Marilyn Monroe: me, myself and I

Seventy years to the day that Norma Jean was born, we continue to puzzle over her true identity. But like the controversy over her death, our not knowing is the source of her eternal appeal.
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Sammy Davis Jnr said it blunt and said it best: "Marilyn Monroe hangs like a bat in the heads of the men who knew her." And not only men. Also women and children and a whole world born long after her multiple- choice death (accidental suicide? deliberate suicide? murder?) on Saturday 4 August, 1962. And not only in heads either. Like the truth she is out there, too. The milestone movies - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, Some Like it Hot - continue to be revived (without her, they defy remaking). Studies (A Life of an Actress), biographies (The Last Take), fiction (Queen of Desire) and roman-a-clefs (The Immortals) are written; documentaries - 100 plus and counting - are made; TV series are produced; and photos, pictures and likenesses in porcelain, plastic and sturdy India rubber recycled. Marilyn, the living doll.

Her image, wide-eyed, pouting, impossibly radiant, is perhaps the pre- eminent sexual spectacle of the late 20th century. It is certainly the most mutable - she is both sweet infant and hot whore - and instantly recognisable; Marilyn nude on crushed red velvet, Marilyn amid billowing cream pleats, Marilyn in heaving black, transparent chiffon, nipples barely hidden by strategically scattered silver sequins. Here she is, divided and multiplied, silk-screened by Warhol, her DNA embedded in a new range of pendants and wristwatches, computer-generated in Coke and Chanel perfume ads (one dab of No 5 and you too can merge, and make sense of, the extremes of carnality and innocence), a poster staring down from a million damp bedsit walls, emblazoned on coffee mugs and lucky charms. A face on a T-shirt, a face borrowed by Madonna and Debbie Harry and an army of impersonators, male and female, a face, oh yes, on a jigsaw, a set of features to be taken apart, sorted and reassembled until we get it right. Marilyn is the Everywhere and Nowhere Baby. But then, she always was.

Looking back from here, on the day that would have marked the 70th anniversary of her (unwanted) birth, one observes less the presence and more the absence. If we carry our own oft contradictory Marilyns with us - Truman Capote had his "Beautiful Child", Norman Mailer his "Napoleon of Sex", Elton John a "Candle in the Wind", Laurence Olivier a "Dumb Bitch", and Eve Arnold her "Sweet Girl" - it is because Marilyn is a void that provocatively invites our projections and fantasies. Of course, that's part of every film star's purpose, a pose to be adopted, as Garbo does in the final reel of Queen Christina. Unburdening herself of thought and feeling as the camera closes in, she is a beautiful blank, permitting us to conjure anything we wish. What Garbo achieved through technique for a timeless moment - an obliteration of the "I" we daily fabricate and let loose in the marketplace to represent what is actually "us" - Marilyn accomplished through tragedy for an entire career, starting from the tragedy of her childhood. Never sure of her father's identity, the little bastard and, later, the virtual orphan will never be certain of her own.

Her mother's mental instability - Monroe once claimed that Gladys Baker tried to smother her - and a succession of foster homes exacerbated this uncertainty. It is the sort of traditionally bleak, lower middle- class upbringing that brings forth stars (Tom Cruise too has a missing- father-complex) and serial killers (ditto Ted Bundy): each breed seeks attention and is constantly searching for a persona to replace the many forms they adopt in the hope of pleasing others and passing as "normal". Without it, they occupy space but hardly exist internally. Is it any wonder that on Some Like it Hot, Monroe will go to 47 takes on the line "It's me, Sugar"? Me Sugar. Me Marilyn. Me, me, me. Me who? Yet that thing up on the screen, a glittering, glowing creature made from light and shadow, reams of publicity, pints of peroxide, subtle cosmetic surgery - the nose, the chin - and the combined wills of the former Norma Jean Baker and 20th Century Fox, is what Monroe must be. What else is there? She was pure Outside and she knew it. Why, the first time she ever felt noticed was when she spurted breasts, and the first time she felt loved was when an attendant at yet another orphanage granted her a makeover. She said: "No one had ever noticed my face or hair or me before." As the film critic Molly Haskell observed: "We can hardly fail to note the priorites. From then on, the face and the hair (and the body) became the 'me'."

