Today celebrates a few of my favorite things. First of all, June 1st has always excited me as it marks the entree to my birthday month. I can’t help it. I love birthdays. Countdown to June 18th.
Second, June 1st is Marilyn Monroe’s birthday. I feel compelled to pay homage to someone who eternally mystifies me, on what would have been her 85th birthday:
I haven’t always been a Marilyn Monroe fan. Of course I’ve acknowledged her beauty and iconic place in Hollywood history, but she never meant anything to me in a particularly special way, until my third year of college. I took all of three academic classes in my college career (yes, be jealous, hurray for conservatory education!). One of the three was an absolutely incredible philosophy class taught by Professor Kestenbaum. Oh how I loved thee. Imagine the most inspiring, kind, gentle, intelligent, whimsical man. Now imagine that he looks like Santa Claus. That was Professor Kestenbaum. Easily one of the most endearing and inspiring individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from.
On June 1st of that year, Kestenbaum wanted to share something with us. He pulled out the Boston Globe and showed us all a picture of Marilyn Monroe on the front page, commemorating her birthday. A small, inquisitive smile crept over his face as he softly said to the class, looking back and forth from the picture to us, “there really was something sort of, magnificent, about her.” Blushing like a schoolboy, he spoke to us as if he knew Marilyn personally, and yet retained a self-awareness that that feeling of familiarity mixed with awe is exactly what endeared her to the masses. Kestenbaum was a brilliant man. I was enrapt in that moment to see this academic powerhouse dumbstruck by the overpowering beauty of a woman. I guess Arthur Miller knows a thing or two about that.
We focused a great deal in that class on beauty (in a philosophical sense, not physical) and attention to a greater good. The curriculum was heavily wrapped up in metaphysics. Wittgenstein, Iris Murdoch, William James. Kestenbaum was not pointing out that, gee, Marilyn Monroe was just so gorgeous. He wanted to illuminate something deeper and utterly unique about her. Something that would explain why she has become the iconic symbol for icons themselves, for fame, for beauty. Kestenbaum remained intentionally ambiguous as to why he showed us that picture of Marilyn Monroe. He wanted us to meditate on it, and on beauty itself. Of course, in the past 6 years, I have.
Marilyn Monroe displays such yearning in all of her photos. It’s as if she reaches through the camera, trying desperately to feel someone there, but of course there is no one. In every photo she displays the desire to be loved by everyone, in conflict with the need to be cherished by just one. Would it have been possible for someone who so freely belonged to everyone, to belong to anyone? It’s difficult to put into words how Kestenbaum’s mini demonstration struck me that day. I just remember seeing Marilyn Monroe as if for the first time. A light bulb went off and I thought, there is something truly breathtaking about her, having to do with more than just the way she looks. What does it take to give yourself over to a camera like that? Utter narcissism? Pure selflesslessness? At some point do the two become indistinguishable? Call it photogenic, call it natural ability, call it what you will. I think there is something quite transcendent about Miss Monroe. Think about it.
Since that day in Philosophy class I’ve read many of her biographies and seen all of her movies. For Monroe-philes out there, I hope you’ve read “Blonde” by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s an epic, gut-wrenching masterpiece. Oates is so incredibly brilliant. She is the only writer out of many to realize that the life story of the woman who most infamously represents fame and fantasy must be told through a fictional lens; and in doing so the novel becomes more honest and true than any Monroe biography available on the bookshelf. The book leaves you with such a sadness that someone at once beautiful and grotesque was snuffed out of this world. Why? There are so many answers to that question. To ensure her status as a timeless sex goddess? An icon? Perhaps as a cautionary tale against exploitation? Hollywood? Or perhaps just because a sad sick girl never accepted the love.
The third bit of excitement was that today is apparently National Running Day! Here I am writing a running blog and I get so swept up by Marilyn Monroe that I didn’t even get to the topic of running. Ah well, something to look forward to tomorrow. In the meantime, Happy Birthday Marilyn.
“I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.” -Marilyn Monroe-