Best-selling British author Michelle Morgan is one of the world’s foremost experts on Marilyn Monroe. She literally wrote the book on Monroe (five times, in fact) and her latest title –The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist – focuses on two years that were particularly empowering in Monroe’s life. The book details how the 1955 romantic comedy, The Seven Year Itch, sent the star on an adventure of self-discovery and transformation. I chatted with the UK-based biographer to share her insights on Marilyn Monroe including why the Hollywood movie star remains relevant today, if she was really a feminist and how, despite many struggles, her legacy lives on.
The Girl is the name of Marilyn’s character in The Seven Year Itch, arguably the most iconic movie of her career with her white dress blowing over the subway grate. Why did you choose to focus on this specific time period of Monroe’s life?
It was my editor’s idea, because she wanted to do a book about how The Seven Year Itch was an influential film that still inspires millions of people. I loved that idea, so we talked and decided to broaden it to include how the film inspired Marilyn and how that period of time became her most powerful and influential. Strangely, Marilyn’s time in New York and also her early modeling career have been two of my favorite periods of her life. Several years ago I was given the opportunity of writing about her modeling days, and now I’ve done the New York period, too. I’m really thrilled to have written about both.
In this book, you delve into several milestones in Marilyn’s life. Let’s start with the end of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio and subsequent relationship with Arthur Miller. How did that change her and signal a new era for her?
I think by the time she divorced DiMaggio, Marilyn was anxious for freedom from her controlling husband and the constraints forced upon her by Twentieth Century Fox. She felt empowered by her fights with the studio and winning the role of The Girl in Itch, and that gave her the inner confidence to team up with Milton Greene and create her own film company. Education was always important and being in New York enabled her to forget about being a star and concentrate on learning her craft at the Actors Studio. The arrival of Arthur Miller, and his assurance that he took her creative dreams seriously, cemented Marilyn’s idea that she had made all the right decisions.
During this time period, she also legally changed her name from Norma Jeane Mortenson to Marilyn Monroe. Why is this important?
Marilyn was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, but her mother decided to change that to Baker shortly after she was born. Marilyn had been known by her stage name since 1946 and I think it is greatly significant that she decided to legally change it during her New York years. In my opinion, she was divorcing herself from her past and embracing a new, exciting future.
Many people still don’t realize that Marilyn started her own production company, which was something that not very women did at the time. Was she was a bit of trailblazer in that regard?
Definitely! I talk about this quite a lot in the book. I discovered that while there were some influential female filmmakers in the 1920s and 1930s, after the war the idea of a woman director or producer became almost obsolete. By the mid-1950s society was obsessed with women as homemakers, so the idea that Marilyn would want to buck against that and become a producer instead, made many people uncomfortable. They laughed and wrote really sarcastic, offensive articles about her. But in spite of that, Marilyn kept moving forward. She never let their remarks hinder her progress, and that makes her a huge trailblazer in my eyes.
Marilyn studied with Lee and Paula Strasberg of the Actors Studio during this time in her life as well. What lasting effect did this have on her?
Marilyn loved her work at the Actors Studio and she continued to attend classes whenever she could, right up to the end of her life. It had a tremendous impact on her. Some would say there were negative aspects of this association, due to her reliance on Paula Strasberg as an acting coach on the set of her movies. I would say that at the beginning at least, the family gave her confidence to believe in herself as a serious actress. I think the two films that came directly after her initial training at the Actors Studio – Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl – were two of her best performances. Bus Stop blows me away and makes me cry, every single time.
Some would argue it’s quite a stretch to call Marilyn Monroe a feminist, especially since she capitalized on the blonde bombshell stereotype (or fantasy). What do you say to that?
The people who would argue that are probably the same folk who would say Madonna is not a feminist either. To me, feminism is about empowerment. To be in control of your own life and go after the things you believe in – despite your gender – is feminism. Marilyn did have a blonde bombshell image, but how she looked is irrelevant to her fight. She fought for every single thing she achieved, and demanded respect. That is feminism.
Although her sex appeal was what got her noticed and catapulted her into stardom, Marilyn Monroe ardently fought against the stereotype of being a dumb blonde. She was a voracious reader and kept up on world affairs and such. What else might surprise us about Marilyn’s more scholarly pursuits?
There is so much! Marilyn studied constantly. She also loved reading and writing poetry and she painted pictures. Bill Pursel – Marilyn’s boyfriend when she was 20 years old – told me that she was obsessed with Carl Sandburg, even at such a young age. She later became friends with him and enjoyed literary conversations. The same goes for British poet Dame Edith Sitwell. She was the sort of person that most would not associate as being a fan, but Edith loved Marilyn. Intellectuals really enjoyed being in Marilyn’s company and that was because she was so well-read and knowledgeable about many different subjects.
Your book focuses on Marilyn’s career achievements and personal transformation as a woman. What do you think Marilyn would say about the current climate of growing female empowerment and expression?
I think she would probably say, “Thank God! At last!”
As someone who has researched and written about Marilyn Monroe for decades, what do you know for sure about who she was?
She was a human being. So many people fail to realize that. They see her as an image on the screen or in a photograph – a two-dimensional character with no real personality or soul. She was as real as you, or I, or the person down the street. She was made of flesh and bones and people should remember that.
What do you think accounts for Marilyn Monroe’s timelessness and the world’s undying fascination with her?
I think people are fascinated by Marilyn for many different reasons. Some are attracted by her films, others by her glamour. Many are inspired greatly by her strength, her studies into acting and her modern outlook on life. She is many things to many people. Her forward-thinking attitude is one of the reasons why she’s so timeless. Many of the subjects she was interested in are still relevant today.
And finally, if she could magically come back to life and you could ask her one question, what would it be?
After writing five books about her, my question for Marilyn would be, “Are you happy with what I’ve written so far?”
Get your copy of the The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist
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