of her time in her progressive attitude towards racial equality. In 1954, she helped the legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, to secure a residency at the Mocambo Club by promising to attend her show every night. She was also friendly with actress Dorothy Dandridge (dubbed ‘the black Monroe’), who features prominently in Minding Marilyn.

Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge

DeWilliams also includes another screen goddess, Ava Gardner, in the storyline. In reality, Marilyn and Ava didn’t know each other well. But they both came from modest backgrounds, and both were close to Frank Sinatra. Ava’s wild, earthy character makes an exciting contrast to the ambitious, but fragile Marilyn.

Gardner, the daughter of a North Carolina sharecropper, grew up among black people. Despite the colour bar that existed in Hollywood, she mixed freely with all races. Her maid, Mearene Jordan, was also her best friend. Living With Miss G, Jordan’s personal account of their many adventures spanning almost fifty years, was published in 2012, and provides a real-life parallel to Minding Marilyn.

While being a maid might be seen as a ‘subservient’ position, Marilyn was both thoughtful and generous towards those who worked for her, at home and on film sets. DeWilliams makes an interesting point that black audiences related more to Marilyn than other white stars, because she was ‘no stranger to pain’ – whether through suffering the impact of childhood trauma, or experiencing the pressures of fame. This observation about her cross-cultural appeal is echoed in W.J. Weatherby’s 1976 book, Conversations With Marilyn.

Sadly, Monroe seldom experienced the loving support of a group of female friends depicted by DeWilliams in Minding Marilyn. Although she was not particularly religious, in one scene she is welcomed into a Pentecostal church. DeWilliams seems to be suggesting that these are alternate paths which might have led Marilyn towards a lasting happiness that eluded her in reality.

DeWilliams evokes the deep shock felt by Marilyn and those around her when, in 1961, she was committed to a psychiatric ward against her will. Famously, her devoted ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio, came to her rescue. But DeWilliams implies that in times of crisis, the ‘little people’ who served Marilyn were just as valuable to her as the major players.

Minding Marilyn imagines a different response to Marilyn’s tragic death, in which the voice of Marveen is finally heard, setting the record straight. As a piece of writing, Minding Marilyn is not perfect – the paragraphs can be short and choppy, the sentences a little breathless – but the warm-heartedness of DeWilliams’ tale more than compensates for these minor shortcomings.

Although fictional, Minding Marilyn offers something that many of the biographies published over the years cannot – a sweet, charming tribute from a fan, and a testament to the sincere affection in which she is held by so many of us.

Reviewed by Tara Hanks, author of The Mmm Girl

Also available on Amazon.com

Book trailer for Minding Marilyn

Facebook page for Minding Marilyn

Read more about Marilyn’s employees

 

Marilyn, Ella…and Eartha

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I’ve just finished reading America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, a fascinating new biography by  John L. Williams. In the blurb, MM is mentioned as a friend of Eartha’s. But other than a charming photo of Eartha talking with Marilyn and Arthur Miller at a Milk Fund dinner in 1957, there is no real proof in the book that they were ever close. (Certainly they had a lot in common – both came from troubled backgrounds, and were determined to make up for their lack of education. Eartha even met Marilyn’s hero, Albert Einstein.)

Eartha Kitt

However, Williams does add some new detail to the fabled story of Marilyn securing a residency for Ella Fitzgerald at the Mocambo Club in 1954.

[Eartha] showed up at the Mocambo one night to support…Ella Fitzgerald, who was making her debut at the club. This was quite a big deal as Ella was emphatically a jazz singer, rather than a cabaret star, and the Mocambo didn’t generally do jazz. Marilyn Monroe had lobbied hard to persuade [owner] Charlie Morrison to make the booking. At the end of the show, however, it was not Marilyn herself but Eartha who came out on stage and handed Ella a dozen red roses.”

I can imagine that the self-effacing Marilyn would have been reluctant to take credit for Ella’s success. It has been often assumed that Ella wasn’t booked initially because of a colour bar. In a footnote, Williams is sceptical:

“Some readers may be aware of…the notion that the Mocambo was a segregated club until…MM persuaded the Mocambo to book Ella Fitzgerald. This is clearly nonsense. Charlie Morrison, the owner, had long been booking black entertainers. He may well have been wary, however, of booking an out-and-out jazz singer like Ella.”

Michelle Morgan, author of MM: Private and Undisclosedhas also stated that the Mocambo was not a segregated club.

“A variety of black entertainers had been booked there long before Ella, including Dorothy Dandridge in 1951 and Eartha Kitt in 1953. The truth is that while Charlie Morrison encouraged and applauded performers of all races in his club, he didn’t see Ella Fitzgerald as being glamorous enough to bring in the crowds. It would take Marilyn to change his mind, and once Ella had her foot in the door she successfully played at the Mocambo on a variety of occasions.”

