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The Ghost in the American Machine

Marilyn Monroe[Summer, 1992]
Every steamy presidential summer and more nights than we admit, Marilyn Monroe whispers to America from her grave. She died 30 years ago in a City of Angels' August night, 1962, but except on a level of crass reality, she's as alive as she ever was.

The 1990s writhe with history's revision, and this presidential election year in particular, Marilyn haunts us with the cool touch of myths and secrets. Truth lies buried in the darkness of deeds done and denied; truth shimmers in the light of belief as bright and golden as her bleached hair.

What would she say about the 1990s cinematic assertions surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the most powerful of all her famous lovers? Does her ghost feel vindicated by accusations trumpeted this year by kin of a Chicago syndicate spider? Accusations that swear the Mob murdered her to neutralize another one of her lovers, racket- busting Attorney General Robert Kennedy?

Questions. Marilyn breathed questions. Three decades later, we strain to hear her answers, still want them to be our grand redemptive yes.

She changed her name. Who among us has not yearned to shed fate? Transform ourselves from grubby caterpillar to soaring butterfly? Ask former presidential candidate Gary Hart(pence).

Norma Jeane Baker, as American as the next girl. Or perhaps not. She was born out of wedlock in the days of the universally worshipped nuclear family, when such an event was a scandal. Her mother, who worked as a film cutter when she wasn't locked up in a loony bin, named her illegitimate after a silent film star. Years later, a casting director rechristened her with the double-M brand.

When she was Norma Jeane, the state shuttled her from orphanages to foster homes where she was both ignored and whipped with a razor strop. Probably she was sexually molested by an evangelical Christian neighbor. As a child, she was a victim way ahead of the flood of TV movies that have legitimized such pain.

But Norma truly grew up in Grauman's Theater, where she sought shelter and answers in the black and white shimmer of Hollywood's myths. Outside, in the mean streets of reality, the little girl shyly stepped in the sidewalk's concrete imprints of legends, and decided that her feet were too small.

Abraham Lincoln, who as president threatened his unstable wife with the madhouse, was Norma's girlhood hero. She knew little more than our hallowed lore about this great man who suspended the Bill of Rights and freed slaves only in rebel states, the same myths hammered into this year's stump speeches by George Bush and Bill Clinton.

Even after Norma metamorphosed into Marilyn, she didn't discard her interests in politics - and presidents - as an affectation, undermining the then-prevalent attitude that sexually attractive women must be stupid. As the country sank into McCarthy madness, Marilyn was chastised on the set of All About Eve by the film's director for reading The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. A studio PR flack crossed Steffens' name off a list she gave him of the ten greatest men in the world, and Marilyn had to hide the second volume of the muckraker's autobiography under her bed. In 1992, Las Vegas would probably offer even odds that no more than half of the Members of Congress know who Lincoln Steffens was— and that they think of Marilyn as a dumb blonde.

The specter of Dr. Strangelove and what President Dwight Eishenhower labeled "the military-industrial complex" generated more than Hollywood party vacuities from Marilyn: in 1960, she became one of the sponsors of SANE, the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. When a reporter asked about her dreams and nightmares, she said: "My nightmare is the H-bomb. What's yours?"

Such direct bullets from crimson lips were dismissed as cute by the press. While Marilyn Monroe was no genius, many of her one-liners would have been labeled as scathing wit if uttered by Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward.

Of course, they were men.

Besides, Marilyn lived in the days when the notion that being a screen star qualified anyone as an expert on government and politics was laughable, an attitude that would no doubt be attested to by Marilyn's contemporary thespian, Ronald Reagan.

Being a Hollywood star is never easy. For a woman, shining in that galaxy too often means searing in a hell of sexual harassment that makes the testimony offered at Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings seem tame. The casting couch is a slab for rape and prostitution, where women confronted by a male hierarchy find their dreams held against them like a jagged Perrier bottle. Marilyn confessed, with shame and anger, that she'd knelt before this vicious altar of male power to get roles in movies, although she'd refused offers of mere money or trinkets for sex and declined to be married or kept in style by rich men.

