New Review: Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern/Norman Mailer



Since Taschen’s beautiful new publication threw itself into Lucy Holden’s arms she has been in love with Marilyn Monroe. Here’s why. 

Making people fall in love with her was something Marilyn was very good at. She wore famous admirers like a string of pearls around her neck; Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, Marlon Brando, John, and Robert, Kennedy. When Marilyn first walked into Bert Stern’s studio for the shoot that would make his career, he forgot he was married, and the late Norman Mailer, controversial provocateur that he was, man of six marriages who stabbed one spouse with a penknife, drooled over an appearance he stated had stepped straight out of a chocolate box for Valentine’s Day.

Mailer’s infatuation was to drive an impassioned tribute: Marilyn: A Biography, written without ever having heard the tinkle of Marilyn’s voice in person, Mailer’s words, teemed with the exposing portraits Bert Stern took on a June shoot in early 1960s LA for Vogue with nothing but expert lighting, a flock of colourful scarves and a case of Dom Perignon 1953, are what make up this inspired publication. Stern wanted pure Marilyn; real Marilyn, and was hungry for that iconic shot. He got it. In fact he took 2500 pictures over several weekends and five weeks later she died alone in her bedroom, just a few miles from the hotel she’d been posing in.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s forever-mourned death, and her own words: ‘I knew I belonged to the world, not because I was talented, or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else’  dedicate her image, her photographs, her body to the public in another desperate attempt to be wanted, kept.

By becoming a sex-symbol, Marilyn became a ‘thing’; accepted ownership, control, the desires of others, and was coveted so because she appeared doll-like, childish, something you could form your own desires around. Everybody believed she was perfect for them and for them alone: international appeal. The ambiguous nature of her depression provided the fascination and the longing to have her, protect her. Every man thought they could alter her detachment, remove the blank deadness from behind those give-away eyes; ‘for an actor lives with the lie as if it were a truth’.

In Stern’s portraits he captures her dangling a dark fur-coat away from her pale, nude body like a matador tempting a bull; in others she pours shiny strings of orange and yellow beads dangerously close to her throat. In some she looks a perfect sex-symbol; curvaceous, care-free, you can sense the tingle of Stern’s desire; then with a moody flutter of long, dark eyelashes the enchantment slips, she’s bored, cold, disinterested.

These are the many faces of Marilyn Monroe, put together they provide the most tantalizing and thought-provoking representation of Marilyn yet. Underneath the front and disguise of glamour is a dark history that mocks its own pretence. For Marilyn the pretence was unfortunately too closely linked to her survival, her sanity, it could not be maintained. She was buried alive, ten feet underwater and as Mailer concludes: ‘to be buried alive is insanity’.





Marilyn Monroe by Norman Mailer/Bert Stern is available from Taschen, priced £44.99



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