More Farewells to Marilyn – Michigan Quarterly Review

More Farewells to Marilyn

“More Farewells to Marilyn,” excerpted here, is from MQR’s Summer 2022 Issue. You can purchase the issue here.

Whether she was called “Marilyn,” or “Norma Jeane,” or “MM,” or the recognizable names Joyce Carol Oates assigns her in Blonde: A Novel, her face and figure were instantly recognized around the world as the 1950s most fascinating—and arguably most tragic—Hollywood star. This essay offers special attention to poetic tributes and prosaic sagas of her life sixty years after her death on August 4, 1962.


[Note: Section one responds to Sharon Olds’s poem, “The Death of Marilyn Monroe,”1 which can be read here.]

In my teaching of film-and-literature courses at Brown University and the University of Michigan, I gifted my undergraduates, on occasion, with an assortment of verse offprints about recent movies. Sharon Olds’s strange elegy consistently found more favor among undergraduates than any other sample. A few male students claimed they had pinned a fetching poster of Marilyn in their dorm room—or had spotted such a poster in the rooms of friends. In hindsight, I have speculated that their preference for the Olds poem derived from mingling versification with the reality of a firsthand account of Marilyn’s “cold body” on a stretcher. Walker Percy’s 1961 National Book Award novel The Moviegoer would generate a popular insight for the next fateful year of her death. Places are more real if you see them in a movie, Percy asserted more than once, and perhaps we could say the same about movie stars and verse. Cinéastes have debated Percy’s assertion ever since, under the suspicious gaze of sophisticated critics who comfort each other in the hours spent making notes and preparing reviews about new films. Sharon Olds surveyed the distressed sensations among characters in her poems, exposing an understandable malaise among the traumatized workers who remain silent throughout their repugnant duties. The workers are us! sophomores argued, but neither the troubled star nor any of “the ambulance men” acknowledged being a member of the working class.   

Why Olds’s poem emerged as my students’ favorite and why it has become an anthology standard require some explication. The poem doesn’t contribute to our appreciation of Marilyn’s acting skills, nor does it contain information about her erotic or intellectual life posing and performing before the camera at beaches, nightclubs, and private parties in the mansions of executive authority. Just as significant, it does not speculate on her status as a cultural icon or international sex symbol—at least not overtly. She strongly resisted the slurs associated with her voluptuous body, defiant of even the most famous patrons. In writing about Marilyn, I will operate on more than one track as I appraise her contributions to literary and cinematic traditions, providing commentary for the genres shared by aesthetes, moviegoers as slackers, and fan clubs around the world desirous of embracing a glamorous queen . . . or at least a viable princess.  

Is it wise, or decent, to claim any single poem as the superior text belonging to this Venus of modern American cultural history? The chief virtue of “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is that it comments sparingly and precisely about the traumatic episode it evokes. A cool tone of lament inflates the harrowing incidents central to the narrative, as if the poet is saying, “You already know about Marilyn Monroe, how she was manipulated, glorified, and degraded throughout her glamorous career, but have you thought about the ambulance men who handled her corpse and carried it away from her Brentwood bower in Southern California?” Marilyn exists in this poem as one of the mute shadows she cast on the screen for the pleasure of moviegoers like these workers, who presumably had responded joyfully as she modeled her torso during zany comedies of the 1950s. The presence of MM’s body in Olds’s poem, inert and pathetic, strikes the reader hard because he or she had fallen in love with the star years before. The spirit of resurrection drifts through the small room, along with the no longer useful label of “the girl,” as remembered from studio billboards and the daily Press. In this sense, Death enacts a melodramatic role as part of the confusions in the penultimate stanza. MM serves as a permanent icon of loss, and her last angels are fated to carry that memory with them forever.     

Playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn’s husband and the University of Michigan’s star graduate student beginning in the late 1930s, collaborated with John Huston in order to both complicate and clarify The Misfits, novel and screenplay, which Miller immodestly compared to widely studied classics such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard

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Figure 1. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller at the April in Paris Ball, New York’s Waldorf Astoria, 1957. Photo by the Associated Press, published in Kingsport Times-News. Public domain.