"In Hollywood," she said, "a girl's virtue is much less important than her hairdo." Wisdom every political imagemaker has adapted as a professional credo.

Riding on our economy's rusted-out runaway train, the 1992 election is touted as the race women will decide: it's an election about attitudes as well as concrete issues, attitudes reverberating from the Thomas hearings into the future of the Supreme Court, from abortion rights to Top Gun gropings in Las Vegas hotels, from pornography to censorship. Attitudes linked to the daily lives of women, but attitudes that directly affect everyone: we are all children of a mother, we live in a world shared by women and men, and we are all bound by the simple truth that the enslavement sanctioned for anyone can happen to everyone. Some six thousand years after the dawn of this amorphous concept called civilization, we who create it every day are shackled to a sexuality whose skeleton has been twisted by clannish power and whose blood is the lust found in the hearts of everyone from an Omaha trucks top waitress to President Jimmy Carter.

No one symbolizes lust more than Marilyn Monroe.

"I never understood it," she said, "this sex symbol. I always thought symbols were things you clash together. That's the trouble, a sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate being a thing. But if I'm going to be a symbol of something, I'd rather have it be sex than some of the other things we've got symbols of."

In 1949, she created a "thing" that defined her as a sex symbol and gave shape to that entire genre. She posed naked against a rumpled red velvet drape for a calendar shot, the famous "Golden Girl" photograph.

Close your eyes and there it is: Marilyn lies on her left side, a straight line of flawless flesh from the toes of her right foot to the fingertips of her extended left hand. Her left leg and right arm are cocked, her fingertips burrow in a swirl of honeyed hair. Her breasts are full. She stares into the camera; her crimson mouth is open.

In 1992, more Freudianly risque photographs are used to sell blue jeans.

The Golden Girl picture caught an essence of Marilyn, an eroticism that equated her femininity with eager, almost child-like undemanding acceptance. I am here, she breathes, I am yours. Because I want to be. As Monroe biographer, admirer and leading feminist Gloria Steinem put it: "Her terrible openness made a connection with strangers. It seems never to end."

In the 1950s and 1960s, that calendar hung in the projection booth of the Montana movie theater my father managed, and as a boy, it was my first glimpse of a savage primal force.

Asked why she posed for the photograph, Marilyn replied: "Hunger."

She needed the $50 to get her car out of hock; if you don't have a car in Los Angeles, you're doomed.

Asked what she had on: "The radio."

Historically, no other erotic photograph is so famous or responsible for so much. Hugh Hefner used it to inaugurate Playboy, the magazine that has colored male sexual and political fantasies since the mid-1950s.

Feared Federal Bureau of Investigation czar J. Edgar Hoover hung that calendar in his basement recreation room; the thick dossier he kept on Marilyn in his office files is still not completely public.

JFK may have been another proud owner of the Monroe calendar. Of course, JFK knew much more of Marilyn than her photograph. And the still-not-completely known history of that relationship sounds the chords of an opera in this presidential election year in our land of the free, home of the brave.

Marilyn and JFK may have met as early as 1951 when she was a starlet and he was a wealthy war hero on his way to the White House. Whenever they met, they eventually became lovers, an affair that existed during JFK' s marriage and presidency.

A presidency worshiped for its genuine idealism, its New Frontier, its youthful vigor and humanitarian vision; a presidency that had a dark side where Marilyn Monroe walked.

She was not the married president's only lover—one other was murdered, and a second shared her affections with Sam Giancana, who ruled the Chicago "Outfit," a branch of the billion-dollar criminal cartel J. Edgar Hoover insisted did not exist until 1958 when Senator McClellan's racket committee, engineered by Chief Counsel Robert Kennedy, embarrassed Hoover into discovering criminals his agents had long urged him to pursue. In 1975, on the day that Senate Intelligence Committee staffers flew to Chicago to arrange for his testimony about the Mafia's assistance in CIA plots to assassinate Cuba's Fidel Castro, Giancana was murdered by seven gunshots in his Oak Park home.

