Marilyn Monroe: The 50-Year Itch

Her death a half-century ago this weekend ushered in the modern era of mourning fallen stars.

In a classic scene from the second season of "Mad Men," flip ad firm partner Roger Sterling clumsily attempts to console office bombshell Joan Holloway, who shows rare emotion after learning of the death of a far more famous curvaceous beauty: Marilyn Monroe.

"That woman's a stranger," he tells Joan.

"A lot of people felt they knew her," Joan replies. "You should be sensitive to that."

The exchange captures one of the many paradoxes underlying the mystique of Marilyn – a stranger who many felt they knew, or in Joan's case, saw in themselves. The scene, set very much in the moment yet written with the benefit of hindsight, underscores the enduring allure of Monroe, whose death 50 years ago this weekend ushered in the modern era of mourning fallen celebrities.

Sure, the Joan Holloways of the time had the benefit of watching Monroe explode onto the movie scene with unprecedented raw sexuality spilling out of her dress on a screen barely big enough to contain her. "It's just like Jell-O on springs!" Jack Lemmon's cross-dressing character in "Some Like it Hot" lustily gushes when he gets his first glimpse, from behind, of Monroe's greatest cinematic creation, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk.

For the many of us too young to remember Monroe alive, she's been preserved in death – not only in movies and photos, but in a see-through cocoon of sadness and intrigue that’s fascinated and influenced legions, from Madonna to “Smash.”

Monroe oozed sensuality and vulnerability. She became the first major starlet to expose herself, in the pages of Playboy. Yet the woman born Norma Jean Baker was in many ways unknowable, as Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller and others who tried to get close to her learned.
She played the dumb-blonde role to the hilt, yet harbored an intelligence and drive that couldn't overcome typecasting and the powerful men who used her. Some couldn’t see past the looks of the woman whose perhaps most famous moment was having a blast of subway steam blow up her skirt in "The Seven Year Itch." But she was a strong comic actress who melded fun and sex in a singing voice that rivaled that of Mae West as she declared "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" and writhed her way through crooning "Happy Birthday" to a handsome young president.

She exposed her troubled soul for all to see, but no one, least of all herself, could save her. Monroe died at 36, her career on the wane, before the time of Mrs. Robinson and all the cougars to come. If she somehow had survived her travails and was still with us, she’d be 86  – old enough to be Betty White's baby sister.

Monroe was born just weeks before silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino became the first major movie star to die young and suddenly, spurring hysteria. Just under three decades later, the death of James Dean, the brooding young actor who’d shot to superstardom with three hit movies in barely a year, ignited a cult of sorrow for what might have been.
But Monroe’s death, rife with tragedy and ongoing mystery, was built for the television age – and built to last into our current Internet-fed celebrity news obsession.
Her death presaged the outpouring of emotion and questions surrounding the demises of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. The three, with the passage of time, are in danger of becoming better remembered for the circumstances of their deaths rather than the talent that made them stars. To different extents, we’ve seen their images exploited until the mutating iconography becomes almost unrecognizable to those admired them as entertainers.
The strength of the “Mad Men” scene rests in Joan’s fear that she will die alone, like her beloved Marilyn. "One day you'll lose someone who's important to you,” Joan tells Roger. “You'll see. It's very painful."
We suspect Joan also fears she and Marilyn be forgotten – something that time has proven impossible. The best way to remember Monroe is through the movies she left us. Starting Saturday at 6 a.m., TCM is broadcasting a marathon of a dozen Monroe flicks – including must-sees “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like it Hot.” Check out the trailer from “Some Like it Hot” below for a taste of the memorable Sugar Kane – and the unforgettable Marilyn Monroe:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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