Marilyn Lost and Found

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What becomes a legend most? Early death — as long as it is preceded by a generally acknowledged radiance and followed by a long luminescence tinged with melancholy. Had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would have turned 75 next Friday, June 1. But that survival would have guaranteed her only a genteel descent into older-woman roles, perhaps a past-her-prime Broadway show (the original 1971 "Follies"? Don't make me drool), then the tell-some autobiography and obligatory Life Achievement roasts. If she were still around, she might be doing good work, perhaps serving as honorary chair of a fund for abused children and doing a guest stint in "The Vagina Monologues."

Instead, by taking an overdose of sleeping pills and being discovered, nude, her hand on the telephone, on August 5, 1962, Monroe assured herself of pop immortality. She has now been a dead legend longer than she was alive on this earth. Her after-life celebrity has been the easiest for her, and financially the most rewarding. When she died, she left an estate of about $1.6 million (of which she bequeathed 75% to her acting guru Lee Strasberg, 25% to her psychiatrist, Marilyn Kris). Today, the mere licensing of her name and likeness brings in some $2 million a year. In 1999 — the same year that PEOPLE named her Sexiest Woman of the Century — the gown that Monroe wore to President Kennedy's 1962 birthday party was sold at auction for $1 million.

So you knew someone would be throwing a party for Marilyn's 75th birthday. On Tuesday, 20th Century Fox Home Video is issuing "Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection," which puts five of her early hits ("Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," "How to Marry a Millionaire," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "The Seven Year Itch" and "Bus Stop") on DVD. Next Friday, American Movie Classics is to celebrate the actual birthdate with a two-hour documentary, "Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days" (also a part of the Fox Home Video collection), detailing the sorry production history of her last, uncompleted film, "Something's Got to Give." The documentary scoops a bit of dirt on Marilyn's Kennedy connection and includes a first look at 37 minutes of assembled scenes from the film — including, yes, the nude scene. It also provides the closest look yet at the steep path the star trod, in the spring and summer of 1962, toward the destruction of her career and then her life.

The appeal of her life and death juiced some of America's most distinguished writers to produce works that said, at heart, either "I knew her" (Truman Capote's story "A Beautiful Child," about a girl's funeral he attended with Monroe) or "She should've known me" (Norman Mailer's long biographical essay "Marilyn: A Biography," which amounted to a post-mortem proposal). She was the subject of bio-pics and Bernie Taupin and Elton John memorialized her suffering in the 1973 "Candle in the Wind" ("Loneliness was tough/ The toughest role you ever played/ Hollywood created a superstar/ And pain was the price you paid"). In 1997 they expropriated the sentiments for a rewrite in honor of Princess Diana, another doomed blonde whose life spanned exactly five fewer days than Marilyn's had.

Perhaps the most bizarrely acute rendering of the Monroe parable was in the 1983 Broadway musical "Marilyn: An American Fable." A flop with endearing qualities — mostly in its determination to print the legend, not the facts, about a shooting star — the show rendered her life in the form of an old-fashioned backstage musical, complete with an improbable, inevitable happy ending. Marilyn doesn't die; she is reunited with her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, and walks into the sunset hand-in-hand with her childhood self, Norma Jean. More pulp than poetry, the show gave audiences the wish-fulfillment climax to a real-life tragedy whose ending they wished they could rewrite.

She had been "only" an actress; not even that, some said. Her job, which she often shirked, was to read the lines others had composed for her, and deliver them to the satisfaction of her often-exasperated directors. Yet with her self-inflicted death, whether she intended it or not, Marilyn wrote her own last act, and people have been analyzing it with the care earlier exegetes devoted to "Hamlet." She created and controlled the official view of her life: a tragedy at the beginning and the end, with an intervening flicker of starlight. At a steep price, she purchased the eternal rights to her own biography, one that neither Mailer nor any other scribe could supercede. What a wag said in 1977, on hearing of Elvis Presley's death — "Good career move" — is just as true of Monroe.

But while she lived, she could annoy as easily as charm — more easily, if it was time to shoot a movie. She didn't show up, or she did and was balky. Her misbehavior drove everyone nuts, and kept them on their toes, When making "Some Like It Hot" with Marilyn, Billy Wilder told co-stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to be at their best in every shot — because if he got a take where she gets it right, Wilder was going to print it.

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