Box office movies thrived during the 1950s in America, mixing public nostalgia with exotic frontier landscapes, shadowed always by the glamour and clamor of continuous military campaigns on West European and East Asian battlegrounds as well as sexist competition among the Kings and Queens of Hollywood studios, favoring, and often disfavoring, the outstanding Ur-blonde who became Joe DiMaggio’s wife and then Arthur Miller’s wife. Marilyn used her skills to report on the raptures she had undergone as a wannabe performer named Norma Jeane gazing outward through the windows of her orphanage to better appreciate the massive size and executive power of RKO Pictures on distant Gower Street. Perhaps that Romantic vision is too calculated, too derivative of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the yearning girl in the long field, Christina’s World, to be entirely legitimate. But there is no doubting MM’s joyful identification of herself and Hollywood as the futurist citadel she cherished and aspired to dominate: the public imagination. 

Of the most readable biographical novels adapted from the life and death of Marilyn Monroe, Joyce Carol Oates’s 738-page anatomy of melancholy, Blonde (2000), provides the most satisfying model of plotted life strategy, as if the determined actress had concealed boxes bulging with letters, diaries, scripts, and photographs in order to nourish any author’s future research in the archives. Oates commented that her original intention was to make the novel “fairy-tale like,” “epic and poetic.” Did Marilyn then become a “universal type” of the Eternal Female, like Oates’s narrator? In a long review for The Nation, poet Lawrence Joseph praises the extraordinary acts of invention that transfer juvenile Norma Jeane’s identity to mature actresses who covet the stage roles of classic romances or tragedies. “In Blonde Oates creates character and plot through one of the most complex vocal compositions in American fiction,” Joseph asserts.2 Indeed, Oates’s ambitious narrator and star reshaped the storyline of one of Marilyn’s own juvenile writings in a stage version, Miss Golden Dreams, inaugurated in 2001 at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. 

 Norman Mailer’s oversize volume Marilyn: A Biography (1973) is an earlier source of photographs, film criticism, interviews, and gossip accessible to scholars eager to share, and if possible usurp, the collective glamour of their prime subject. For Mailer, she was “the angel of sex.” Marilyn responded to his wooing: “I’m no angel of sex . . . The angel died of an overdose.” The same wit and enthusiasm followed Gloria Steinem’s well-researched text Marilyn (1986), with its patronizing dedication “to the reality in us all.” Then very swiftly, in the shadow of century’s end, an anthology of short fiction and poems, Mondo Marilyn (1995), assembled by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, presented significant imagery mandated by the passing of an adult generation after MM’s death. Sharon Olds’s poem, along with the presence/product of contributors such as J. G. Ballard, Taylor Mead, John Rechy, and David Trinidad among male authors, tested the limits both of elegiac language and the status of bodily desire in Marilyn’s conversation and songs. 

The reader will permit me a brief digression into theatrical scripts and monographs that may provide some meaningful insights. Of first rank among academics but few critics is After the Fall (1964), Arthur Miller’s memory play about his divorce from Marilyn. In non-linear scenes that shift in time and setting, the play shares its title and narrative structure with the book of Genesis as well as with mystical texts such as Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939); Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956); and superfan Edward Field’s densely packed anthology of 2007, also titled After the Fall, featuring his romantic, often comical, movie poems. Miller’s sequel, Finishing the Picture (2004), could merit second place as a lament for the ruin of his marriage and the parallel degradation of frontier America. Other remarkable projects, especially The Misfits (1961), one of Marilyn’s major contributions to cultural critique, responded to the fan base’s affection for the Old West and the New West. Beyond the blockbuster texts cited above are the century-ending entries of The Marilyn Encyclopedia, edited by Adam Victor (1999). An “as told to” confessional autobiography, Marilyn: An Untold Story (1973), anticipates the extensive, high-toned research that came later, setting in motion a wave of self-infatuation she shared with her trusted interviewer, the poet Norman Rosten.  

