Fifty years to the day after Marilyn Monroe was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood home, several hundred of the late star's most loyal fans and a handful of her surviving friends and associates gathered on Sunday in the chapel of Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Westwood, not to remember how she died but to celebrate how she lived. (For the record, the cause of death was an overdose of Nembutal, Seconal and chloral hydrate — Marilyn was nothing if not thorough.)
The memorial also marked the 30th anniversary of the annual event itself, which is hosted each August by Pierce Brothers (who also look after Marilyn's mortal remains in the cemetery) and organized by emcee Greg Schreiner and his Marilyn Remembered fan club. The international scope of Marilyn fandom was reflected on Sunday by the prevalence of hushed German and Australian accents heard during the service.
Among the notables in attendance was the daughter of the nephew of the late Ralph Roberts, Marilyn's former masseur and confidante; a former Marilyn classmate from Van Nuys High School; Jimmy Morrison, one of Marilyn's former hairdressers; various Marilyn impersonators; and even a bona fide foster sister of the then-8-year-old Marilyn, Nancy Jeffries.
The various speakers recalled Marilyn as a genuine “person of genius” — a perfectionist and a preternaturally talented performer whose deep talents and deeper emotional problems were too often overlooked or misunderstood by callous studio executives. For an unending procession of fans, she was remembered as the inspirational figure whose discovery became the course-changing event of a lifetime. For the odd non-Marilyn fanatic present (i.e., those of us not sporting a polyester Marilyn-print tie) the two-hour-plus tribute merely felt like a lifetime.
Those at the dais included Marilyn's friend and photographer, a now frail-looking George Barris; River of No Return film producer Stanley Rubin and his wife, Marilyn's fellow 20th Century Fox contract player Kathleen Hughes; ex-agent Jay Kanter; and actor George Chakiris.
It was, in short, a gathering marked by all the fervency and devotion unique to the true believer. If so, featured speaker Lois Banner certainly must be considered one of the Marilyn religion's rising gospel writers. Banner, a professor of women's history at USC, is the author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, her well-received, scrupulously researched and 10-years-in-the-writing biography, whose release was scheduled to coincide with the anniversary.
Banner's book, which attempts to demolish any lingering image of Marilyn as a dumb blonde and merely the sexual object of male fantasy, asserts that the star was shaped by a complicated and deeply conflicted personality. Marilyn was marked by an intense intellectual curiosity but also by emotional and sexual abuse as a child, which would develop into full-blown sexual addiction and her ultimately tragic substance abuse.
Outside the memorial, the 73-year-old writer briefly spoke about Marilyn's status as an “icon of the American character” and the key to her enduring fascination. The answer, according to Banner, is complex but begins with her tragically early death. Dying at the height of her beauty instantly made the star what Banner calls “the Aphrodite of the national imagination — the woman who represents our sexual desires and dreams.”
To that she adds the aura of mystery contributed by Marilyn's involvement with the Kennedys and the conspiracy theories surrounding her death. Then there are the photographs. Marilyn was probably the most photographed woman of the 20th century, Banner says, “and the famous images of her literally run into the thousands. She realized herself in front of the camera, and many have said the camera was her real lover.”
To the question of whether Marilyn's life should stand as a role model or a cautionary tale, Banner replies that it's both. “Marilyn made herself,” Banner says. “She overcame significant disabilities to become a star. She stuttered. She was dyslexic. She had menstrual problems of the worst sort — endometriosis. There was more. She was bipolar.” Merely to control and contain all of these physical and emotional problems in order to make a movie is, says Banner, “just an amazing role model of overcoming your own difficulties to make something of yourself in life.”
The dark side to that heroism, however, was drugs and men. “I think that the drug taking was unfortunate,” Banner adds. “I wish she hadn't been so cavalier about it. She told her friend, Susan Strasberg, that she could control it. But literally she could not control it in the end.”
As for the men, Banner cites what she calls “some unfortunate associates” toward the end of her life — namely, the Rat Pack. “I do not think it was a good idea for her to get involved with [them],” she says. “They were not particularly, how shall I put it, upstanding individuals, nor did they treat women in the best of ways. Frank Sinatra … could be very difficult and very sort of brutal. I don't think he ever hit her, but he did order her around a lot.”
On the question of “What if?” Banner feels that if Marilyn could have only held on until the advent of the new generation of SSRI antidepressant drugs, her story would have had a very different ending. “I think she would have done a lot of very positive things,” Banner asserts. “All her friends say that Marilyn's energy was unbelievable. That they've never seen anything like it — how she could do so many things at the same time and do them very well.” And while much would have depended on how her mental condition was controlled, Banner speculates that if the SSRIs allowed her to function as she had done earlier in her career, “I think that what she could have done would have been extraordinary.
“She operated on many levels and saw herself as many people,” Banner concludes. “And she was many people in one person.”