‘The Unclaimed Trunk of Marilyn Monroe’

Princess Tenko is ‘a Japanese pop singer turned magician specialising in grand illusions’ (according to her Wikipedia page.) A new documentary, Unclaimed Baggage, focuses on a Louis Vuitton trunk she bought at auction, which supposedly belonged to Marilyn.

The story is that the trunk was sent by the Vanderbilts, whom Marilyn met on her trip to Mexico in 1962. Born into one of America’s richest families, Fred Vanderbilt-Field was an expatriate who had embraced communism. (Ironically, there are few more potent symbols of capitalism than a Louis Vuitton trunk.)

The Vanderbilts stayed at Marilyn’s New York apartment in the spring of 1962, while she was filming Something’s Got to Give in Hollywood. After they left, Marilyn received a reprimand from the owners of her apartment building – probably because of her guests’ left-wing affiliations.

Until Princess Tenko’s purchase in 2005, it’s said that the trunk languished in a New York warehouse. After performing at President Kennedy’s birthday gala in May, Marilyn returned to Los Angeles where she died in August. If the trunk was a gift, it’s possible that she never had the chance to accept it.

Personally, I’m not convinced that this trunk really belonged to Marilyn. However, the emotional response of people to items connected with MM intrigues me, and the vast sums of money some are willing to pay – whether or not they are genuine. Maybe that is the real point of this documentary, which features appearances by Greg Schreiner (president of Marilyn Remembered), and authors Lois Banner and John Gilmore, among others.

Unclaimed Baggage will be shown on French television next week (France 1, 16th January at 21.35.) You can read more about it (and view trailers) over at Messy Nessy Chic.

Marilyn and the Geishas

This giant image of Marilyn, in her iconic ‘skirt-blowing’ pose from The Seven Year Itch – alongside a traditional Geisha – in a Japanese rice field is part of an annual ‘Tanbo Art’ display, reports EuroNews.

During her 1954 visit to Japan with then-husband, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn was photographed with a group of Geishas.

After Marilyn’s death, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland said,  ‘She was a geisha. She was born to give pleasure, spent her whole life doing it, and knew no other way.’

And one of Monroe’s most recent biographers, Lois Banner, has referred to Cecil Beaton‘s 1956 diptych – which Marilyn kept, framed, on her piano – as ‘the geisha photograph.’

Variety Reviews ‘Love, Marilyn’

Marilyn on Person to Person, 1955

Variety has reviewed Love, Marilyn, giving us a fuller picture of the cast and materials. (David Strathairn as Arthur Miller is surely inspired casting!)

“With: F. Murray Abraham, Elizabeth Banks, Adrien Brody, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Hope Davis, Viola Davis, Jennifer Ehle, Ben Foster, Paul Giamatti, Jack Huston, Stephen Lang, Lindsay Lohan, Janet McTeer, Jeremy Piven, Oliver Platt, David Strathairn, Marisa Tomei, Lili Taylor, Uma Thurman, Evan Rachel Wood, Lois Banner, George Barris, Patricia Bosworth, Sarah Churchwell, Amy Greene, Molly Haskell, Jay Kanter, Richard Meryman, Thomas Schatz, Donald Spoto.

Two unearthed boxes of diary entries, letters and whatnot (some of which were published in 2010 as Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe) provide the novelty and appeal to what would otherwise be a standard life-overview. The erstwhile Norma Jean Baker’s awful childhood, her stormy marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, the paralyzing effects of her insecurities on film shoots, her problematic alliance with the Actors Studio, her pill consumption, et al., all constitute familiar terrain that makes Love, Marilyn seem redundant at times.

The first-person testimonies are more interesting, from archival clips of Susan Strasberg, John Huston, Joshua Logan, Jane Russell, Laurence Olivier and others to excerpts from memoirs and other writings by one of her many shrinks (read by F. Murray Abraham), Miller (David Strathairn), and analysts Gloria Steinem (Hope Davis) and Norman Mailer (Ben Foster), among others. Particularly flavorful are Oliver Platt and Paul Giamatti as Billy Wilder and George Cukor, respectively, both recalling their exasperation working with the hypersensitive box office sensation. There are also present-tense interviews with biographers, critics, Actors Studio contemporary Ellen Burstyn, and close non-celebrity friend Amy Greene (who shares some salty thoughts on Marilyn’s husbands).

While there’s no question Garbus has recruited first-rate talent to pay homage here, some of the most impressive names prove heavy-handed or simply miscast in attempting to channel the love goddess’s fragile spirit; moreover, having them act against green-screened archival materials has a tacky, pop-up televisual feel. Probably most effective in their straightforward readings are Jennifer Ehle, who gets a fair amount of screentime, and (perhaps surprisingly) Lindsay Lohan, who does not.

Limiting clips from predictable movie highlights, and skipping over several well-known titles entirely, the pic tries to emphasize lesser-known materials, including numerous candid photos, behind-the-scenes footage, and one uncomfortable live appearance on TV’s Person to Person.”

Biographers’ Q & A: Lois Banner

Biographile has interviewed Dr Lois Banner, author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. Asked which celebrity today reminded her most of Marilyn, Banner replied, ‘I’m thinking. Angelina Jolie, maybe, because she’s smart and she’s tough. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, they’re sort of dumb. Marilyn was never dumb.’