Marilyn cherished three fantasy crucibles of postwar American enterprise: New York, Hollywood, and Reno. (I use the OED’s definition of crucible: “a place or occasion of severe test or trial.”) Souvenirs in the form of cheesecake snapshots, erotic playing cards, and nude calendars were exploitive and shameful but did help MM resist studio bullies such as Elia Kazan, Harry Cohn, Otto Preminger, and Darryl Zanuck. Two other antagonists—Natasha Lytess and Paula Strasberg—trained and tormented the nerve-racked ingenue for years before she succumbed to nervous breakdowns, narcotics, and lures of self-destruction. Before migrating from amiable frontier fields—for example, Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (1948)—to the urbanity and brutality of The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, she displayed an eager, challenging personality that prepared her audiences for the provocative roles she would undertake throughout the next twenty years. Actresses in soap operas and in melodramatic parts could well have channeled the neurotic Norma Desmond, the aging movie queen played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In that Poe-esque role, Swanson mimicked the lunatic finale of a ghostly career in a baroque mansion with access to a memorable swimming pool and an obliging butler among the Hollywood-area houses of privilege. The film’s director, Billy Wilder, praised Swanson for her scenes of extreme mental breakdown. The reader can double-check the durability of both actresses in a full-page homage by influential columnists in the New York Times issue of June 5, 2020. WE STILL LIKE IT HOT is the emphatic headline honoring Wilder along with MM’s comical nickname, “Sugar Kane,” the typological dumb blonde solidifying her fey status. “The camera loved her,” Wilder said to me in a delightful luncheon with him in the early 1980s in Beverly Hills, giving a good reason that partly explained why he put up with her tardiness to the set and other difficulties. Marilyn had offered a plenitude of competitive humor to Billy Wilder fans of The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Some Like It Hot (1959). Then, in 1960, she reawakened the box office by consenting to a romantic, athletic, and moral role as Roslyn in The Misfits, energized by the hardworking brain and soul of Arthur Miller and the exhausted performance of Clark Gable as a charismatic cowboy—the love object of infatuated women in films such as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Across the Wide Missouri (1951).   

Poets continued to write ardent praise-songs in the studied manner of full-time performers: Delmore Schwartz (“Love and Marilyn Monroe”), Lynn Emanuel (“Blonde Bombshell”), Pamela White Hadas (“Mmm”), Charles Harper Webb and his travesty of domestic life (“Marilyn’s Machine”), as well as Henry J. Moro darkly lamenting her demise (“Marilyn Monroe is Dead”).3 In Sharon Olds’s downbeat rhythms, Marilyn’s body and face can be imagined as dazed or vividly shaped, but likewise cold as iron, cold as the sheet and stretcher noted by would-be rescuers. Her features have lingered for decades in the public memory, often with truncated gestures of dignity. But “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is fundamentally a poem about the triumph of the Grim Reaper, not its defiant victim who endured abundant gossip and joking about her glamorous physique, her odd ways of dancing, her giggles and changing hairstyles, and her experiences of sensual desire. Orderly nouns and verbs employed by Olds (“close the mouth, closed the eyes . . . saw the shape of her breasts”) were overshadowed by the many underlined poetry volumes Marilyn had placed on her shelves for evening reading. She never repudiated the mystique and influence of oral performance. Her favorite poets were Shelley and Keats, Whitman and Rilke, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Norman Rosten, Arthur Miller’s close friend at the University of Michigan, wrote some of her favorite lyrics, often about reasons to be wary of the eager public continually making rude demands in her presence. One of Rosten’s best poems, “Nobody Dies Like Humphrey Bogart,” appears in the same section of his Selected Poems as a tender sequence, “For Marilyn Monroe,” and the counterposed Shakespearean allusion, “My Caliban Creature.”  

