What becomes a legend most?" read the slogan for a long-running American fur advertisement. With its adroit play on the word "becomes", the commercial asked a couple of pertinent questions. How does an icon come into being? What sustains its allure? Those questions continue to preoccupy a cultural industry that claims to offer insight into the arcane processes of the fame game.
The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is one such offering. Sarah Churchwell's object of study is "the most famous dead woman in the world". MM has already been the subject of more than 600 books; at least half a dozen new offerings are published every year in English alone. So what can possibly justify another incursion into this territory?
Churchwell's hopes rest on the novelty of her approach. Claiming to be the "first serious study of the icon in many years", this book avoids the traditional biographer's claim to tell "the story of Marilyn Monroe" in favour of "the story of the stories". To that end, the book untangles the threads of Monroe's life story, isolating the essential cornerstones of the Monroe myth - childhood abuse, mental health, romances, conspiracy theories - and then dissecting how they have been retold.
With such a plethora of sources, some inevitably warrant more attention than others. Norman Mailer's 1973 Marilyn, light on fact and heavy on masturbatory energy, gets a good airing. So does Gloria Steinem's 1987 feminist rescue mission Marilyn: Norma Jean. Monroe's third husband, Arthur Miller, is well represented by his 1964 play After the Fall, in which Marilyn is reincarnated in "Maggie", and his self-justifying 1987 biography Time Bends.
Churchwell's approach presents a serious critique of biography. She reveals how many accounts of Monroe's life have been built on erroneous facts and how the agendas and prejudices of her biographers have slanted her representation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the treatment of Monroe's childhood molestation. As Churchwell ably points out, biographers - almost exclusively male - who ceaselessly rhapsodised about her ubiquitous sexual allure, and were happy to take Monroe's every utterance as gospel when it suited their interpretation, regained their scepticism when male sexual exploitation was alleged. One wrote: "She confided to us over lunch that she had been assaulted by one of her guardians, raped by a policeman and attacked by a sailor. She seemed to me to live in a fantasy world... and to be absorbed in her own sexuality."
For Churchwell, the devil is in the detail. She excavates the minutiae of biographical texts to demonstrate the tenuousness of their claims to uncovering the truth about Monroe. But why is the veracity of these stories so important? Certainly, in a society that sees sexual secrets as the ultimate clue to personal identity, it is those titbits that make Monroe seem authentic to us. We love her because we feel that we know her.
The parading of her pain reassures that we really do possess her. But the notion that we can ever really know this distant, dead woman is illusory. We will never know if Monroe's revelations explain her tortured mystique, or how they relate - if at all - to the cunning and tenacity with which she pursued fame. That is not to say that Monroe's suffering was of her own making.
Having offered a critique of others' attempts to reveal "the real Marilyn" through the distorting lenses of their own prejudices, Churchwell proposes an alternative "real Marilyn" - one revealed through readings of readings. Her Marilyn is presented in the closing pages, a tentative sketch of a ghostly figure. It is not clear why, in the absence of primary research, this Marilyn should have a stronger claim on our allegiance than any other.
After all, obsessives aside, most of us do not care to delve further into "the truth" about our greatest icon. We are worldly; we know she is a creature of myth and legend, smoke and mirrors. We choose to sustain the narratives about her that best suit our needs and preferences.
It is perhaps surprising that Churchwell has not pursued the logic of her cultural-studies perspective: that cultural preoccupations do not just fog up the Monroe story; they are the story. Monroe is no longer as interesting as the social history we can trace through the stories - yes, and lies - told about her over the past half-century. She is, in turn, best understood not as an extraordinary individual, but as the apogee of a succession of showgirls stretching over centuries of preoccupation with feminine sexual display.
Marilyn takes her bows alongside every high-kicking chorus line, every plumed showgirl posed in a cheesy Vegas show. She pulls on a range of traditions and expectations built up through the years, to which we, as audiences, react with almost Pavlovian intensity. From her spangly "nude dresses" to her gold-digging anthem "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", almost every aspect of her performance emerges from theatrical traditions that existed long before.
For a performer to metamorphose into an icon, he or she must be able to adapt their persona to the spirit of the age. Monroe's was custom-made for the Fifties. Post-war, the social and sexual anxieties of the disrupted age were expressed in high divorce rates, premarital and extramarital sexual activity, and the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement and feminism. The insecurity resulted in a backlash that prompted the popular media to re-enshrine traditional roles for men and women.
So Monroe, who had begun her career as a carefree dumb blonde, had by the mid-Fifties begun to reveal stories about her mad mother, absent father, childhood poverty and teenage rape. Suddenly, no Monroe magazine profile was complete without a passing reference to her "sadness". Marilyn the Martyr was born. Even her body - reassuringly generous and soft - fitted the script perfectly. "Marilyn Monroe" was a conspiracy devised by history, the woman herself, the studio's publicity machine, the media and the audience's own longings and desires.
The salacious language used to market accounts of Marilyn's life - "the naked truth" or "Marilyn unveiled" - is itself a legacy of an old tradition. It is the argot of the striptease, the dichotomy of revelation and concealment exploited so ably by burlesque queens such as Gypsy Rose Lee and by contemporary performers such as Madonna, who has traded on her sexuality with the promise: "The Ultimate Dare is to tell the Truth". It came as little surprise that the product was less strip than tease.
The showgirl's private life has always been part of her act. In a society that clings strongly to the belief that there is a division between a "real" inner core and a somehow less authentic shell of an outer self, this is particularly confusing. For performers such as Monroe, the distinction between public and private breaks down. Those things we name as private - sexual secrets, childhood experiences, romantic adventures - are the building-blocks of her public identity. The icon exploits them in order to bolster, compensate for or counterbalance her public image.
Indeed, icons such as Monroe make problematic the very idea of a real self. The performer's persona is part of her art; she "acts" her real life. Hers is the sign of the mask; we never know what is "true" or what is "real". It is that very elusiveness, her essential unknowability, that is at the heart of Marilyn's appeal. What else would make us keep coming back for more?
Andrea Stuart is the author of 'Showgirls' (Cape) and 'The Rose of Martinique: a life of Napoleon's Josephine' (Macmillan)
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