Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage

There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was.

Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

The Touchables

The folks who proved that they had made their mark in Hollywood by leaving it in the cement slabs in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre had one thing in common. Besides having the stature of a movie star or Tinseltown personality, I mean. They could all stand up, bend down, and exert whatever pressure is required to produce those imprints. Even Charlie McCarthy, apparently. I always thought that it might please the supposed untouchables to be commemorated in a medium that is not as telltale about our inescapable senescence as a photograph or moving image. Many of us can stand up far longer than we can stand looking in the mirror.

Then again, the moving hands of time are readable in our footprints. Shirley Temple’s tiny imprint reminds us that, on 14 March 1935, she was at the height of a career that diminished as she increased in size. Still, the prints are meant to bespeak immortality. We don’t get to see the tracks of Christopher Reeve’s wheelchair, for instance. Nor is Zsa Zsa likely to be given the honor now to join those ladies in cement. These prints are all solid, no matter how much the concrete crumbles. The stars have bodies—and they are able and sound . . .

There is something reassuring in that solidity—if it weren’t for those cracks, and the puzzled looks I come across in the crowd gathered here to take pictures, mainly of themselves in front of a Hollywood landmark. Who was Rudy “My Time Is Your Time” Vallee, anyway? Norma Talmadge, who’s she? What were the Ritz Brothers all about? And who was that Sid fellow for whom they left those cryptic messages?

I got the space to myself as I have my picture taken with Marion Davies’s dainty indentations (dated 1929), my palm covering the hollow. No one is likely to pull a Lucy now; the Duke is still standing. Most walk right past—no, over—Ezio Pinza, whose block of concrete has become a mere steppingstone. Not a soul stoops to Monty Woolley. He’s the actor to whom my dog owes his name (I’m telling no one). I, too, I am out of touch.

There is one imprint, though, that keeps impressing after nearly sixty years. You can tell from the grime in the handprints of Marilyn Monroe just how many visitors have bowed down to approximate her posture, crouching over to show that they still look up to her. Screen partner Jane Russell’s palms are eloquently untainted by comparison. Marilyn—and we call her by her first name in recognition of her vulnerability—would be dead within ten years after being immortalized at Grauman’s. Our reaching out to her now is a belated, selfish gesture. You can’t expect rectitude from a crowd bent on lowering themselves for a photo opportunity. Remaining upright here means to be indifferent.

“Wipe your mucky paws,” I want to cry out. Yet these cultural touchstones are unlike other memorials to the untouchables. Here, we touch what we deem worth preserving. We bestow genuine stature with our own hands. We grasp at the chance to grease the Hollywood machine with our grubby palms, to fashion destinies with our filthy fingers. Since greatness does not rub off, most of us leave little more than a smudge. There is humanity in the residue of perspiration.

Many Happy Reruns: Marilyn Monroe at Eighty

I have been accused, at times, of exaggerating matters; but this just about proves it: radio, as a storytelling medium, is dead. I’ve conducted searches on Google and Technorati this morning, using the keywords Gelbart and Abrogate. The result: only 28 mentions in well over 40 million blogs! And no more than 444 via Google, the first entry of which refers searchers to broadcastellan. Considering that thousands of web journals are devoted to American politics and thousands more to the media in general, the lack of publicity a broadcast satire about the Bush administration has been receiving is remarkable.

I am referring, of course, to M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart’s “Abrogate,” a recording of which is still available on the BBC homepage. Had Barbara Bush been levitating on television (as she is in Gelbart’s utopia), had her son been denounced as the spawn of Satan (as he is in the fictive senate hearing of “Abrogate”), had Condoleezza Rice, Lynn Cheney and Ms. Bush been likened to the three hags in Macbeth (an image suggested by the radio play), there sure would have been some noise about it.

Radio used to popularize products and people, plays and personalities; now it appears to be the black hole of the multi-media universe. A few weeks ago, I recalled how Marilyn Monroe was being sent on the air to promote her studio, Fox, which had so little use for the young contract player during the late 1940s. She got flustered and faltered, delivering her few lines with less than confidence.

Her radio debut on 24 February 1947 (previously discussed here) was less than auspicious. The play presented that night on the Lux Radio Theatre was an adaptation of the costume drama Kitty. Marilyn was not in it, but was heard instead during a commercial break, peddling soap and plugging the latest film of Betty Grable, her future co-star. She had just been subjected to her first Technicolor screen test, but would remain limited to walk-ons in lesser black and white fare for years to come.

Such rare broadcasts reveal something about the personality of a performer that can be obscured on the screen. On live radio, unlike in the movies, there were no second (or twenty-second) takes. There was the microphone, demanding and daunting. There was the crowd of spectators, gawking at the performers in the studio. And there was Monroe, a nervous young woman, not yet twenty-one, clutching the script she had been instructed to read.

Monroe would have become an octogenarian today; not a pretty picture, perhaps—at least to those who see the aging process as a series of cumulative imperfections. How would the girl formerly known as Norma Jean have matured as a performer? Were she alive and among us now, would she be appearing in television dramas? Would she be discussing her latest autobiography with Larry King? Or would she be hiding from prying eyes, living in seclusion and hoping instead to be recalled as young as she was when Fox finally revealed her charms in Technicolor and Cinemascope? Given Western culture’s obsession with youth, she might now be embracing the microphone she once feared.

Recalling her not as she was or was made out to be, but calling her forth as she is to me, I am going to close my eyes now and listen to Marilyn as she returned to radio on 13 December 1952, with somewhat more assurance and considerably more box-office draw. By then she was being romanced by Charlie McCarthy, the first voice thrown into a ring littered with neglected hats.

Going on the air with Edgar Bergen’s wooden friend was risky business, considering what that chip of a chap had done to the broadcasting career of Mae West (as reported here). Not satisfied with fantasizing about her, Charlie was determined to woe and wed her, taking her home on behalf of us. Theirs was a short-lived engagement. Mine is a lasting passion . . .