Consider the Blonde. In the context of American beauty, specifically Hollywood beauty, the Blonde has always laid claim to the uppermost tier in the hierarchy, its fabled mystique perpetually holding sway, if only because the misguided perception of eternal youth it summons is the sole grist for the myth mill of Absolute Celebrity, and never mind the connotations of dimness and cruelty that go with the hair. Blondes, dumb or not, not only have more shelf life, but they do have more fun in the eyes of the world, more so in its far-out post-colonial Third World corners where blondes do not exist without liberal amounts of hair dye and therefore gain a sense of the exotic, of the ungraspable. And Old Hollywood had its own deep bench of Blondes, from Jean Harlow to Mae West to Veronica Lake to Marlene Dietrich to Jayne Mansfield to Hitchcock’s own little mini-pantheon, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh and Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren, whom he collectively described to Francois Truffaut, in that epic interview book of theirs, as “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” 

None, though, had quite the singular ferocity of presence Marilyn Monroe had, what Billy Wilder called that “certain indefinable magic”. And , as it is with any star of similarly iconic charge, the James Deans and Bruce Lees, that is often enough. You can, of course, mine just the bookends of her short career and strike enough ore to justify the way she embodies the icon of the Hollywood Blonde. Her first role, in John Huston’s terse heist thriller The Asphalt Jungle, may have been tiny but it nearly upset the film’s balance of predominantly male energies. Her last , as a wayward divorcee in Arthur Miller’s misunderstood Western The Misfits  (see picture), was shot while she was in the ballistic throes of her raging addictions, mostly to alcohol and barbiturates, looking a little filled out and more than a little lived-in. And yet, even as the glare of her impossible prettiness had significantly weakened to expose some of her damage and most of her vulnerabilities, there she was still, at her most beautiful. You can make a case for the rest of her work as an actress, really, something that’s been undervalued and overlooked in the immense shadow of her fame.

Only Marilyn died a year after The Misfits came out, in 1962. And the icon she had become has since grown so colossal and so distant, so pervasive and so co-opted into the pop cultural parlance, that it’s been leeched of meaning, of nuance , of anything to do with who she really was or even what she really did, fetishized so thoroughly as to verge almost on caricature, on anachronism. Sure, everybody knows that shot of her standing over a subway grate with her white dress billowing, but how many have actually sat through Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch let alone know that’s where the scene came from? And yes, everybody remembers she sang Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend but are we remembering Madonna paying hommage in her Material Girl video or the original number from Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? This is what happens when stars get supernova-bright that they eclipse themselves.

Everybody recognizes Marilyn. But which Marilyn do they recognize? The little orphan who got bounced from foster home to foster home? The feisty ingénue who took it upon herself to rescue the dumb blonde from its stereotype by refusing to play any? The sex symbol who not only challenged whatever prudish conceits about sexuality prevailed in her time but turned them on their heads? The country girl who made her fallibility a facet of her persona? The global superstar inevitably beset and eventually damaged by the usual confluence of demons that come with being famous? The sultry temptress? The ditzy comedienne? The fashion icon? The brand? Because that’s what Marilyn has always been, at the height of her career and decades into the commodification of her myth. A brand that represented, superficially, an over-romanticized ideal of glamour, but also and ultimately empowerment and self-worth.

JFK was apparently the last person Marilyn called before her fatal overdose. And rumors that she was put to death, some say by Kennedy minions, some say by the mob, have always swirled around her death. Outrageous as the conspiracy theories tend to get, they do have a darkly poetic tingle to them, as if she were this fire who had raged too wildly and had to be snuffed. Whether it was assassination or accident or whether it was self-inflicted, her claim to the icon was sealed on that August day. Just as dying her brown hair blonde was a canny way to spin her career into motion, dying in the heat of her moment was an unwittingly canny way to end it, ceding her the one thing any of Hollywood Blondes never had: relief from obsolescence and with it, immortality.

*Originally published in Vault.

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