Dead Elvis. Dead Marilyn. Dead lucky not to be around to catch the ritual exhumations, the necrophiliac boosterism that marks every significant anniversary of their deaths.
Marilyn Monroe died 30 years ago this week, by her own hand, or in more sinister circumstances - the debate continues. It is the occasion for the heaving forth of all the old news repackaged in superlaminate, value-added new covers. Clearly there is a proven market, people who collect this stuff: Monroemaniacs, sexbombologists, Marilynoids.
We meet a group of them, members of the Marilyn Remembered Fan Club, in Peter Brown and Patte Barham's The Last Take. They have assembled in secret to view long- suppressed out-takes of Marilyn in Something's Got To Give, the Fox film from which she'd been fired shortly before her death. The reason for the sacking, as Brown and Barham take a lumbering 500 pages to 'prove', was not her chronic barbiturate and amphetamine addiction, her pathological lateness or her inability to learn lines, but the fact that the studio was intent on making Marilyn the scapegoat for the bath they were taking on Taylor and Burton's Cleopatra, haemorrhaging investment money on locations halfway round the world.
The clips have been smuggled out of the Twentieth Century Fox archives and, far from showing the 'stumbling, pill-ridden wreck drifting towards madness' that the studio has always claimed Monroe to be at this point, they show the glorious, glowing bimbo of legend, 'the walking hormone factory', the sex machine. 'A surge of excitement spread through the crowd . . . The film was foggy, badly faded in places, but the contents were stunning. Monroe looked radiant - in her prime . . . Without waiting for a rewind, the studio employee collected the master tapes and rushed them back to the studio archives - where they promptly disappeared.'
This is eerily reminiscent of Don DeLillo's 1978 novel, Running Dog, which is primarily about the search for some elusive, supposedly pornographic footage of Hitler, filmed in the final days. 'There were those who believed the search itself was all that mattered,' DeLillo writes. 'The search itself is the reward.' This must in part explain the doggedness of the dedicated Marilyn hobbyists, the networking conspiracy theorists, tirelessly chasing down leads, jaws salivating, tails wagging. 'Most tragic of all,' as Gloria Steinem commented in her short, affecting memoir of Marilyn, originally published in 1986, 'is that the time, effort and obsession that have gone into explaining
Marilyn's death have done so little to explain her life.'
Unlike Elvis, there have been few sightings of Marilyn living as a tribeswoman in the Hindu Kush or working as a lollipop lady in Pensacola. But the big news this time round is the emergence of a new, previously unsuspected husband who represents the Marilyn industry, in all its hard-nosedness and jelly-centredness, to near-parodical perfection.
Robert Slatzer has a supporting role in the Brown-Barham book and a starring part in Marilyn's Men by Jane Ellen Wayne, where he exclusively claims, presumably as a result of his superior billing, to have been married to Marilyn for a few days in 1952. 'Claims' because Slatzer has nothing to prove it. He says the wedding took place in Mexico at the end of an all-night drinking jag with Marilyn, but was annulled a few days later at the behest of the Fox chief, Darryl Zanuck, who wanted to perpetuate the image of Monroe as 'the typical American blonde waiting to meet her Prince Charming'. Slatzer returned to Tijuana and destroyed the marriage certificate.
