Avedon’s Marilyn: A Persistent Memory

A note from Paula Strasberg, overlaying Avedon’s ‘Sad Marilyn’

Taken at the end of a long sitting in 1957, the portrait now known as ‘Sad Marilyn’ has become one of her most iconic images, and a stand-out in her collaborations with Richard Avedon. Mark McClish, who worked with Avedon during the 1990s, names it as a favourite in Avedon: Something Personal.

“He let me choose a print when I left, and I picked the sad Marilyn. I had fallen in love with that picture when I was emptying wastebaskets every night as fourth assistant – I was all alone in the building, and so was she, somehow, and, I don’t know, she spoke to me. Dick did one of his smiley faces in the archival paper he wrapped her in for me – except he gave the face a frown and put tears in the eyes, which I’m not embarrassed to admit brought tears to mine. I still have my Marilyn – I haven’t had to sell it, my kids aren’t in college yet …”

Avedon was fiercely protective of Marilyn’s memory, as revealed in a chapter concerning a 2002 exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The two photographs he had designated for promotional purposes were the cross-dressing dancer John Martin and the Bee Man, but now the Met wanted to replace them with the sad Marilyn (a photograph that her own husband, Arthur Miller, had described as ‘succeeding as much as any single picture can in its attempt to portray her as herself’ and that Time magazine characterised as ‘the most psychologically inward picture ever taken of her’). The museum argued that Marilyn enjoyed a ‘Q Score’ of twenty-five (high for a ‘deleb’, or dead celebrity) and that using her to advertise the exhibition could make a disproportionate difference in the number of attendees. Dick protested that this would be exploiting her as a sex celebrity and proposed using June Leaf instead. In the end the Met got their Marilyn, and Dick got his June on the cover of the catalogue.”

Avedon shared another memory of Marilyn in conversation with model turned psychiatrist Lauren Helm, whom he photographed and interviewed for Vogue in 1983. “I remember saying something to the effect that I could never see myself the way other people said they saw me,” she recalls, “and he said that Marilyn Monroe had said practically the exact same thing to him.”

St Vincent Inspired by Marilyn’s Writing

Marilyn leaving hospital in 1954

St Vincent – aka musician Annie Erin Clark – performed ‘Surgeon’, a song inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s writings, now available as a free download from her forthcoming album, Strange Mercy, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, reports the Times:

‘St. Vincent ended her concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday night with an emotionally complicated plea. “Best, finest surgeon,” she sang coolly, fingers skittering along the neck of her guitar. “Come cut me open.”

The song was “Surgeon,” with lyrics inspired by an entry in Marilyn Monroe’s diary, and St. Vincent made its queasy hunger feel palpable, even, somehow, during the mounting vulgarity of the synth-guitar solo that she used as a coda.

Surgery isn’t a bad metaphor for the process by which St. Vincent, a k a Annie Clark, creates her music. But she’s rarely if ever the one being operated on. What she does is traumatic but controlled, unsentimental but not uncaring. She can seem clinical, but she knows what she’s doing in there.’

The song is based on a piece published in Fragments, the 2010 collection of Marilyn’s writing. It was written on Waldorf-Astoria stationary (MM lived at the hotel in 1955.)

This may be an account of a dream. It is filled with characters from Marilyn’s life at the time – Lee Strasberg, Arthur Miller, Milton Greene, Dr Hohenberg, the Rostens – and suggests Marilyn’s intense fear of not living up to their expectations.

Like many of Marilyn’s undefined pieces, it has the quality of a prose poem. The bolded parts denote spelling anomalies, while the crossings-out are her own.

Best finest surgeon – Strasberg

waits to cut me open which I don’t mind since Dr H

has prepared me – given me anesthetic

and has also diagnosed the case and

agrees with what has to be done –

an operation – to bring myself back to

life and to cure me of this terrible dis-ease

whatever the hell it is –

Arthur is the only one waiting in the outer

room – worrying and hoping operation successful

for many reasons – for myself – for his play and

for himself indirectly

Hedda – concerned – keeps calling on phone during

operation – Norman – keeps stopping by hospital to

see if I’m okay but mostly to comfort Art

who is so worried –

Milton calls from office with lots of room

and everything in good taste – and is conducting

business in a new way with style – and music

is playing and he is relaxed and enjoying himself even if he

is very worried at the same time – there’s a camera

on his desk but he doesn’t take pictures anymore except

of great paintings.

Strasberg cuts me open after Dr. H gives me

anesthesia and tries in a medical way to comfort

me – everything in the room is white in fact but I

can’t even see anyone just white objects –

they cut me open – Strasberg with Hohenberg’s ass.

and there is absolutely nothing there – Strasberg is

deeply disappointed but more even – academically amazed

that he had made such a mistake. He thought there was going

to be so much – more than he had dreamed possible in

almost anyone but

instead there was absolutely nothing – devoid of

every human living feeling thing – the only thing

that came out was so finely cut sawdust – like

out of a raggedy ann doll – and the sawdust spills

all over the floor & table and Dr. H is puzzled

because suddenly she realizes that this is a

new type case of puple. The patient (pupil – or student – I started to write) existing of complete emptiness

Strasberg’s hopes & dreams for theater are fallen.

Dr H’s dreams and hopes for a permanent psychiatric cure

is given up – Arthur is disappointed – let down +