It wasn’t until my 33rd birthday that I truly understood Marilyn Monroe, in all her beautiful and painful glory. It was not, as these things go, a very happy birthday. The year 2018 had already brought me three humiliations: a passage in rehab, the loss of my fertility and a breakup that everyone was waiting for (difficult to know if it is the best or the worst). Unlike the reluctant Marilyn – whose early thirties produced her own pile of 50 cars of public humiliation, but who rarely talked about it – I never shut up and I certainly didn’t put on lipstick. to cover up the sad truth. My resistance to celebrating was so great that my friends decided to throw me an arts and crafts party, like I was a stubborn 11-year-old girl whose class needed bribing to attend her festivities. Amid tempera paintings, glitter and wide eyes, we drank ginger ale – the sober woman’s Dom – and friends nodded with loving patience while I decorated a jewelry box in muted tones. I was well past any illusions that adulthood was ahead of me, but I felt like I still wasn’t living like an adult, and I couldn’t really find a reason to try.
In the pile of gifts from friends – a tie-dye sweatshirt, a pearly medallion with my dog’s picture on it, a pair of shoes with cat ears on the toe – was a book by my friend Alissa, who has made it his living profession to catalog, with rare empathy, the humiliations of women exposed to public attention (we now do this together, on a podcast called The C-word, where we spent nearly 70 hours detailing the triumphs and miseries of eccentric women, icons and even assassins – a gothic pastime, but a pastime nonetheless). As the night drew to a close, adults with glitter on their hands smoked cigarettes on the subway grates and talked about daycare, mortgages, and other things I had forgotten I wanted. Alissa handed me her gift, this big white coffee table book, its corners ragged with wear – Norman Mailer’s ode to (and thesis on) Marilyn, titled simply with her first name. On the inside cover, Alissa wrote: “For Lena – who, like Marilyn, has something for everyone.” At that time, when I felt I had nothing for anyone, I clung to it: a Bible and a life raft.
One could argue that no woman has been scrutinized more closely. She once again received books from public intellectuals, biographers and fiction writers – not just Mailer but Gloria Steinem and Joyce Carol Oates, including the novel, Blond, will receive a cinematic treatment with Ana de Armas this month. She’s a figurehead of crass American excess, standing in Madame Tussauds with her skirt still puffed up, her famous dress on display at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (and, more respectfully, on the Met Gala red carpet last spring). His death 60 years ago from a barbiturate overdose in his bed in Brentwood created a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists – was it the CIA? Murder? — and some who only met her briefly made their living talking about her. We can even, if we want to, google a picture of her in the morgue. Megan Fox proudly got a tattoo of herself then had it removed, saying, “I don’t want to bring that kind of negative energy into my life,” and it was easy to see what she meant. Marilyn’s fame was – is – gigantic but lonely, lasting but impersonal. Who, once they really look at the facts, would want to wear that as a totem?
As a young woman, I didn’t care much about her. I was obsessed with those who I perceived to be shifting the cultural landscape towards something more like… weirdness – Gilda Radner, Grace Jones and, later, Tina Fey. I thought girls who cited Monroe as inspiration were mundane at best and boring at worst. I posed as Marilyn for a magazine – with bleached hair, sucking on a whipped cream cherry – but only after convincing myself that it was a kitsch commentary on the kind of woman we deem worthy of attention.