Evidence and rumors linking JFK to the Mob go beyond Giancana and the president sharing the sexual favors of Judith Campbell to reports of the Mob helping the Kennedy political machine swing the crucial West Virginia primary. Allegedly, Giancana confederate "Skinny" D'Amato traveled to West Virginia to pass out cash for votes.

To be fair to JFK, reports of his links to organized crime lack the authenticity of a Rodney King video tape or bugged White House conversations of the kind history provides for Richard Nixon (who pardoned the Mob's favorite Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa).

Also, mobsters and presidents are powerful people, and perhaps on some level birds of a feather must flock together: At a December 12, 1980, Rancho Mirage party celebrating Frank Sinatra's 65th birthday and the presidential election of Ronald Reagan (who was unable to attend), two of the more famous revelers were William French Smith, Reagan's attorney general designate, and Sidney R. Korshak, a Chicago and Hollywood lawyer named by the California Attorney General's Organized Crime Commission as one of 92 underworld figures operating in the state and a man described by the New York Times as one of the national Mob's premier fixers.

Whatever JFK's relationship was with the Mob on the day he was assassinated, he had severed his ties with Marilyn, the shy woman who'd had to be sewn into a transparent dress and fortified with drugs and champagne in order to sing "Thanks, Mr. President" (to the tune of "Thanks For the Memories") and "Happy Birthday" at Madison Square Garden while he watched, surrounded by black-tied friends, his campaign coffers filling, cigar in hand, wife at home, cameras whirling.

He said the moment allowed him to retire from politics.

Whether Bobby Kennedy stepped into the arms of his brother's lover Marilyn is less clear. That they knew each other is without question.

This year, a book by Giancana's brother and godson claims that Giancana ordered Marilyn murdered to expose her secret affair with Bobby Kennedy, who as attorney general was prosecuting a record number of Mafioso. According to the book, Sam Giancana felt double-crossed by the Kennedys: after all, he'd help put JFK in the White House and worked with the CIA on the failed Castro hits, and now the president's brother was coming after their old allies with all the federal firepower the A.G. could muster. If Roman Catholic, family man Bobby Kennedy could be driven from the attorney general's office by a sex scandal, the theory goes, the Mafia-busting would stop and a chastened President Jack Kennedy would come to heel. Monroe was a mess, heavily abusing a variety of pills and alcohol, depressed. The murder was supposedly simple: hitmen break into her house when she'd passed out, a poisoned suppository that dissolved without a trace, her diaries and letters left lying around…

But, according to various accounts, this Shakespearian scheme was foiled when Peter Lawford, the Kennedy brother-in-law, learned of Marilyn's death and, perhaps with help, rushed to her bungalow to sanitize the death scene before the cops and press arrived.

Well.

True, Monroe was abusing drugs and booze and while her career was in a downturn after almost destroying Some Like It Hot and being fired off another movie, she had purportedly been offered a "second act" by a major studio, which meant that at 36, she could seek the serious acting career she'd craved-including Chekhov. Indeed, this career of a woman whose first screen test gave a jaded cinema professional "cold chills" when he saw her light up a cigarette and the screen, had already matured to substantive roles. And true, there are numerous allegations by cops and other officials about her death. True also that the Giancana book links his crew to every possible conspiracy from Huey Long's murder to that fateful November day when JFK went to Dallas. And bottom-line true, the book is based on unsupported "memories" and hearsay.

Most true, Marilyn, JFK and Bobby Kennedy are dead.

What an opera.

One that today echoes in our presidential politics, where myths-especially media-driven myths-create reality.

Rumors of George Bush having a mistress surfaced in Los Angeles during his first nominating convention. An alleged former mistress of Bill Clinton was and then was-not going to pose for a Marilyn-like photo spread in Playboy.

To be president is to be a politician. Probably a thousand psychiatrists could be found to theorize that politicians have an inordinate need to be loved, to dominate, to be idolized, to conquer, to be accepted.

How easily American sexual attitudes and practices dovetail into those theories.

The same thousand shrinks would probably analyze similar "needy" traits in actors and actresses. Performance is their work, their driven art, and performance demands an audience. That need to be loved, accepted and ratified as worthwhile could be especially keen in a woman sexually abused as a child and a starlet, a woman whose mind and spirit were never taken seriously.

