It was August 4, 1962, and sweltering like it is now. I was only a kid, so you wouldn’t think it would have affected me much. But when I heard Marilyn Monroe had died while my buddy Jeff and I were at Camp Osceola, 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 open 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 movies), 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” everyone 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 breathy voice and platinum hair, 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, she was the face of desire. But by the time I reached high school I would begin 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 I-Love-You wasn’t a Marilyn, but a Norma Jean. And my final I-Love-You, the girl I married, was a Norma Jean too, a smart, creative and, yes, beautiful woman who knows herself.
I still mourn Marilyn.
But it’s Norma Jean I love.