At some point, Marilyn Monroe will no longer matter to the Kennedys.
Or there will be a Kennedy family member or friend or hireling so rebellious – and so privy to the wellsprings of information – that we'll have a pretty fair idea of how Marilyn Monroe met her death on Aug. 5, 1962. And what, if anything, Bobby Kennedy had to do with it.
Until then, we've got Lois Banner – described on the dustflap of "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox" as "a founder in the field of women's history, a co-founder of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the major academic event in the field" – to do the necessary work and give us, however unremittingly sordid, a tentative final tally on what probably happened that night and leading up to it.
What Banner seems to believe is that no, Marilyn Monroe wasn't murdered (however suspicious circumstances remain), but, in fact, administered the fatal dose of 60 nembutal and "large amounts of chloral hydrate" to herself in an enema, a means of medical transmission with which she had considerable familiarity. It may have been accidental but may also have been suicide – symptomatic of what may have been a small emotional upturn that, in fact, finally gave her the strength to end it all.
In the day previous, says Banner, she called Peter Lawford (JFK's procuring brother-in-law) and told him "say goodbye to the president." Robert F. Kennedy visited and was supposedly heard by agents of private investigator Fred Otash (probably hired by either Joe DiMaggio or Jimmy Hoffa, reader's choice) in the act of "rifling her house and asking her 'where did you put it?' " What "it" was may have been a "diary she had kept of her conversations with Bobby about politicians, in which she had written down what he'd told her about such matters as Cuba, the nuclear bomb and his crusade against the Mafia." Banner also believes there was credible evidence Monroe may have intended to call a press conference and blow the whistle on her relationship with the Kennedy boys.
If so, you can understand suicide. Even the briefest moment of reflection in 1962 would have convinced her she didn't have a whisper of a ghost of a chance of getting anywhere at all with such histrionic tattling. The times were against her – not a little but utterly and hopelessly.
In the face of such hopelessness, suicide would be a more than plausible extreme solution.
And that's why as the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death approaches she is – still – being exploited, if not quite as vilely as she was in her lifetime. In the publicity to "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox," Banner is described thusly: "in addition to her books on Monroe … is a major collector of her artifacts." (For trade? Profitable exhibition proving her expertise in her trade?)
And, yes, Banner also suggests that Monroe's suicide could also have been explained by her fear of having her lesbian affairs exposed. Lest anyone scoff too quickly at that, one need only consider the major Hollywood figures thought to be in the closet a half century later, not to mention the likely lack of scruple 50 years ago exploiting that information by a Kennedy camp she might have put on the defensive.
That there was a cover-up about what exactly happened that night was all-but-proved long ago.
It seems to me Banner's book is trustworthy, sordid, exploitive and more than a little sickening, all at the same time. As a professor of "gender studies" at the University of Southern California, she contends, inarguably, that if Monroe had survived (she was only 36 when she died), she'd have been a vastly different figure in a post-feminist world.
While Banner's guess is that Monroe might have gone on to have a career like Barbara Loden's – the actress who was married to Elia Kazan and who portrayed the Monroe figure in Arthur Miller's "After the Fall" – it is also more than possible that the rebel generation coming up in Hollywood would have seen a sympathetic soul at the very least and might have figured out whole new masterpieces for her and whole new ways of filming her quite different than the routine humiliations of even some of her greatest films. (Think of what Scorsese or Altman or Hal Ashby or Francis Ford Coppola might have invented for Monroe in her 40s as femininism changed completely the savage spotlight that followed her – and demeaned her – everywhere.)
In their prime, exploitation of one sort or another was all Hollywood knew what to do with Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley both, drugged-out siblings under the skin in the sanitariums of toxic fame.
Monroe was eight years older than Elvis. She died 15 years before him. There is evidence – especially for devoted readers of Banner's book – that she was so hopelessly, pathologically damaged that she quite literally died without knowing anything in life OTHER than exploiting herself.
There was evidence, at least, that Elvis – bloated with drugs, fluffernutter sandwiches and the constant obsequies of the "Memphis Mafia" – had enough sense of how much he'd been exploited to make public jokes about it, even as he spent most of his life in hiding at Graceland.
Read "Marilyn & Me" by photographer and major Monroe exploiter Lawrence Schiller (the one who inveigled Norman Mailer into the Monroe hyperbole business) and you get his tale of being the resident, sanctioned papparazzo on the set of "Something's Got to Give" – the finished Monroe film that never was (she was fired from it). It was there that Schiller took the famous, unique late-period nudes in which she revealed herself to be the greatest genius of all in the art of exploiting Marilyn Monroe. Quite possibly she was cognizant even then of what would become her true immortality – not completely as a film actress, where she was erotic and radiantly beautiful but often painful to watch in a post-feminist era, but a photographer's model. It's there where she can be captured to perfection – frozen in time, all exterior, a flesh and blood masterpiece of white on white, suitable for any and all gallery walls.
In honor of the half century since her death, Turner Classic Movies will show her movies, those wonderments directed by some of the greatest directors Hollywood will ever have (Huston, Wilder, Mankiewicz) and which, almost unfailingly, mocked her even as they glorified her.
Who in America didn't laugh back then the first time they heard that Marilyn Monroe liked poetry and was fond, among other things, of reading Yeats? We weren't laughing WITH her, we were enjoying that early reality TV show in which she starred, "Bimbo's Progress."
Knowing all of that, this all-time master of self-exploitation (go to YouTube and watch her sing "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy), had lifelong difficulties showing up on movie sets on time, if at all. Who on earth could blame her?
If only there'd been a rehab or a 12-step program to rescue her and let her make it at least into her 40s.
We wouldn't be living in a world that still exploits her, in lieu of understanding her.
Maybe we'd be living in a world where an aging Marilyn used all the brains even her enemies ceded her to figure out a way to exploit Hollywood and perhaps even US.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
By Lois Banner
515 pages, $30
Marilyn & Me
By Lawrence Schillerr
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday115 pages, $20