“The Death of Marilyn Monroe” presents the sort of shocking vignette that provokes citizens to exclaim “It’s just like a movie!” We use that catch phrase to describe threatening or harmful activity in real life, such as the suicides of Hart Crane and Virginia Woolf. Death scenes spread high emotion, swiftly, especially when events leave behind cinematic after-effects of shock and trauma. The responses of on-site New Yorkers to the horror of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11/2001 resulted from visceral images of untimely death so harrowing that eyewitnesses struggled in the urban rubble to suppress agonies of revulsion not permitted to workers who handle the damaged bodies of victims. The presence of multiple corpses lifted onto stretchers by manual workers in public streets and office buildings sent tremors through bystanders who had no firsthand experience of mortuary practice, much less of poetry’s missionary effects.4

Here, too, Olds’s brief montage offers deliberately commonplace phrasing rather than esoteric vocabulary. Her many narratives are set down in modest documentary style, mimicking strong poetic sequences such as Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi,” “Mourning Poem for the Queen of Sunday,” and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves”—three great poems about the historical abuse of enslaved Africans and servants. Hayden and Arthur Miller worked off and on together as graduate students at the University of Michigan during the wartime years of 1941 to 1946, aided by W. H. Auden, who kept a distance from war-torn Europe and its concentration camps. Racial themes were justly praised by academic scholars, who highlighted Dorothy Dandridge’s long-standing reputation as “the black Marilyn Monroe” in protest films such as Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), and Porgy and Bess (1959), as well as the star turns of Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1943) and Death of a Gunfighter (1969). Cicely Tyson’s acts of loyalty, love, and desperation in Sounder (1972) and The River Niger (1976) marked another welcome partnership in the annals of racial progress.   

The title of Olds’s volume in which this ground-breaking poem appears is The Dead and the Living (1984). The straightforward label expands in meaning and mannerism just as poems that embody complex allusions to matters of life and death pose provocative questions. Why did this femme fatale choose to die in solitude? Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer opt for combinations of violent stimuli and deadly poisons. Big shots such as the Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, and the Rat Pack are customarily blamed when the topic of sexual relations with Marilyn comes up. The coroner labeled her death “a probable suicide” with origins in the mood disorders and episodes of melancholia belonging to the public’s knowledge of MM’s drug habits, party-going, and thwarted career ambitions. Biographers have declared that toward the end she swallowed as many as twenty capsules of liquid Nembutal on unhappy days. Olds withholds judgments on this topic. She expects the educated reader to recognize and appreciate comparable prototypes of Marilyn—for example, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Carrie Meeber, Edna Pontellier, Lily Bart, and other literary victims of male manipulation and aggression.5 What the ambulance men experience is something more complex than notoriety. The poem’s iconoclasm goes further than a routine investigation or standard obituary. As we study examples of female presence in the earliest American narratives, we feel implicated in centuries-long misfortunes, as when reading about warriors in ancient times suffering from “dolorous wounds,” or when “Pretty Ophelia,” a victim of Hamlet’s self-centered monologues, continues to sing a frail ditty as she floats downward toward the underworld.  

“The Death of Marilyn Monroe” presents a banquet of references located in literary history. But the process also requires scenes of damage and repair divided among participants in the “cold” and “closed” and “flattened” tableaux so burdensome to the ambulance men. Olds’s repeated qualifier “as if” carries psychological weight just short of disdain or the pretense of sympathy: “as if it mattered . . . as if it were she.” “Breathing” is an emphatic, upbeat final word: “Just an ordinary / woman / breathing.” Not dying at that moment, not a celebrity, not a practitioner of poorly chosen alternatives in the darkness of movie theaters. Readers worldwide may be tempted at this late date to bring the scene’s frail and forgivable damages into the light of sympathetic public scrutiny, especially during this present-day period in which millions of citizens have died from the COVID-19 pandemic growing stronger across the globe.