The common wisdom is that the burden of playing goddess killed her (or you could choose to blame the Kennedys). The opposite may be true. Being "Marilyn" may have kept her going for longer than any concerned party had a right to expect. It was a better deal than the masks. How do we reconcile, say, author JJ Weatherby's account of the calm, collected, politically active and socially conscious woman he met for drinks in an unnamed Big Apple bar with Maggie, the drunken, sniping slut - "Your pants are too tight. Fags wear their pants too tight" - who fronts third husband Arthur Miller's play After the Fall? How to reconcile the calculating, ambitious starlet with the Harlow hair, Dietrich eyes and Lana lips dissected by make-up maestro George Masters with the giggly, gracious pseudo-older sister portrayed by actress Susan Strasberg? The answer is we do and we don't: robbed of the life-preserver that is her screen identity, MM is none and all of the above. Or she is a sloth, indolent between movies and men, waiting to be awakened. Her New York maid, Lena Pepitone, will detail wasted days of darkened bedrooms and guzzled magnums of champagne, of pork chops gnawed, and greasy hands carelessly wiped on expensive silk sheets. Drama coach Natasha Lytess tattled a similar tale - "She was a somnambulist" - and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson, no fan, echoed the sentiment: "She's behind a wall of thick cotton... You stick a pin in her and eight days later it says 'Ouch'." Colin Clark, brother of Alan, and then an observant dogsbody on The Prince and the Showgirl, is succinctness itself: "She is not there."

Yet it is precisely this profound dislocation between Monroe's appearance (and the stunning effect her appearance has) and what or who she is (or, more precisely, what she isn't) that guarantees her myth and renders her forever hypnotic - and infinitely topical. Her investment in, and hyper- consciousness about, the shell and the messages it can relay independent of any "reality" or "truth" is ineffably modern. What Marilyn's melting ice-cream voice and woozy manner - yes, heavy sedation can be sexy - whispers is "The centre will not hold", and more: these days a centre may not be required. It could, on the contrary, get in the way of freeing the many selves psychotherapy belatedly recognises not as an illness, but as a necessity for living in the wild West (multi-media = multiple personalities). What once seemed a sort of madness now looks like pioneering spirit. We gaze upon her and, finally, reluctantly, recognise the fragments of ourselves.

Marilyn's tragedy is, in a way, her triumph. Free-floating, abstract, she is not tied to the Fifties, the times that witnessed her irresistible rise, when her bombed-out manner was thought a cute method of balancing blatancy in culturally repressive climes. Marilyn has no sell-by date. She is the corpse that will always be fresh, the mystery of her allure matched by the "mystery" of her death. No wonder ex-LA assistant DA John Miner has announced his wish to rob her grave and plunder her remains in pursuit of clues. Isn't that what we all want to do? Isn't it the token of our love? As the writer Graham McCann points out in the exquisitely, and guiltily, knowing Marilyn Monroe: The Body in the Library, we imitate, reproduce, publish and speculate in one mass rescue fantasy because we cannot bear to let her go, to see her leave over that last, lost horizon. As if we could do anything to bring Marilyn back from the rest her troubled spirit so richly deserves. In the end, what happens happens, though we may wish to believe, as Arthur Miller once did, that "She could have made it with a little luck."

Marilyn: the conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have surrounded MM's death from the beginning, when Walter Winchell questioned whether Monroe, with her fear of choking, could have swallowed as many pills in the short time the LA police department said she did. Winchell, who loathed the Kennedys, mentioned a certain "prominent gentleman in the East" in his column, a reference to Monroe's supposed affair with President Kennedy, and / or, perhaps, to her relationship with the Attorney General, Bobby. The Kennedys, of course, top the list of conspiracy suspects, supposedly silencing Monroe because she threatened to expose them in a press conference - see Norman Mailer's 'Marilyn' for further details. Anthony Summers's 'Goddess' covers the same territory, though it raises the possibility that the Mafia murdered Marilyn to embarrass the brothers (as does the anonymously penned 'Double Cross'). The lunatic 'Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe' states that the Commies did it as a favour to Bobby, who was a Communist sympathiser. Donald Spoto's 'Marilyn Monroe: the Biography' makes short work of these theories, while suggesting a reasonable alternative of its own: that MM's psychiatrist,

Dr Greenson, accidentally overdosed his patient with a barbiturate enema (Monroe's favoured method) and covered his tracks. Which would finally explain one permanently puzzling detail - why housekeeper Eunice Murray was doing the laundry in the wee small hours when the police arrived...