One hot summer, like the one that’s upon us, an icon died. I was just a kid, so you wouldn’t think it would have affected me much. But it did.
It was 1962. Marilyn Monroe died while I was at camp in the California mountains. I stared at the cabin rafters. Skipped the afternoon swim. Picked at my mess hall chow.
How can I explain why her death impacted me the way it did? She was older than my mother. 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. I’d watched her sensuous faux-naiveté 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 (whatever that meant) all at the same time.
They say pizza 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 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.
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 saddest thing is that ultimately Norma Jean Baker, Marilyn Monroe’s creator, didn’t know herself.
Her platinum hair, her breathy voice, her teasing “I-don’t-realize-how-I’m-affecting-you” sensuality, were the conscious inventions of a comedic genius, once a smart middle school brunette who edited the school paper. 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 understood what people wanted, but not who she was.
Yes, Marilyn Monroe was the face of desire. But by the time I’d 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, but 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.