When we notice that the poem concludes by turning away from the famous body and toward a silent watch over a sleeping wife, “just an ordinary / woman / breathing,” we understand that the corpse was not designed as an eloquent gesture of sorrow on behalf of a specific victim, but as a parlor room situation in which every mortal has been or will be transfigured by coroners themselves undergoing experiences of fatality. This representation of Death as the enforcer both of harsh fate and never-ending fame is a scenario easily adapted to poetic treatments such as Suzanne Lummis’s “Death Rings Marilyn Monroe” in her volume In Danger (1999); by Lucie Brock-Broido’s “So Long, I’ve Had You Fame” in A Hunger (1988); by James Schevill’s “A Fame for Marilyn Monroe” in The Complete American Fantasies (1996); and by Judy Grahn’s “I Have Come to Claim Marilyn Monroe’s Body” in The Work of a Common Woman (1978). Sharon Olds’s downbeat elegy is not morbid, precisely, but not sympathetic either. It snaps the reader back from the sentimental impulse to embrace as well as pity and praise the victim’s integrity. The ambulance men are transfigured by their sense of duty touched with the aura of everlasting pain. Marilyn did not pretend to die in any of her films after Niagara (1953), where she portrayed a heartless assassin obligated to be offed by the Motion Picture Production Code. On August 6, 1962, she made that gesture in propria persona when she ingested handfuls of pills to relieve herself of intolerable sorrows. 

The final word in a verse line, or a terminal stanza, is usually emphatic in tenor and vehicle, especially if the entire poem is rhymed. None of these conventions are relevant to the prosody and patterning of “The Death of Marilyn Monroe.” Closures such as “as if it were she, / down the steps” and “a place where she / would be waiting” are instances of barely serviceable word choice designed to distract the ear and enhance the attention span. Note the single-syllable words that terminate significantly positioned lines: “the . . . the . . . by . . . a.” Like the “shape of her breasts,” commonplace in expression, the poem’s closure is drained of glamour at the same time it features “ready-to-wear dreams” in the slang humor of Hollywood cynicism.  

The coroner’s men may have undergone nightmares, or not, but all the characters are frozen by Olds’s poem into posthumous afterlife—not their lives but Marilyn’s. These men were granted neither a vision of perfect beauty nor a ghoulish spectacle rare even for workers accustomed to dead bodies. The poem presents a slightly warped point of view: macabre episodes of manipulation concluding with a commonplace report of one worker’s nondescript wife making soft sounds as she sleeps. The next-to-last stanza is the most intense in the poem. It summons the mystery of the Romantic Imagination, the chilly territory of Poe and Dickinson, Hitchcock and Plath, while maintaining a tone and vocabulary of temperate speech congenial to casual readers.

Narrative restraint is not a character trait we commonly associate with Sharon Olds. In a review of The Dead and the Living, Linda Gregerson considers how Olds manipulates “the thingness of words—their heft, their shining, their slickness and burn,” but notes warily that Olds’s dependence on “ready-made consensus” includes the burdensome challenge of elegizing a star with such an extraordinary reputation and fan base.6 Olds’s second book of poems, following Satan Says (1979), shares with MM a borrowed anxiety about perpetual victimization: “the buried life” of “the hidden self,” “a melancholy into all our day,” to cite Matthew Arnold’s and T. S. Eliot’s disappointed expressions of self-pity. Olds’s third, fourth, and fifth collections—The Gold Cell (1987), The Father (1992), and The Wellspring (1996)—roughen the texture and content of her lyric voice, inviting more normally forbidden subject matter into her pages. 

Like other Sharon Olds poems, especially in The Dead and the Living, stanza form and word choice vary in useful ways the characterological signs of movie star, proletarian laborer, and exploited female. A strained manner of speech, abetted by the abundant, plosive “p” and “k” sounds and severe line breaks throughout the stanzas, can steer a reader into uncomfortable places in the continuum of choice texts. Unlike another controversial poem from the same volume, “Of All the Dead That Have Come to Me, This Once,” which discloses an incident of molestation by the poet’s grandfather, the Marilyn poem refrains from complaining about its subject’s psychological manipulation and focuses instead on the trauma carried by working men who exert pressure on their angel in different circumstances. Just for a moment the reader may undergo a flash of visionary inspiration—for example, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s brave and bitter narratives “The Suicide” and “Dirge Without Music.” Marilyn’s voluptuous attraction is the dominant subject of Olds’s poem. But it is the pathos of her death by self-induced barbiturates that lingers in the imagination, one poison pill after another, stoking the satanic impulses that tormented and ultimately killed her in the third decade of her unstable career.