You can read the interview in full here.

Shape-Shifting: Norma Jeane to Marilyn

Writing about Marilyn for the Los Angeles Times, Dr Lois Banner argues that ‘we make her into an icon because we can also make her into whatever we want her to be.’

“In the end, Monroe is one of the most complex female public figures in American history, and that real complexity plays a role in her continuing ability to fascinate us. We admire her beauty, puzzle over her mysteries and see her as a reflection of the quixotic, multifaceted, always striving and often contradictory American character.”

 

‘Marilyn Still Bewitches Biographers’

Flight reading: Marilyn clutches a book about her hero Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by Eve Arnold, 1955)

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Britt Peterson looks at how feminist perspectives on Marilyn have developed over the years, from viewing her as a victim of men (Joan Mellen, Gloria Steinem), to hailing the power of her sexuality (Sarah Churchwell, Lois Banner, Jacqueline Rose.)

“Over the 1970s and 1980s, the new lens of feminist theory complicated but didn’t at first do much to improve this perception, critics treating Monroe as at best a victim and at worst a collaborator in her own destruction and the objectification of other women.

But soon the critical viewpoint on Monroe began to catch up to some of those complexities. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the academic mainstream became more welcoming to pop-culture scholarship, critics started paying more attention to the postmodern aspects of Monroe, the ways in which she represented a truly fragmented subject. Decades removed from Monroe-as-person, perhaps without even the connecting experience of having seen her movies while she was still living, these critics began to focus on the accumulation of imagery surrounding her, while also lamenting the lost human at the heart of it.

Around the same time, the very aspects of Monroe’s biography that had proved so alienating to second-wave feminists—her frank, often exhibitionist sexuality; the fact that she slept with producers and photographers early on in her career to get work—began to seem more of a piece with a third-wave, sexually empowered story about her.

The paradox of Banner’s book is that it’s a portrait of a third-wave feminist written for traditionally second-wave goals. Banner says that she has been laughed at by male colleagues who see Monroe as ‘a dumb blonde, a stupid woman, who only engaged in a kind of raunchy sex.’ Her book is meant as a corrective, a defense of Monroe as an intelligent, warm-hearted artist…Like the British critic Jacqueline Rose, who wrote a long paean to Monroe in the London Review of Books this April, Banner highlights Monroe’s radical leftist leanings, her racial sensitivities, her interest in psychoanalysis, and other ways in which she prefigured various social and political movements of the 1960s. She doesn’t gloss over the uglier aspects of Monroe’s character…

Banner’s version is more complete, more sensitive, more entrenched in archival data than any before, and yet the ‘real Marilyn’ remains elusive, as she always will. ‘I can be anything they want me to be,’ she told a friend. ‘There are a lot of cards in my deck, so to speak.'”

The Girl in the Red Sweater

Norma Jeane by Bruno Bernard, 1946

An extract from Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is published in today’s Mail on Sunday, detailing how Marilyn’s image evolved from girl next door to goddess.

“It all started with a red cardigan. The ‘sweater girl’ look, launched by Lana Turner in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget, was coming into vogue across America. But it hadn’t reached Emerson Junior High School, Los Angeles – until Norma Jeane Mortenson, or Marilyn Monroe as she was later to be known, found her own distinctive way.

Teenage girls in that era often wore a front-buttoned cardigan over a white blouse with a prim collar. Norma Jeane eliminated  the blouse as well as the bra and camisole worn under it. She then took a red cardigan, turned it around, and buttoned it up the back. The sweater clung to her breasts; she called it her ‘magic sweater’. 

And so began one of the most remarkable transformations in the history of Hollywood – a time-consuming and often quite inspired campaign to turn an abandoned girl, mocked by her classmates, into the sexual icon of the age.”

Marilyn: The Smart Dumb Blonde

Marilyn by Ben Ross, 1953

Tonight at 8pm (GMT) on BBC Radio 4, Maureen Dowd will present a programme about Marilyn, The Smart Dumb Blonde. As a taster, you can also listen to a recent discussion of MM on Woman’s Hour, featuring Dr Lois Banner and Dame Ann Leslie.

“Pulitzer prize winning journalist Maureen Dowd argues that the so-called ‘dumb blonde’ of 1950s Hollywood was in fact smarter than she seemed. Marilyn Monroe and her ilk aspired to be brilliant in conversation as well as on camera; they wanted to pose with books as well as blonde hair; they understood the value of their sexual currency and they had enough sense to take advantage of their assets.

In this programme, Maureen Dowd brings together some of her most eminent friends and colleagues (amongst them, Harvey Weinstein and Mike Nichols) to travel back to a time when glamour and brains were not mutually exclusive. With the help of archive, film and music and some brilliant personal anecdotes, they’ll debate why the figureheads of the 50s believed in education as a mark of status and success.

Jump forward to today and American popular culture and politics has lost the drive which Marilyn’s era possessed. Maureen Dowd argues that aspirations and originality are no longer valued; instead we live in a cookie-cutter world of reality tv, banal cinema and inane politicians. And, despite the seeming triumph of feminism, some of the world’s most powerful and desirable women – from Sarah Palin to Kim Kardashian – are leading this trend. In the words of John Hamm, ‘stupidity is certainly celebrated’.”