“When I was five I think, that’s when I started wanting to be an actress. I loved to play. I didn’t like the world around me because it was kind of grim, but I loved to play house. It was like you could make your own boundaries… When I heard that this was acting, I said that’s what I want to be… Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I’d sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.” Marilyn Monroe in an interview for Life in 1962
As an actual child, rather than an onscreen reimagining of one, Monroe had not found protection from those who were most obliged to provide it. Born in Los Angeles in 1926, to a mother who was mentally unstable and ill-equiped to care for her, Marilyn Monroe or Norma Jeane Mortensen, as she was then called, spent most of her childhood in a series of foster homes. Later, she said she’d been sexually abused.
She was married at 16, to the son of neighbor, and was divorced for the first time at 19. The hardships of her upbringing are thought to have contributed to her onscreen power. Her beauty was animated by a neediness that commanded attention. In his memoir, Timebends (Penguin), playwright Arthur Miller said of Marilyn, his wife of four and a half years, that she was “the saddest girl I’ve even known.”
The sadness of Monroe’s life predominates. The images from the Bert Stern nude shoot, which might have been a kittenish footnote in a longer career, now have the status of a tragic valediction, having been shot six weeks before her death.
It is a curious function of celebrity culture that Monroe is now better known for the still images of her than she is for any of the movies she appeared in. She’s instantly recognizable to generations who have never even seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Some Like It Hot.
As such, she presents a stilled images of impending tragedy; her dynamism and her kinetic energy are lost (as is the much) lampooned sway of her lips. (“There’s a broad with her future behind her,” the actress Constance Bennet reputedly remarked.)
The literary critic Diana Trilling wrote in an essay published not long after Monroe’s death that to see her in a photo, rather than in a moving image, was to see her diminished, “since no still picture could quite catch her electric quality.” It was that motion and aliveness that powered Marilyn Monroe‘s beauty – and that helps explain why, although it has been stilled for 50 years, her beauty retains the power to move us today.