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Candle in the wind: Marilyn turns 96

OPINION by Bob Wisener | June 5, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

She has been gone from us longer than she lived, a blonde beauty called by Norman Mailer, a latter-day American wordsmith who was married six times, our "sweet angel of sex."

Marilyn Monroe was famously late on studio sets -- even at Madison Square Garden the night she sang "Happy Birthday" to the president of the United States. Propelled to stardom by a photo display in Hugh Hefner's magazine for men, she said once, "I've been on the cover of Playboy, but I've never been on Time."

Whether she took her life or others hastened her demise, the woman known simply as Marilyn (like Elvis and Diana) left us much too soon. She was 36 when found dead in the bedroom of her suburban Hollywood apartment in the first week of August 1962. In what remains a controversial verdict, it was ruled a drug overdose.

She had recently been fired from a movie ("Something's Got to Give") co-starring Dean Martin, another who did things his own way and told studio executives he would not continue on the picture without Marilyn.

With the Hollywood that created her in disarray, we can only speculate what career turns lay before her. Unreliable on the set, she might have been passed over for fresher faces with lesser contracts for the dumb-blonde roles that categorized her stardom. But it is an insult to her memory to suggest that Marilyn was no better actress than Jayne Mansfield or Mamie Van Doren, other contemporary female leads. (Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, in his 1994 magnum opus "Pulp Fiction," has Monroe and Van Doren likenesses working at a Hollywood restaurant where Ed Sullivan is the maitre'd and Buddy Holly is a waiter. John Travolta, lunching with Uma Thurman, looks for Mansfield and says, "It must be her night off.")

Monroe, who would have been 96 Wednesday, haunts us still, especially those of a certain age. She is the subject of more than a hundred books, many dwelling on her last days and whom see was seeing at the time. Like Jean Harlow, another ravishing blonde who died young, Monroe has been the subject of untold documentaries, all (like Harlow's) with an unhappy ending.

It might surprise you that at the peak of her stardom, she made more and better movies than one might think. She dominates the screen in her only scene from "All About Eve" and won a Golden Globe Award for "Some Like It Hot," playing Sugar Kane, a member of an all-female band that she and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress voluptuously.

To the end, she captivated the public. Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift tear up the screen in "The Misfits," a 1961 release set in the outdoors but called an "anti-Western." Holding her own in a cast of superstars including Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter, Monroe parodies herself under John Huston's direction from a screenplay by her third husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. The movie's last lines belong in a time capsule: Monroe, riding in a truck with Gable, asks "How do you find your way back in the dark?" A weather-beaten Gable, who died soon after the movie wrapped, hugs Monroe and says, "Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it. It'll take us right home."

She had a natural gift for comedy that shone in movies of all genres. Louis Calhern, playing a crooked lawyer whose wife is bedfast upstairs, keeps her around the house in "The Asphalt Jungle," also directed by Huston and anything but a comedic picture. Before the cops arrest Calhern late in the film, she asks her aging sugar daddy, "What about my trip, Uncle Lon? Is it still on?" Calhern, whose character takes his own life, responds, "Don't worry, baby. You'll have plenty of trips."

In "All About Eve," a theater critic played by George Sanders tries to explain the difference between a waiter and a butler when her Miss Cawell (from the "Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts") asks for a drink and then thanks a producer for fetching her one. Sanders, in his Oscar-winning role as the acerbic Addison DeWitt, replies: "Well done! I can see your career rise in the east like the sun."

However dipsy her on-screen characters, Monroe did not necessarily allow life to imitate art. Some of her off-screen lines ring with truth.

• On knowing one's worth: "I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I'm out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best."

• Hollywood: "A place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul."

• A character sketch: "I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love."

Monroe, who never knew her own father, gravitated toward famous men. Her marriage to Hall of Fame baseball player Joe DiMaggio lasted only nine months, yet rumors continually persisted that the two would get back together. DiMaggio intervened for her release from a New York psychiatric hospital in 1961 lest he "take it apart brick by brick." Taking charge of Marilyn's funeral arrangements, the great DiMaggio (a Hemingway handle from "The Old Man and the Sea") excluded Frank Sinatra and the brothers Kennedy, all of whom spent time with Monroe.

She yearned to be a serious actress, and to that end worked with some of Hollywood's most esteemed directors: Laurence Olivier, Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Huston included. Midway through her career, she forsook Hollywood briefly for New York and trained under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

But for every dramatic performance like "Niagara" came a "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" that emphasized her sex appeal. Even in "Some Like It Hot," perhaps the best comedy ever made in Hollywood, she is overshadowed by Lemmon and Curtis in a movie that screen heavy George Raft made a comeback and the famous closing line went to comedian Joe E. Brown.

Had she lived long enough, she might have received an honorary Oscar for career achievement, Hollywood's way of recognizing a Cary Grant or a Barbara Stanwyck who never received an Academy Award for a single performance. Monroe was unnominated, though she surely could have been.

Perhaps Marilyn carried secrets to the grave that people in and out of government did not wish revealed. As a consort to the gossiping John F. Kennedy, she was in a position to hear, say, about any ongoing plans to eliminate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Reports indicate that on the last full weekend of her life, Monroe was held incommunicado at Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge with a guest list including Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana and actor Peter Lawford, who married one of the Kennedy sisters.

Days before the actress was found dead in August 1962, Broadway columnist Dorothy Kilgallen broke the news that Monroe was alive and well and cooking romantically with someone Kilgallen termed bigger in his field than DiMaggio in baseball. Suspicion about Monroe's death followed the discovery of her body in the bedroom of her Brentwood home. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who a year later would become the brother of an assassinated president, is said to have been in Los Angeles (where in 1968, running for president, he took a fatal bullet) on the day that Monroe died.

Kilgallen, the circumstances of whose 1965 death are as sketchy as those of Monroe's, did not rule out that the actress took what's called in the trade a self-snuff. "Her whole life was a suicide note," wrote Kilgallen, who was probing the JFK assassination when found dead in her Manhattan apartment after appearing as a panelist on TV's "What's My Line?" hours earlier.

Elton John captured the essence of Monroe's magic in his 1973 tribute "Candle in the Wind," remade after the 1997 passing of Princess Diana. "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did," John says. A love letter "from the young man in the twenty-second row who sees you as something more than sexual, more than just our Marilyn Monroe."

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