5 People Who Actually Had Something Interesting to Say About Marilyn Monroe

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HBO is airing a documentary called Love, Marilyn, where celebrities ranging from Lindsay Lohan to Glenn Close (!) revisit the effect that Marilyn Monroe had on them.

Now, like you, I am a great custodian of pop culture history and want to enjoy such a love letter to the past, but something about this project annoys me. I’ve always felt that people aren’t nearly as obsessed with Marilyn Monroe as they are with what they think of Marilyn Monroe. It’s like people want to hear the words, “She was so beautiful, yet tragic, yet unknowable” tumble off their tongues. They love the mouthfeel of it. They think those words describe something, and they love condescendingly showering awe on the listless, tragic actress who still represents some mystical, feminine ideal in entertainment.

Why don’t we ever hear anyone say, “Marilyn takes an amazing photo, but she was hit-or-miss as an actress”? Instead, such dismissiveness is aimed at people like Madonna, who has actively conquered so much misogyny and lived to be richer and more powerful than all of her contemporaries. But because Shanghai Surprise and Swept Away suck, and she’s really buff, she’s routinely derided as either talentless or embarrassing. In 2013, condescension is still the most acceptable lens through which to perceive famous women, and in the case of a felled icon like Marilyn Monroe, condescension is somehow mistaken for understanding.

This isn’t to say people are always glib about the actress. Here are five people who are on the record about Marilyn, and we’re all the more illuminated for it.

1. Joe DiMaggio’s post-breakup appraisal.

“It’s no fun being married to an electric light.”

2. Shelley Winters reflects on the shyness of her ex-roommmate.

“She’d come out of our apartment in a shleppy old coat, looking like my maid, and all the people would push her aside to get my autograph. She loved it.”

3. Jane Fonda on running into Marilyn at parties.

“I was very, very drawn to her. To me, she was like a golden child. She radiated light and vulnerability. She used to gravitate to me at parties because she knew I was not very secure either. She was fragile. I was very touched by her.”

4. Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) on Marilyn’s power.

“I think Marilyn is bound to make an almost overwhelming impression on the people who meet her for the first time. It is not that she is pretty, although she is of course almost incredibly pretty, but she radiates, at the same time, unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence. I have met the same in a lion-cub, which my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her, since I felt that it would in some way be wrong…I shall never forget the almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed. I had all the wild nature of Africa amicably gazing at me with mighty playfulness.”

(OK. When Isak Dinesen, the woman who gave us Out of Africa, says that you conjure the power of African wildlife by being yourself, you’re doing something right.)

5. Gloria Steinem on Marilyn’s downfall.

“She was a child-woman who was trying to grow up but was rewarded for being a child. She was trying to play serious roles, but wasn’t allowed to be. She was trying to get her identity through a man as we were then taught to do… to marry whoever it is we wanted to become. An American hero in her case, Joe DiMaggio. A serious person, Arthur Miller. And so on. I mean, she was trying to come to terms with that person inside herself, as we all are, I think. And had the [feminist] movement been around to let her know — movement just means people moving — I mean, I don’t mean in any formal sense, but women telling the truth. Perhaps she might not have felt so alone.”

Any other fabulous quotes about Marilyn you remember?

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