Bloomingdale's is about to replace the "Valley Girls" boutiques in a dozen of its stores with "Remember Marilyn" departments: first nympholepsy, now necrophilia. Poor Marilyn! By now the ghouls surely must have gnawed those lovely bones to dust.
Heaven knows the memory of Marilyn Monroe has been exploited in many crass, unfeeling ways, but somehow this seems the cruelest, most tasteless cut of all. Bloomingdale's caters to people who should know better: the wealthy, the educated, the prominent, the sophisticated. These are people who, were there anything cultured about our culture, would be expected to recoil at the mere notion of wrapping themselves in finery that recalls a beautiful woman who died a sad, lonely death after leading a sad, desperate life.
Instead they can be expected to flock in great, glittering numbers to the "Remember Marilyn" boutiques. These have been made possible through the collaborative efforts of Bloomingdale's and a person named Roger Richman, whose firm, according to United Press International, "owns the licensing rights to the names and images of a number of dead movie stars." At "Remember Marilyn," according to Richman, the Beautiful People will be able to purchase "a variety of ready-to-wear, accessory and giftware items emphasizing the trends of the '50s." For $6,000--this in a year of double-digit unemployment--they will be able to enhance their life styles with a Marilyn doll "adorned," Richman informs us, "with a full-length sable coat and diamond and gold jewelry." The less fortunate among them will be able to purchase no-frills, generic dolls for $450 or $75.
It can only be hoped--but not expected--that this will prove to be the final chapter in the long, sordid story of necrophilia that has unfolded since Monroe's death more than two decades ago. No figure in our popular or political history has been subjected to anything quite like it. There was much grieving and ostentatious lamentation after the death of Rudolph Valentino, but the furor was the creation of clever press agents and it faded soon after his flamboyant funeral. Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Henry Fonda--like other stars who lived long, full lives--were mourned but allowed to rest in peace, without benefit of small industries devoted to the exploitation of our affection for them. Though there were indeed those who capitalized on the national horror over the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., the emotions that they exploited for profit were devotion and reverence.
The emotions stirred by memories of Marilyn Monroe are quite different. Only two other figures have been the objects of similarly necrophilic cults, and it is most significant that they are James Dean and Elvis Presley. Part of the morbid attraction they hold for us lies, no doubt, in the prematurity of their deaths; our hearts cannot fail to be touched, in A.E. Housman's words, by "the lads that will die in their glory and never be old." But the real attraction that we feel for Dean, Presley and Monroe is, as is implicit in the word "necrophilia," sexual; when they were alive their primary--indeed perhaps their only--appeal to us was sexual, and their deaths grant us a license to exploit this appeal that we could not have exercised when they were alive.
Consider, for example, the publication last fall of a book called "The Last Sitting," by a photographer named Bert Stern. It consists in large part of pictures that Stern took of Monroe six weeks before her death. What is notable about these photographs is not their quality, which to the untutored eye is negligible, but the titillation they provide: in many of them Monroe appears in the nude. It is impossible to believe that, had she not committed suicide, Monroe would have permitted their publication in 1962; but two decades later we are free--unrestrained by good taste or respect for the dead--to gaze at her as we had always desired, to bring the fantasies she inspired that much closer to fulfillment. That the design and production of "The Last Sitting" are in the very best of taste cannot disguise the essential truth: it is a wish book for necrophiles, with the price for the pleasure set at $29.50.
But Bert Stern is no worse than the others who have traded, in one way or another, on the allure that Monroe still holds for us: the other photographers who have found, in their bins of decaying negatives, old and previously unpublished pictures they once took of her; the producers of films and television shows based on her life; the writers and editors of magazines and books about her; the attorneys and journalists who attempt to restir our curiosity about her "relationship" with the Kennedys and/or the circumstances of her death. The excesses committed in exploitation of the lives of Dean and Presley pale in comparison with these.
Certainly Stern's volume, however offensive, is no more so than the two books whipped up by Norman Mailer--who, like those who patronize Bloomingdale's, should know better. His 1973 pictures-and-text production, "Marilyn," which celebrated her as "the sweet angel of sex . . . a very Stradivarius of sex," was bad enough, but seven years later he went himself one better. In "Of Women and Their Elegance," a truly contemptible piece of business, he presumed to write her life story in her own voice, offering only the lame disclaimer that "this book . . . does not pretend to offer factual representations and in no way wishes to suggest that these are the actual thoughts of Miss Monroe." Thus cleansed by his own hand, he gave himself free rein to fantasize.
Though both of Mailer's books were represented as serious works, they are merely frivolous and tawdry. Indeed, the vast Monroe literature contains almost nothing that can be described as "serious." One notable exception is the play, "After the Fall," written by her former husband, Arthur Miller, and produced a year after her death; it is a clumsy enterprise, but the grief and bewilderment that motivated Miller are almost palpable and give the play a genuine dignity. Another exception is the novel, "The Missing Person," by Doris Grumbach, published two years ago; drawn from the Monroe legend, it is a thoughtful meditation upon the gulf between the illusion presented by an image on film and the actuality of the person who presents it.
These works attempt to understand Monroe and what she meant to us; almost all the others attempt merely to exploit her and the intense desires she still arouses--the desire of men to possess her, of women to emulate her. And now we can do it all. Men can take their $6,000 Marilyn dolls to bed; women can garb themselves in Monrovian "ready-to-wear." And that poor woman, haunted and haunting, lies in her grave, wantonly violated.