                                                                  DANIEL HUGHES  
		                                                    IN FLORENCE
In Florence, more gallery than town,
where the vague, stamped faces of the colleges at home
throng the streets like putti on a tomb,
I saw the fresh editions moan, “Marilyn e Morte!”
 “Marilyn Addio!” and sat down
to translate the first Italian I would read.

The bells at noon put on their pretty news,
the cake cathedral sang. Near Dante’s house
I watched the cameras glut their easy eyes
and felt all Florence preening to be seen. —
Mourning should deck your doors; the world had lost a queen.

More moved by this than by the fustian Medici
was proof enough the traveler would not look,
that all this packing out of history
was truer, cleaner, better in a book,
and no memorials would ever last
like newsprint on the street.

Yet, Michelangelo, come—sculpt a tomb
in your best unfinished style; pull a body
from marble finer than Carrara’s best—
then ship it west.

She was our pet, an apparition we had dreamt.
Firenze was never so blonde, so innocent.7 

If Sharon Olds’s poem focusing on the rapid cleanup following Marilyn Monroe’s death is the most often reprinted account of that event, Daniel Hughes’s lyric remains one of the most unjustly neglected in the ever-widening canon of memorial works devoted to movie stars. As a scholar of British and European Romanticism, Hughes was well versed in the tradition of the poème d’adieu. After serving as Assistant Professor of English at Brown University during the early 1960s, he took a tenured position at Wayne State University in Detroit, where he was popular with students and faculty. A long struggle with multiple sclerosis darkened his final years. His colleague, the poet Edward Hirsch, praised him in an obituary of 2003 as a “radiant presence,” an authority on the work of Percy Shelley, whose pastoral elegy about John Keats, Adonais, is a foundation document of nineteenth-century literature. Hirsch portrays Hughes as a conversationalist of continuous insights and brave humor, who enjoyed writing about artists and authors, often in shades of mourning. 

“In Florence” is a surprisingly cheerful souvenir of encountering Marilyn in Italy via the reports of her death featured in local tabloids. The headlines cited in the poem are easily translated: Marilyn Is Dead! Marilyn, Farewell! The rhetoric of such long-distance elegies balances images of the busy metropolis, redolent with historical associations, and the solitary fact showcased in the newspaper—a tactic made famous by Frank O’Hara in his nostalgic lyric of 1959 about Billie Holiday, “The Day Lady Died.” My former colleague at the University of Michigan, Gorman Beauchamp, has ventured a claim about the different worlds: “I think [Hughes] has Florence wrong. Its similarities to Hollywood are what register. After all, the first blonde bombshell was Florentine—Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—the rest are her avatars.”

Hughes’s elegy emphasizes the location in order to heighten the elevation of MM as a world personality beloved, or at least recognized, by people everywhere: the GIs who watched her perform in Korea; the editors of French periodicals who featured her in supportive essays; the courthouse appearances in Washington, DC in defense of her husband, Arthur Miller, who was stigmatized in court and Congress as a so-called communist. As with most posthumous commentaries, the stream of moral affirmation assures readers that Marilyn’s ghostly presence will haunt and inspire admirers far into the future. Was she religious? In her biography of Marilyn, Lois Banner traced the pious habits of showgirls such as Mary Pickford, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Doris Day, who practiced the rituals of Christian Science with MM side by side. Jayne Mansfield mocked Marilyn repeatedly in the comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), a transparently Jewish satire purged from her imagination, heightening the intensity of their rivalry. Mansfield’s awkward behavior spelled doom for her ambition, which was cut short in any case when she was killed in an automobile accident ten years later.

