Marilyn Monroe died while I was at camp in the Southern California mountains. I stared at the cabin rafters. Skipped the afternoon swim. Picked at my mess hall chow.
How can I explain, even to myself, why her death impacted me the way it did? She was older than my mother. And yet her sad-gleeful eyes, her spun glass hair and Birth of Venus figure were ageless. I’d been stealing glances at her infamous Playboy centerfold in a dirty old man’s garage ever since I started delivering newspapers, and desired her with a desire that had no name. I’d watched her sensuous faux-naivete obliterate everything else onscreen in Some Like it Hot (still one of my favorite films), and longed to protect her and be naughty with her all at the same time.
They say pizza is the ultimate food because it combines all the essences our palates crave: savory, sweet, chewy, crispy. Marilyn Monroe combined all the essences the masculine palate craves: breathtaking beauty—someone to worship; yarn-chasing glee—someone to play with; in-heat sexuality—someone to desire and, even more importantly, be desired by. When she sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President” every man wanted to be John F. Kennedy, not because he was the most powerful person on the planet, but because Marilyn Monroe desired him.
But perhaps her most compelling—and real—trait was her vulnerability. Everyone, even women, wanted to protect her, to help Norma Jean find her way home. But she never did.
Elton John’s song “Candle in the Wind” begins, “Goodbye, Norma Jean, though I never knew you at all…” But the sad thing is that Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn Monroe’s creator, never knew herself.
Like Archie Leach, the cockney music hall comic who turned himself into Cary Grant, she invented an on-screen persona that was far from who she was. The platinum hair, the breathy voice, the teasing “I-don’t-realize-how-I’m-affecting-you” sensuality, were the conscious inventions of a comedic genius, once a clever middle school brunette who wrote for the school paper and was voted “The Oomph Girl.” Born to a schizophrenic mother, eventually becoming a ward of the state, bouncing from foster home to foster home (she tried for years to find her father), she knew what people wanted, but not who she was.
So, while Marilyn Monroe was the face of desire, by the time I reached high school I was beginning to want to know girls for who they actually were. Indeed, to help them discover who they were, even as they helped me discover who I was. So my first girlfriend wasn’t a Marilyn, she was a Norma Jean. And the girl I married was a Norma Jean, a smart, creative and, yes, beautiful woman who knows herself.
I still mourn Marilyn.
But it’s Norma Jean I love.