Why gay men like Marilyn Monroe: Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan, the writer, has a lot of nerve, and the arrogance can grate on a reader. (And maybe grated on her editors at The New Yorker too, which might explain why she's not there anymore.) A writer who reviewed her most recent book went on air with her and Tom Ashbrook a year ago and wrote eloquently in Salon about "creepy condescension" of Flanagan, not to mention her "Michele Bachmann-esque disregard for the facts." 

Yet and still, Flanagan can hit a nerve. Be curious to hear what others think of this recent idea of hers, in a review of a couple of recent biographies in the Atlantic, that the legend of Marilyn Monroe was more or less the product of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's 70's classic pop song Candle in the Wind. (Which is when Monroe became a star for my generation, really, before the over-the-top Norman Mailer hagiography, the picture books, the unpublished nudes, etc.)

To wit: 

The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers
of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching
ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured
woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the
often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a
coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of
Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody
else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements
goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone
who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s
the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a
dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth
of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Swept away by this idea, I start to imagine (if Monroe had not died young) a somewhat older and harder-working actress taking the stage in "A Streetcar named Desire," bringing her beauty and her suffering to the role of Blanche DuBois. An appealing thought, no? And allegedly Williams himself saw her in the role of Baby Doll, so not completely crazy. But Tennessee set me right, in a harsh appraisal:

I
wanted to love Marilyn: I fall for myths, too. She was fragile and she
was beautiful and she was silly. She was the lost kitten in the rain, or
the kittens who were born on Carson McCullers' bed in Nantucket–you
wonder who will take care of them, because you know that you cannot, and
you cry like the child you were who saw the dog run over and the town
move on, uncaring and serious about getting their needs attended.

Marilyn
was also annoying and cloying and demanding. She knew her power and she
abused it, but in the demonstration of it she degraded herself and she
knew this, so the spiral of destruction deepened and intensified. Do not
think for a moment that I do not see this in my own behavior and that
of others: I am only offering a sobering lesson.
But maybe it's that "sobering" — like the harsh glare of a white spot light on a black stage — that gives Monroe her power. Without the suffering, what is the point of her beauty? Just another dumb blonde. 
Marilynmonroeinnature
Norma Jean in Griffith Park, before she became famous, from a Time collection.

 

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  1. sfmike

    Caitlin Flanagan is a twit. Her New Yorker articles were extraordinary examples of affluent navel-gazing that metastisized into sloppy generalizations which were usually equal parts idiotic and offensive, rather like her Elton John/Marilyn Monroe effort that you quoted.

    Speaking as a gay man (not men), I’ve always loved Marilyn as a brilliant comedienne IN SPITE OF all the suffering and mythology that surrounded her messy life. Your Tennessee Williams quote is spot-on, all the more so because the writer doesn’t claim to be without the same faults. And thanks for the link to the James Grissom blog site.

    March 21, 2013