The most significant marker in Hughes’s poem is the allusion to “Dante’s house,” a bold rhetorical move because it associates the tourist-poet, at least for the duration of this poem, with the magisterial author of one of the most famous elegies in world literature, La Vita Nuova, in which Dante Alighieri’s beloved sweetheart Beatrice Portinari is mythologized as an angel of divine grace destined to be Dante’s guide through Purgatory in the second volume of The Divine Comedy. Daniel Hughes was not familiar with Marilyn Monroe; she was Hollywood royalty—“a queen”—and he an academic flaneur in a city she had never visited. Italy had its own queens—Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale . . . and the formidable Anita Ekberg imported from Sweden by Federico Fellini for brief exposure in La Dolce Vita (1960). 

The rhymed couplet extends the community of cities in the traveler’s imagination: “all Florence preening to be seen. — / . . . the world had lost a queen.” “Preening” is the keyword of the poem. A bird preens when it arranges its feathers with its beak. Humans spend most of a lifetime in efforts to make themselves look attractive and sound eloquent. Florence is preening with pride because of its world-class architectural and painterly attractions. Marilyn achieved fame by preening for the camera, and Hughes is preening in the poem, adjusting suave turns of speech, graceful verbal brushstrokes, and a comforting iambic rhythm with occasional rhyme framing the pleasing images. He is seeking to recapture by formal eloquence the masses of faithful readers disdained by postmodern styles. The “cake cathedral” which sponsors religious songs from its bell tower is one such example. This awesome structure is the Santa Maria del Fiore, an ornate (polychrome marble) house of worship. The name “Marilyn” evokes the names “Maria” and “Mary” and associates them with the spiritual force and visual beauty of the exquisitely decorated cathedrals. 

The poem refuses to mourn the suicide of a beautiful queen; instead, it condescends to Marilyn with sweetened praise: “She was our pet, an apparition we had dreamt.” And for those in his company on the streets who might blame him for lack of profound grief, he has a riddling response: “Firenze was never so blonde, so innocent.” Certainly, Florence was never an innocent city; we can trust the testimony of its most famous citizens—Dante and Machiavelli and the House of Medici—on that matter. Leonardo da Vinci granted eternal life to Mona Lisa while working in Florence on canvases full of angelic blonde goddesses. Marilyn was not a natural blonde. She became a symbol of whiteness, whatever her cosmetic application. And her “real” (birth) name was Norma Jeane Baker, and then (via marriage) Norma Jeane Dougherty, before the Hollywood studios changed it to a memorable alternative with a euphonious lilt. 

It is a bit paradoxical that reflections situated in Florence about a Hollywood star were written by a scholar from Detroit. In his self-reflecting poem about his confrontation with Marilyn’s death, he chooses to situate her memory among the holy and glamorous artworks of European civilization. Such placement marks the loyalty he displays in his profession toward rebellious poets and also his awareness that the nineteenth-century genre of memoir was flourishing in the time period of the 1950s. Writers took to private remembrance as if it embodied—as perhaps it does—the main currents of American authorship, the personal lyric and/or book-length saga of the author’s responses to everyday reminders of life and death. Ben Yagoda made the case in his popular text of 2009, Memoir: “Memoir has become the central form of the culture; not only the way stories are told, but the way arguments are put forth, products and properties marketed, ideas floated, acts justified, reputations constructed or salvaged.”8

Authors of screenplays intuitively felt the psychological need to position Marilyn’s image both in cities and far-off places. Her face and body became the focus of alien speculation. Like grace (her grandmother’s name) she was potentially at home wherever she was seen or applauded. This dynamic is true of most poems about celebrities. But in order to admire Marilyn, or to transform and eternize her further—to “pull a body / from marble finer than Carrara’s best”—the host country and the grieving tourist needed to testify convincingly, plangently, about the enduring tragedy of the subject’s premature death. Poems become an essential part of the occult Mysteries, as they address their fallen subjects in the European and Asian vaults from which further testimonials, including films, will eventually be extracted. Percy Shelley had evaluated a similar situation in his memorial poem of 1812, “To Harriet,” addressed to his first wife, who committed suicide by drowning, in England, when Shelley abandoned her and settled in Italy:

It is not blasphemy to hope that Heaven
More perfectly will give those nameless joys
Which throb within the pulses of the blood
And sweeten all that bitterness which Earth
Infuses in the heaven-born soul.9

Hughes composes a softer leave-taking, less melodramatic, being freer to exhibit his wit and native idioms without surrendering the decorum and solemnity of the classical tribute. 


