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Marilyn in Fragments

Marilyn in <i>Fragments</i>

For the last 10 years, I've kept the same postcard in my writing space. In it, Marilyn Monroe, clad only in dungarees and a string bikini top, bench-presses free weights, her legendary moue knit in concentration rather than seduction.

Until I found that picture, the Marilyn myth never engaged me. I rejected her blowsiness, those oopsy-daisy gasps and too-tight sheaths, and angled instead for the hipless charm of Edie and Audrey. But something in that image, so contrary to the screen goddess' standard dolled-up visages, spoke of greater depths, which intrigued me. "Every girl's got to work," I always imagine her whispering, as I get to work myself.

In the nearly half-century since Monroe's fatal barbiturate overdose, her allure has fallen out of fashion. Sure, those signature parted lips and lowered lids, that cloud of platinum hair still register as culturally iconic. But for a generation whose prevailing female ideal is, in both build and behavior, so much like "one of the guys" that her most distinctly womanly characteristics have to be surgically supplied, Monroe's voluptuous, quivering femininity jars like a pair of hairy armpits.

Even the recent surge of Mad Men–inspired, midcentury-reminiscent womanliness doesn't include her kind; Christina Hendricks' Joan, with her unimpressed gaze and take-charge bustle, is a far cry from the breathy receptivity that Monroe made her bread and butter. The New Beverly's upcoming screenings of The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), as well as Fragments, a new book of Monroe's poetry, notes and letters, grant us a glimpse into what we've been overlooking.

Make no mistake: The films themselves are no great shakes. Gentlemen's tale of two showgirls' quest for the men of their dreams offers great fun, at least, with its wicked one-liners and musical numbers, including the high glamour of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Itch, which indulges a married man's toothless fantasies about his upstairs neighbor (Monroe), mostly indicates how ripe the country was for women's lib and Woody Allen's acid self-deprecation. Both projects stand out best as showcases for a more subversive and self-aware Marilyn than is largely remembered.

Widening her eyes in an ecstasy both sincere and sly, she exhales, "Oh, Daddy!" and "My!" no matter how undeserving the suitor. With gentle curves and bright-red lips, she shimmies across the screen in jewel-colored frocks that nip in that terrific swell of bosom, heart-shaped bottom, and hips — the delectable butt of jokes she expertly engineers herself. But what's most beautiful about Marilyn, really, is how she animates that figure: with an intense, prescient responsiveness that sets her up not only for disappointment but for joy.

The irony is that, despite the inviting body language, the Marilyn that emerges in these films and her own writings rarely seemed to truly connect with men. In a joke that works on two levels, Jane Russell asks her dryly in Gentlemen, "Do you put Novocaine on your lips?" Marilyn's kisses may knock out her beaux, but they carry all the passion of a lipstick blot upon a mirror, as if so much is projected upon her that any actual sexual or emotional bond is precluded. Instead, she radiates a carnal, oddly generalized enthusiasm — the essential ingredient that propelled the former Norma Jeane Baker on- and offscreen, sometimes to ill effect.

For at the heart of the Marilyn Monroe legend beats that most American of stories: a wholly engrossing, Great Gatsby–style quest for self-transformation that starts (and too often ends) with nothing. Fragments reveals previously unreleased images of the star, all cocked eyebrows and adamant hand gestures, fully engaged by art and conversation; her stalwart support of friend Ella Fitzgerald's efforts to sing in white clubs; a voracious reader who favored such soothsayers as Steinbeck, Kerouac and Sherwood Anderson; and her scattered, sharply sensitive musings. The world's most famous sex object was also, it seems, a shrewd and compassionate subject, if one bombarded by her impressions. "For life, it is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed," she wrote in 1954. "For work, the truth can only be recalled, not invented."

It was a difficult edict for a woman forever struggling to reinvent herself as a way to transcend a past strewn with abandonment and abuse. It was also one this book suggests she accepted as the price of authenticity with her characteristic cocktail of grace, forbearance and grief.

Now that I am roughly the oldest age Marilyn ever lived to be, I grasp what that postcard promised all along: An elusive admixture of hope and industry, will and willingness, to which she strove until her final days. An able, grownup-lady femininity that now, more than ever, is in too short supply.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch screen at the New Beverly Cinema Nov. 5-11. Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters is in bookstores now.