NEW YORK Only 11 years after her death, Elton John sang his ode to Marilyn Monroe. And I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid, went the lyrics. Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.
What John didnt know was how much truer his words would ring a few decades later.
Monroe passed away a half-century ago this Sunday, a murky death that remains one of Hollywoods most tantalizing mysteries. But look around: Her legend lives on, more vibrantly than ever. In a development this fiercely ambitious actress surely would have appreciated, this 1950s bombshell has become a 21st-century pop culture phenomenon.
Just flip through a celebrity magazine: Some of-the-moment young starlet or pop singer will be channeling (or outright appropriating) those platinum locks, the bright red lips, moist and slightly parted, and that joyously, almost defiantly curvy figure, sheathed in something skin-tight and glamorous.
Was that Marilyn on the red carpet at last years Teen Choice Awards? No, it was Taylor Swift, wearing a white halter-style dress just like Marilyns in The Seven Year Itch, in which the actress stood atop a subway grate and let the breeze of a passing train lift her skirts. (Oh, and that dress? It sold at auction last year for a mind-boggling $5.6 million, including commission.)
Was that Marilyn in the Dolce & Gabbana ad a while back? No, it was Scarlett Johansson, all white-blonde hair and ruby lips. And there was Charlize Theron in a Dior ad last year, meeting up with the real Marilyn, not to mention Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly, via CGI. Magazine spreads have featured Nicole Kidman, Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Michelle Williams, Viola Davis and others having their Marilyn moment.
Madonna, of course, has famously appropriated Monroes look into her image. So have singers Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani. In June, on what would have been Marilyns 86th birthday, Lady Gaga tweeted Happy Birthday Marilyn Theyll never take our blonde hair and lipstick, along with a picture of herself, Monroe-like. Nicki Minaj says shes obsessed with Marilyn Monroe.
On the big screen, actress Williams earned an Oscar nomination for her moving portrayal of Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. And one of TVs most popular new shows is Smash on NBC, which follows a Broadway musical based on Marilyns life, with two actresses competing to play her.
Heck, theres even been a giant Marilyn traversing the country: A 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound statue of the actress, white dress billowing and undies showing, by artist Seward Johnson, now resting in Palm Springs, Calif.
And there are plans for much more thanks to the purchase in late 2010 of Monroes estate, which includes her image, by Authentic Brands Group and its partner, NECA. The companys CEO, Jamie Salter, says he aims to upgrade the Marilyn brand by moving away from cheap souvenirs and developing Marilyn-themed cosmetic lines, spas and salons, sportswear, swimwear, footwear, handbags and more. There are even plans for wait for it the inevitable Marilyn Monroe reality show, in which young women would compete to become a new Hollywood icon.
But just what is the secret of Marilyns enduring appeal? It depends on whom you ask and thats fitting, really, because Marilyn, more than other iconic celebrities, was different things to different people.
There was, most simply, Marilyn the actress a Marilyn that often got lost in all the hype, despite her desperate aspirations to be taken seriously. Film historian Leonard Maltin laments that many people know Marilyn as an image and an icon, but not as an actress.
Monroe showed off her dramatic chops in The Misfits, for example, and Bus Stop. But she is probably best remembered for her delightful comic turns in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee who sang Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend in that classic pink gown; as the sensuous but ditzy Girl in The Seven Year Itch; and as sexy band singer Sugar Kane in Some Like it Hot.
Marilyn just leaps off the screen, says Maltin. She has a luminosity that transcends everything else.
Still, an entire younger generation is enamored of her for something completely different, says Brandon Holley, editor of Lucky magazine, which draws women in their 20s and 30s.
I think most women under 40 havent seen her movies, Holley says. For them, shes a style type the ultimate hourglass figure. And a lot of women identify with that.
Christopher Nickens agrees. Marilyn was the epitome of a certain kind of feminine ideal, says the co-author of the recently released Marilyn in Fashion, a rare look at Monroes influence in that field. Her key fashion legacy, he says, was to bring body-conscious clothes into everyday life.
Though she wasnt seen as a fashion icon during her lifetime, Nickens thinks Marilyn shared something with other style icons like Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. They didnt follow trends, he says. Its about knowing yourself and what works for you, and having that confidence.
Confidence isnt necessarily something one associates with Monroe, of course. In that Elton John song, Candle in the Wind, shes a beautiful innocent victimized by a terrible Hollywood machine people who whispered into your brain and set you on the treadmill and made you change your name.
That falls into a familiar victim narrative about Monroe, who was indeed victimized as a young girl, according to multiple biographers. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes, and there are allegations she suffered sexual abuse.
But a victim of Hollywood? Monroes latest biographer, Lois Banner, begs to differ. She says Monroe the movie star was a constructed image one the actress herself worked very hard to invent, from the dyed hair (Norma Jeane was a brunette), to the makeup, that breathy voice, and the famous wiggle walk.
And her dumb blonde screen image? Nothing like her, says Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. She was extremely intelligent.
But why has Marilyns appeal only gotten stronger? First of all, she died very young, says Banner, freezing her image for eternity. But another reason is the existence of thousands of photographs of Marilyn, bursting with life. Shes conceivably the most photographed person of the 20th century, says Banner. The authors third reason is more cynical: Theres a lot of people making money off her, she says.
Which brings us back to Salter, whose company is also using social networking to court a young consumer base for the Marilyn brand.
On Facebook, Marilyn has three million-plus fans, 70 percent of them under the age of 24. She also has some 53,000 Twitter followers. Salters brand vision? To seduce the world with products that capture the iconic personality, style, glamour and elegance of the legendary actress, according to the promotional materials.
Look at what Marilyn was, Salter says in a telephone interview. Shes a total fashion icon. She invented the red carpet. She knew her brand.
Ive got the best model in the whole world.