The Genteel
April 16, 2021


(Image courtesy of TASCHEN Books)

Art book publisher TASCHEN recently released a new collector's edition book on Marilyn Monroe, featuring the original text from Norman Mailer's 1973 biography and accompanied by Bert Stern's photographs, some of which were taken just six weeks before Monroe's death.  

The 278 page tome, simply entitled "Norman Mailer, Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe" initially seems promising. A coffee table book the size of a small coffee table itself, it is selling briskly, despite the 750 Euro price tag (the editions signed by Stern, selling for 1,500 Euro, have apparently sold out). Many of the photos, some of them the last ones ever taken of the actress, are quite beautiful, presenting a nude Monroe veiled in a diaphanous pink scarf; Marilyn cheekily playing dress up as Jackie O; or playfully hiding her breasts with cabbage roses. Yet closer inspection of the book is quite disturbing, and reveals a dated attitude towards women that would never be permitted today.

  Mailer's blatantly sexist approach to his subject makes this more a period piece in misogyny than a biography of a much loved icon.

Mailer writes a second person narrative as though he were Monroe's closest friend and confidante. He reveals her most intimate thoughts, impressions, desires, preferences, reactions, wishes and dreads. And yet he never even met the woman. In fact, the "profound insight into an enigmatic icon" that Mailer offers here is loosely based on discussions with those who knew Monroe, but more often than not, is simply stuff he assumes or makes up - and much of it would be more at home in the pages of Penthouse Forum than a biography of an actress. Take this passage, for example:

"She returns to what she knows - the still camera...Irrepressibly, she whispers in the ear of the man who looks at the photo, 'You can fuck me if you're lucky, Mr Sugar.'"

Or this one:

"As trains go's so hot in the city she presumably loves the rush of air on her thighs. She plays it with innocent delight, a strapping blonde with a white skirt blown out like a spinnaker above her waist...comedy resides in how one close can come to the concept of hot pussy while living in the cool of the innocent."

Or this account, based purely on rather malicious gossip, of what Monroe said, after signing a major studio contract:

"Well, that's the last cock I suck!"

(Image courtesy of TASCHEN Books)

Mailer was well known for his swaggering prose and sexism, but in objectifying Monroe, photographer Bert Stern is also a guilty party. As he recalls his shoot of the actress for Vogue, he says "Now she was really getting turned on. I could see it; I could feel it..." The way the two men were overwhelmed by their own construction of Monroe as fantasy sex object is made even more apparent with their denial of her evident depression and unhappiness: "I never saw her cry," Stern said. "I didn't see her as a sad figure at all. She had her problems but who doesn't? She didn't seem at all unhappy to me." Commenting on Monroe's confession of sadness that she never had a family, he rather insensitively remarked: "This whole thing about her feeling she has to get married and have children and be normal and well adjusted - I blame it on psychoanalysis."

Ironically, this book made me understand her depression and apparent suicide all the more. After all, if the two men who made this book treated her this way, what must her daily life had been like?  

In short, the book reveals far more about the men who made it than it does the actress, and Mailer's blatantly sexist approach to his subject makes this more a period piece in misogyny than a biography of a much loved icon. Given all the available material on Monroe, this is a shame and a missed opportunity - TASCHEN could have done a lot better than to have chosen the text they did for this weighty hardback.

Of his ex-wife, Arthur Miller once wrote: "She was chewed up and spat out by a long line of grinning men, her name floating in the stench of locker rooms and parlor-car cigar smoke." More than anything, "Norman Mailer, Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe" shows that Stern and Mailer were just two more men in that long line.



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