A woman truly insecure | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 10, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 10, 2011

A woman truly insecure

Syed Badrul Ahsan reads of a complex character


There are certain American obsessions you cannot ignore. Take the fascination with the Kennedys, for instance. Or think of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. And then there is the other side of this fascination. Fidel Castro remains a threat for the US government, despite so many changes having taken place all across the world since the bearded Cuban revolutionary marched into Havana in 1959. Today, it is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez who worry America, especially its ruling elite. And obsession sometimes can go to ludicrous lengths in Washington. Forbes magazine has just informed us that Michelle Obama happens to be the most powerful woman in the world. Now that is surely ridiculous, given that Mrs. Obama holds no position in government nor has done anything significant on her own to justify that definition of her capabilities. She happens to share the bed of the current occupant of the White House. How then, you wonder, does she edge ahead of the likes of Angela Merkel as the most powerful woman on the planet?
America's willingness to fall for obsession goes back a long way. If you have had cause to read J. Randy Taraborrelli's rather excellent work on Marilyn Monroe, you will know why. In no other country, not even those in what we choose to think of as the western world, does Monroe hold people in such thrall as she does in her native America all these years after her death in 1962. She is still thought of as a great beauty, sometimes as a great actress (though that last bit appears to be something of an exaggeration). In this work, Taraborrelli tries drawing out the woman behind the image. He does it pretty well, even though he too occasionally falls for the old charm while reflecting on her moods and her idiosyncracies. In the end, what the writer does is to project the life and death of a woman in constant need of attention despite the all too evident failings on her part. She missed shooting deadlines; she threw tantrums on the sets and she was forever in need of a shoulder to cry on. Above all, it was sex that was an obsession with her. First it was the sportsman Joe de Maggio. Monroe stormed into marriage with him and then saw her dream of a life spent with her husband fizzle out, one reason being De Maggio's volatile nature. He even had goons, led (unbelievably!) by Frank Sinatra, barge into a room (the wrong one) in a hotel where Monroe was on a tryst with a new lover. That was after the end of her marriage to De Maggio.
You then come to the question of why Marilyn Monroe would go for the writer Arthur Miller as a lover and then husband. Like all men acutely happy at being in the company of sex symbols, Miller plunged into wedlock with Monroe, only to discover that she possessed none of the intellectual genius he perhaps had assumed she did. For her part, the actress too acknowledged her shortcomings, though it did make her happy to have the world know that with Miller it was an alliance of intellect and beauty that she had forged. The alliance was not to survive. Monroe would lurch from one affair to another, from one emotional distress to another. When her psychiatrist had her confined, through clear deception, to a sanatorium, she fell back on former husband De Maggio to get her out of the rut.
Of all the tempestuous moments in Marilyn Monroe's life, nothing has exercised a greater hold on the American imagination than her presumed links with the Kennedy brothers. Monroe was a friend of Patricia Kennedy Lawford, sister of JFK and RFK and wife of the British actor Peter Lawford. It was at her place in early 1962 that Monroe met Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel over dinner. RFK, then US attorney general, gave absolutely no hint that he had been taken in by Monroe and yet, in subsequent days and months, the actress let everyone who would listen to her know that she had had a date with the brother of the president. With the president, of course, it was different. John Kennedy was obsessed with women, more with thoughts of sex with them. He and Monroe spent a weekend in Florida, a time that Monroe would gush over repeatedly. As for the president, he surely enjoyed the carnal moments with Monroe and then simply forgot all about it. He did not, for all his cheating on Jackie, conceive of Monroe being first lady in the White House. Monroe had other ideas, of course. After Florida, she constantly called the White House asking to be put through to the president, who had meanwhile firmly told the switchboard to do no such thing. Was JFK playing safe? Or did he feel that once he had made a sexual conquest of Monroe he could move on to other women? We will never know. But we do know that in May 1962, at New York's Madison Square Garden, Marilyn Monroe, in shimmering, body-hugging dress that almost made her appear nude, sang Happy Birthday to the president. She was never to see John F. Kennedy after that. Three months later she was dead. From an overdose of barbiturates? From murder? No one will know.
Laurence Olivier, though irritated by Monroe's moods, maintained his calm on the sets as shooting went on. Clark Gable too remained indulgent. His death in 1960 sent Monroe on a paroxysm of grief. Tony Curtis would have everyone know that kissing Monroe was like kissing Hitler.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is with The Daily Star.

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