"The truth is," said Marilyn, "I've never fooled anyone. I've let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn't bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn't argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn't. When they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them and fooling them."

That a president and an actress would end up as lovers is not surprising; what's surprising is that it isn't more common, especially in these days when the American power triangle hums with electric tension between Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

To be a president—a male president, which to date has been our only experience --means you've reached the summit and end of your prowess. There is no higher office for a politician in a democracy.

What reward is left?

The obvious answer is the work itself.

Which is enough, if the president who is elected is a selfless, idealistic visionary with pragmatic abilities.

As, of course, all of our presidents have been.

Marilyn Monroe was the ultimate sexual trophy for JFK, the woman whom all his fellow men had certified as the epitome of sexuality. With reckless arrogance, he violated his marriage vows, risked his presidency—Hoover himself warned Robert Kennedy about the danger of blackmail possibilities from dallying with Monroe, a wonderfully subtle effort on the FBI director's part.

Jack Kennedy was the stuff heroes are made of in history books and movie theaters, officially brilliant, dedicated, powerful, and although he had good teeth (Marilyn mistrusted men with good teeth, thinking perfection there hid flaws elsewhere), he was the golden boy worthy of the golden girl—who would make the golden girl worthy of being who she wanted to be: "I'm not interested in money," said Marilyn, "I just want to be wonderful."

So many obvious traps. Surrendering definition and fulfillment to cultural forces or to other people. Defining yourself by trophies or applause. Treating people as objects; treating yourself as an object. Such obvious failings as to make both JFK and Marilyn as human as we are. And as human as any politician seeking the presidency will ever be.

Human beings can be terrible students of history: ask Gary Hart, whose co-ed dalliance on a yacht called Monkey Business—also the name of a movie starring Marilyn Monroe—cost him a lifetime of presidential ambitions. Or Chuck Robb, whose national political ambitions exploded when he accepted "just" a massage alone in a hotel from a gorgeous blonde beauty queen "friend"—who later graced the magazine Monroe's beauty helped launch.

The political issue carried by Marilyn's ghost this election year is only partially covered by the Dan Quayle-abused term of values. After all, Quayle The Crusader is merely a blow-dried revival of a role pioneered in the circa-1972 movie called "The V.P. as Witch-Hunter," starring that bastion of righteousness, Spiro Agnew, our first vice president to resign because of a problem involving "values."

Politics is power, as are the hungers of lust and sex. The issues of sex and politics are rooted in perception, and perhaps the most difficult endeavor of humanity is to look at something, to see it first for what it is, and then to judge it—not out of fear or prejudice or greed, but out of knowledge.

"Sex is part of nature," said Marilyn Monroe. "I go along with nature,"

Or at least she tried to: but it usually takes two to make that trip complete, and both people must be relatively whole.

That she wasn't is not completely her fault.

That we-as voters and as people-stay trapped in a confusing whirlpool of sex and politics seems to be our fate. Sex and politics are inseparable, a linkage changed only by how their powers are exercised. One of those forces embodied in human flesh inevitably attracts the other.

JFK's sin was not that he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe; he can be forgiven his passion and his perfect teeth. His sin was that such an affair entailed lies and deceptions in which he was ultimately both villain and victim. A habitual liar in the bedroom is dangerous to trust in the Oval Office. A president who indulges his passions through deceptions has a pattern to follow in deceiving the public into such quicksands as assassinations and covert wars.

What then does she whisper to us after all these years, this woman who lived in triumph and failure, self-abuse and applause, joy and pain, beauty and vile ugliness? What can her ghost teach us that we shall not learn?

"I think I'd do everything differently," she said when asked if she could rewrite her life, "I'd make every single decision differently—except I don't think I'd have found what I've found now....So if all of it was necessary for me to reach this point, and it seems that it was, then it was worth it.”

We don't get to rewrite history-not our own lives, not the lives of presidents we choose. So if we want life to be "worth it," we must choose with Yeats' clear, cold eye. And we must choose knowing for certain only that our brief journey through time can be as sweet as a movie star's kiss.

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