Essay: After a lifetime of public exposure, Marilyn Monroe deserves privacy

When I think of Marilyn Monroe, I think of my poem “Having Everything Concealed,” which I wrote a year ago. “you don’t deserve all of me,” it begins, “the joy i sing unsung / the pain i strum unheard / i reserve my majesty for myself.” Even though the poem was inspired by Rhythm & Blues singer H.E.R., an acronym that stands for “Having Everything Revealed,” it certainly connects to the secrecy that still surrounds the actress’ personal life.

There have been numerous attempts to excavate the authentic Marilyn Monroe, continuing today with Netflix’s Blonde and the streaming giant’s documentary The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes. But our decades-long obsession with the star has only yielded one revelation: we will never know the “real” Marilyn Monroe. No matter how many times we try to solve the mystery of who she was offscreen or claim a connection to her story, the full truth of the actress’ life does not belong to us. We should relinquish our noxious sense of entitlement to her private life and let the legend rest in peace.

My own fascination with Marilyn Monroe dates back to middle school, when I tried to achieve a kind of cultural sophistication by reading classic literature and watching Golden Age Hollywood films. Included on my list of movies to watch was the Monroe-starring Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. Seeing her onscreen, I was immediately enamored. To this day, Monroe wearing her famous blonde coiffure with a cinched magenta dress and radiant diamonds remains one of my favorite fashion visions.

After seeing her movies, I began voraciously reading the 2001 edition of Donald Spoto’s biography of the actress, identifying with her efforts at self-improvement. As I learned from the 2012 documentary, Love Marilyn, she achieved her famous gait by walking as if a string was attached to her head and the string itself was attached to a cloud. Soon, I practiced my own string-cloud strut, pointing my chin and raising my shoulders. Unsurprisingly, I reverted to my unremarkable saunter the next day. 

Nonetheless, I belted the lyrics to Nicki Minaj’s 2012 song named after the star. “Call it a curse, or just call me blessed / If you can’t handle my worst, you ain’t getting my best,” I sang, delighting in Minaj’s interpolation of one of Monroe’s most popular but most likely misattributed quotes. When the end of the chorus came, I mimicked Minaj’s theatrical insistence: “Is this how Marilyn Monroe felt, felt, felt, felt? Must be how Marilyn Monroe felt, felt, felt, felt.” The truth, which my pre-adolescent self failed to acknowledge, was that I did not know how Marilyn Monroe felt. I did not know her – and never would. 

Not knowing Monroe has not discouraged celebrities from souveniring their way to the actress’ selfhood. Before her appearance at the 2022 Met Gala, Kim Kardashian received a box containing a supposed lock of Monroe’s hair from attractions company Ripley’s Believe It or Not!. Ripley’s also lent Kardashian Monroe’s iconic sheer Jean Louis dress for the event. Monroe wore the flesh-toned gown when she famously sang a sultry “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 at Madison Square Garden. 

Even without Monroe’s possessions, people still feel a physical closeness to the star and her complicated story of fame and misfortune. In an essay for Vogue, actress Lena Dunham connected herself to the “triumph and tragedy” of Monroe’s life through a book about (and ode to) Monroe, which Dunham received on her 33rd birthday. “‘For Lena—who, like Marilyn, has something for everybody.’ She is everywhere.” Dunham writes. “And despite being everywhere, with something for everyone, she had something just for me.”

These unhealthy efforts to own and uncover the woman behind the blonde bombshell image disturbed Monroe, the actress told writer Richard Meryman in their 1962 Life magazine interview. “It’s almost having certain kinds of secrets for yourself that you’ll let the whole world in on only for a moment, when you’re acting,” she said of artists protecting their privacy. “But everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like sort of a chunk of you.”

Unfortunately, the public continues to grasp at pieces of Monroe instead of acknowledging the toxicity of their obsession with her. Andy Warhol’s 1964 “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” depicting the actress against a blue backdrop sold at an auction for $195 million in May, making it the most expensive auctioned work by a U.S. artist. Netflix’s recently released Blondewhich stars Ana De Armas and is based on author Joyce Carol Oates’ fictionalization of the star, reduces Monroe to a tragic sex symbol. Despite the movie’s popularity on the platform, critics assailed the film for victimizing Monroe and denying her happier moments. 

Netflix’s The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes received similar criticism for peddling conspiracy theories related to the actress’s tragic death. These slew of projects reveals not only our shameful fixation with an immortalized icon but also our frustration with a luminary still so out of reach despite her lore that has been circulated for several years. 

Now that I am older with a more empathetic appreciation for Monroe, I can recognize how my earlier obsession contributed to the larger preoccupation with her life. I also realize what I most admire about Monroe more than anything else. Sure, the writer in me rejoices in the fact that she wrote poetry and owned more than 400 books in her lifetime. And of course, I respect how she started her own production company and advocated for jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. 

But what amazes me most of all is how fiercely she guarded her interiority. Despite her story that has been dissected for decades, Monroe still retains the mystery that we were never entitled to solve in the first place. Her private life is still rightfully impenetrable to us, and I am glad that it will remain this way. Perhaps, the impossibility of knowing who Monroe was in private will encourage other people to critique their obsession with a woman who only signed up to act and not to live on in the cruel immortality of fictionalization and objectification.

We may have her glittered gowns and gilded filmography. But we will never have all of her. Ultimately, Monroe reserved her full majesty and human complexity for herself.

Zeniya Cooley, a senior majoring in political science and journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.

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