Heartbreaking, breathtaking sex symbol still bewitches us today
OPINION:Marilyn Monroe remains deeply etched in the global imagination 50 years after her death, but now she is perhaps appreciated more for her humanity than her anatomy, writes MAUREEN DOWD
MIKE NICHOLS claims he called Marilyn Monroe to work on a scene. “Are you sure you weren’t hitting on her?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t have dared dream of it,” he replied.
It was the mid-1950s, and they were both taking an acting class in New York with Lee Strasberg.
Nichols recounted his conversation with the woman with the familiar breathy voice: “The phone rang and somebody said, ‘Hello,’ and I said, ‘Hi, is Marilyn there?’ And she said, ‘No, she’s not,’ and I said, ‘Well, this is Mike. I’m in class with her. Could you take a message?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s a holiday,’ because it was the Fourth of July weekend, and that, to her, was an excuse for not taking a message for herself.”
No one ever said Monroe wasn’t complicated. Nichols directed the Tony Award-winning revival of her third husband’s play, Death of a Salesman. I interviewed him for a BBC radio show based on a column I wrote for the New York Times about how we have devolved from Monroe’s aspirational attitude towards knowledge, in which she wanted to collect great books and meet authors and intellectuals – even marrying one – to Sarah Palin’s anti-elitist scorn about reading and intellectuals.
Nichols surprised me when he said he was present at what he dryly calls the “historic moment” in May 1962 when Monroe sang Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy, who was turning 45.
Monroe was wearing that shrink-wrap, sheer Jean Louis gown ablaze with rhinestones – “skin and beads”, she called it. Nichols and Elaine May were also performing that night in Madison Square Garden, not that anyone remembers. “I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang ‘Happy birthday, Mr President’,” Nichols said. “And indeed, the corny thing happened: Her dress split for my benefit, and there was Marilyn, and yes, indeed, she didn’t wear any underwear.”
At a party afterwards, “Elaine and I were dancing, and Bobby Kennedy and Marilyn danced by us, and I swear to God the conversation was as follows”: Here Nichols put on, first, a feathery voice and then a nasal one: “‘I like you, Bobby.’ ‘I like you too, Marilyn.’”
The famous director has worked with many famous beauties. So I asked him, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death this week, if he could explain her astonishing staying power. “I think that the easy answer might be that she had the greatest need,” he said.
“She wasn’t particularly a great beauty, that is to say, Hedy Lamarr or Ava Gardner would knock the hell out of her in a contest, but she was almost superhumanly sexual.”
Feminism has come and gone, and women now routinely puff their lips, inflate their chests, dye their hair and dress with sultry abandon. But Nichols said Monroe’s heat went deeper, with a walk, a look and movements that were an “out-and-out open seduction right in front of everyone”.