Whether or not race was a factor, the incident is a wonderful example of Marilyn’s generous nature. Her warm friendships with Dandridge, Phil Moore and Sammy Davis Jr also show that Marilyn was well ahead of the times in her attitudes towards race.

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Perhaps the last word should go to Ella herself, quoted by feminist writer Gloria Steinem for a profile of Marilyn in Ms magazine in 1972:

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…it was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

‘Was Marilyn a Proto-Feminist?’

 An extract from Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox was published in The Observer on Sunday.

“I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me –an academic, a feminist biographer, and a historian of gender –had studied her. As a founder of ‘second-wave feminism’ and the new women’s history, I had dismissed Marilyn for many years as a sex object for men. By the 1990s, however, a generation of “third-wave feminists” contended that sexualising women was liberating, not demeaning, for it gave them self-knowledge and power. The students I taught were swayed by this. Had I dismissed Marilyn too easily? Was she a precursor of 1960s feminism? Was Marilyn in actual fact a feminist? Is she one of the women who changed the world’s attitude toward women?

She certainly took actions that could be called feminist. Her entire life was a process of self-formation. She was a genius at self-creation and made herself into an actress and a star. She formed her own production company, she fought the moguls to a standstill, and she publicly named the sexual abuse visited on her as a child: a major – and unacknowledged – feminist act. She refused to keep quiet in an age that believed such abuse rarely happened and when it did, the victimised girl was responsible. Such self-disclosure would become important to the feminist movement in the 1970s.

She never called herself a feminist but the term wasn’t yet in widespread use during her life, and the movement wouldn’t appear until a number of years after her death. Hedda Rosten, her secretary and close friend, identified her as ‘the quintessential victim of the male.’ Norman Rosten, Hedda’s husband, who was equally close to Marilyn, saw her relationship to feminism differently. He contended that Marilyn would have quarrelled with her ‘sisters’ on the issue of sexual liberation. She had achieved the financial and legal gains they sought. And she enjoyed her femininity, recognising its power over men. Marilyn’s stance in his eyes sounds like a post- feminist position, which privileges power over oppression and emphasises the power women possess through their femininity and sexuality.

On the other hand, one could argue that it was her fixation with her femininity – and her attitude towards it, sometimes regal and sometimes tormented – that caused her victimisation in the end. No matter how hard she tried, Hollywood and its men refused to consider her as anything more than a party girl and in the end they treated her like a slut they could use with impunity.

She commented that ‘black men don’t like to be called boys, but women accept being called girls, ‘ as though she were offended by the latter term. And she didn’t like male violence. That is apparent in the dispute she had with journalist WJ Weatherby over Ernest Hemingway. Weatherby liked Hemingway for his understanding of human nature. Marilyn didn’t like his masculine heroes. ‘Those big tough guys are so sick. They aren’t even all that tough! They’re afraid of kindness and gentleness and beauty. They always want to kill something to prove themselves!’ She praised the young people who were beginning to rebel against social conventions. In her best moments, she saw herself as part of that movement. Yet Marilyn had no gender framework to support her stance, no way of conceptualising her situation beyond her individual self, to encompass all women, whose rights were limited in the 1950s. Had she lived a few years longer, into the mid-1960s, the feminist movement could have offered the concept of sexism as a way to understand her oppression and the idea of sisterhood as a support.”

 

Marilyn and Other Role Models

 Over at VibeVixen, an interesting post asks, ‘Why Are Female Rappers Choosing Marilyn Monroe Over Lena Horne?’ Given the recent tributes to MM from Brianna and Nicki Minaj, it’s a fair question – when R&B is (mostly) an African-American field, why are black icons overlooked in Marilyn’s favour?

I have often regretted that other icons are being forgotten, but this is not Marilyn’s fault. And it’s not just a racial issue either – even Elizabeth Taylor noted that Monroe was more ‘mythic’ than her. Furthermore, not all the media attention thrust on MM is positive. Fifty years after her death, she is still vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

VibeVixen don’t do themselves any favours by citing two quotes wrongly attributed to Marilyn (see ‘Misquoting Marilyn’ by Marijane Gray.)

The recent tributes to Monroe primarily focus on her glamour, which is recognised worldwide. However, VibeVixen is right to also praise Lena Horne for her talent, beauty and wit. Marilyn’s friend, Dorothy Dandridge, was another black icon of the era.

Maybe it’s more interesting to ask why black women are drawn to Marilyn on a deeper level. She was known for her progressive views on race in an era when segregation was still commonplace in parts of the US.

Journalist W.J. Weatherby asked his girlfriend, Christine, a young black woman whom he had met through the Civil Rights movement, why Monroe appealed to her more than other white stars. ‘She’s been hurt,’ Christine told him. ‘She knows what the score is, but it hasn’t broken her.’