'Slatzer had no problem getting dates with other women,' Wayne notes conscientiously (contractually?). 'He was a tall husky fellow with dark brown hair and eyes, a 'man's man'.' But the smudges included in the book tell a different (really the same old) story. The one of Slatzer as a young man shows an endomorphic greaseball, all over Marilyn like a cheap suit. Forty years on, he's gussied up in the transglobal uniform of the ageing Hollywood huckster - pastel patent loafers, Polo Lounge 'formal casual-wear', polyester lid. Wayne includes a note of gratitude 'to Bob's beautiful companion, Deborah Thompson, who helped me when he was busy with his mini-series Marilyn And Me and his exhibit of new Monroe photos taken during the unfinished Something's Got To Give'. Hey Bob, let's do lunch]
Unlike most Monroe-philia, which tends towards the gynaecological (could she have babies? Did she have a baby? How many abortions?), Marilyn's Men is a catalogue of penile preoccupation. The Hollywood of those days was obviously a place where size did matter. Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn's second husband is 'well endowed and a great lover'; President Kennedy is censured for 'his lack of foreplay and hasty lovemaking'. On the day she signed her contract with Fox in the late-Forties, Marilyn is reputed to have told a friend: 'I've sucked my last cock.' But she was wrong. Within weeks she was servicing one of the founders of Fox, Joe Schenck, a man of 70 who was given shots by his doctor 'that induced erections, but they did not last long'.
Marilyn's Men is a vulgarisation of one of the key chapters in the Steinem book, which argues how, throughout her life, Monroe was defined only in terms of men: 'In spite of some extra magic, some face-saving sincerity and humour, Marilyn Monroe was still close to the humiliating stereotype of a dumb blonde . . . Her sexual value to men was the only value she was sure of. By exciting and arousing, she could turn herself from the invisible, unworthy Norma Jean into the visible, worthwhile Marilyn.'
Anxious to be more than just sexsational, she would put herself on sporadic diets of brain food: Rilke, Dostoevsky, Freud, Sartre. She became the 'adopted third child' of Lee Strasberg, Stanislavsky-trained founder of the Actors' Studio, and his wife Paula, a relationship that is laboriously put through the emotional wringer by their natural daughter, Susan Strasberg, in her psycho-memoir, Marilyn and Me.
Through constant reproduction, simulation and repetition, Monroe had become part of the history and the time even before her death. As early as 1954, Willem De Kooning was painting her as one of his luscious, sabre-toothed Women. In the Sixties, Warhol ratified her status as a bona fide American icon, bursting with empty content. And in the Seventies, Norman Mailer had three goes at her: in 'a novel ready to play by the rules of biography'; in a pseudo- autobiography; and in a play called Strawhead, with his daughter cast in the title role.
It was in Marilyn in 1972 that Mailer coined the term 'factoid' for the kind of facts which are true only by virtue of having been published and assimilated into the public consciousness. This covered just about all that was known of Marilyn's life, from her 'rape' at the age of nine to her suicide/murder 27 years later. She had a large talent for tailoring the truth, as Truman Capote, among others, noted: 'While trusting no one, not very much, she labours like a field-hand to please everybody.' It is because she tended to make her early life sound even grimmer and more melodramatic than it had actually been, and milked it for pathos, that most Marilyn Monroe books (the current crop brings the total to around 60) read like the novelisation of a life; like the spin-offs of some Slatzer-style mini-series.
As the end of Monroe's life was 'all conspiracy theory' (in the words of the film critic, David Thomson), 'so the rest of her life is coming to be all theory - anecdote, speculation, fantasy and rumour'. If she ever was a real flesh-and-bones person, that is to say, 'Marilyn Monroe' long ago crossed the increasingly blurry boundary that separates fact from fiction.
This is why Sam Toperoff's 'fiction' Queen of Desire reads more easily, and in most respects more convincingly, than the fatted biographies and memoirs with their notes and bibliographies and claims to authenticity. The prose, for a start, is reined-in, minimal, rather than over-heated; and, because he is free to imagine what he has no way of knowing or proving, there is none of the strain that comes with the standard Marilynographers' vamping and bluffing and forging of lousy links.
Toperoff takes a dozen 'moments' in the life of Marilyn Monroe and extemporises unhurriedly around them. He has a happy disrespect for the accepted versions of events, and on a number of occasions - her cosmetic surgery, the one-night stand with Sukarno of Indonesia - simply takes the truth and up- ends it. His book isn't Ragtime or Libra; but it is like a clearing in the forest of claim and counter-claim, conspiracy and refutation and wearisome Marilyn jabber.