1. The precise names of people cited and quoted in this essay require consideration. The chief figure bore several names well known to her massive audience. “Marilyn” is the fundamental and formal identity choice. The editor of this essay has chosen to favor the readership that prefers to speak of their admired star using a range of names. Exceptional book-length commentary on her life and times began with Fred Lawrence Guiles’s 1969 history of Marilyn’s life and then even higher eminence thanks to Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography (1973).

The foregoing remarks lead to another frame of description and judgment. I choose to set aside without comment the many cases of suicide by modern poets who preside in texts devoted to twentieth-century literary history. I cite two examples for clarity. Hart Crane’s leap into the Atlantic in 1932 has received abundant interpretive response, including whole books of explication. Anne Sexton, united in close friendship with Sylvia Plath, ended her life in 1974, shortly after Plath’s suicide.

Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 10.

2. Lawrence Joseph, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” The Nation, May 8, 2000.

3. In fall 1995 Michigan Quarterly Review published a poem by Lynn Emanuel in “The Movies: A Centennial Issue.” “Blonde Bombshell” reminded our readers of her exceptional taste and authorial skill. I queried her, and she kindly replied with a letter to the editor [me] about a poem connected to MM in significant ways. The letter’s date is June 20, 2018.  

“Dear Larry, Thanks for being in touch. Interesting question about the poem. Let me put it this way: I intended not to rule MM out. I thought the poem was made more potent by not specifying the bombshell. Especially since MM is the most famous, I thought details of her biography etc. would restrict the poem in some way. So, I would be delighted for you to cite or discuss the poem. For me every blonde bombshell is either MM or her derivative.  

Warmest good wishes, Lynn”

4. Laurence Goldstein, “The Response of American Poets to 9/11: A Provisional Report,” Michigan Quarterly Review 48, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 40–68. William Heyen edited the anthology September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond (Silver Spring, MD: Etruscan Press, 2002).

5. Edna Pontellier is the major character in Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899). As she becomes more sexually liberated, she succumbs to social pressures and drowns herself as a declaration of independence. Carrie Meeber does likewise, a victim of exploitation in Theodore Dreiser’s great novel Sister Carrie (1900). In Edith Wharton’s classic text The House of Mirth (1905), the young luxury-loving Lily Bart enters a complicated relationship with an older Jewish man and suffers appreciable consequences. Vladimir Nabokov’s midcentury chronicle of the damaged Lolita showcases another victim in America’s history of doomed female adolescence. The life and death of young Peyton Loftis in William Styron’s compelling novel Lie Down in Darkness (1951) belongs to this Faulknerian genre of tragic narrative. Note, however, how energetically Simone de Beauvoir distinguishes Brigitte Bardot from “export products” such as MM. BB is a “resolutely modern version of the eternal female commanding a new type of eroticism.” Simone de Beauvoir, Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, trans. Bernard Fretchman (London: André Deutsch and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1961), 8.

6. Linda Gregerson, Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 98. Gregerson’s analytical judgments of outstanding contemporary female poets such as Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Lorna Goodison, and Jorie Graham emphasize the range of “prurience” and “decorum” that makes their work compelling. 

7. Daniel Hughes, You Are Not Stendahl: New and Selected Poems (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 10. Hughes disdained puritanism whenever he encountered its traces. Reviewing a book focused entirely on the poems of Edward Taylor (1642–1729), he erupts with disapproval: “I think Taylor’s wholly unqualified Calvinism is surely one of the most loathsome and stupid strategies of life ever devised.” See Daniel Hughes, “Helping Other People Live Their Lives,” Voices: A Journal of Poetry (January–April 1961): 56. 

8. Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 28.

9. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To Harriet,” The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 672–74, lines 1–5.

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