If I were to make a list of Dispensable National Assets (DNA’s), at the tip would be Joan Rivers. No, I don’t wanna talk. But when Channel 29’s News billboarded her guest as superfem Gloria Steinem a while back, I decided to test my late-night capacity to resist nausea.
Gloria was in excelsis Deo over her book Marilyn Monroe. Yuck. Did we need a 41st major volume to commemorate the silver anniversary of MM’s death? Rivers also was touting a recent issue of Star, which bad a big puff on the centennial of Hollywood.
As a certified centennial analyzer (Americans are afflicted with an unfortunately non-terminal disease called centennialitis, or AIDS of the mind, presumably caused by a mutant virus when the affliction of nostalgia crosses endemic amnesia), I went prowling for a Star. It’s one of those supermarket boobloids, and I’d never had the experience of making a request wrapped in brown paper.
In it, I learned that Hollywood was founded by a Kansas prohibitionist, and that the florally sexy name came from the summer home in Illinois of a chance acquaintance on the train. Marvelous. A prohibitionist’s haven destined to be the Booze Capital of the Universe was christened in hype, the four-letter word that was soon to form the soul of Tinseltown.
The only time I found myself at the corner of Hollywood and Vine was when I attended the world premiere of Selma!, the 1975 musical on Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Huntington Hartford Theatre. Actually, the cross street, incredibly enough, was Selma. Tommy Taylor, a black Vegas night club singer, had had a sort of religious experience about bringing King’s message to a popular audience. I love it. The choreography for the march from Selma to Montgomery was funky stompin’.
It was too good for Hollywood. Later at a cast / sponsor after-party at the Brown Derby, I asked Redd Foxx why he was putting his hard-earned bucks behind so speculative a venture as a sociological musical. His answer was Sanford clear: “So young black entertainers coming along won’t have to put up with the crap I had to in Hollywood.” So it was only because I feel that Gloria Steinem can do no wrong that I picked up her Marilyn / Norma Jeane (Henry Holt, $24.95) from a FLOP rack. It’s an absorbing probe of pre-feminist exploitation of working-class women by sick and craven men. When Norma Jeane was given the nom de marquee Marilyn Monroe (the former to suggest Marilyn Miller, he latter a family name that was euphonius) she had to ask autograph seekers how to spell Marilyn. Maybe to deliver on her cute boast to newsmen that she was “blonde all over,” she began to bleach her pubic hair, once badly burning herself.
Her eager regimen of self-education led her to The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, about which she wrote in her unpublished autobiography that Steinem uses brilliantly in her seven essays: “bitter but strong … He knew all about poor people and about injustice. He knew about the lies people used to get ahead, and how smug rich people sometimes were. It was almost as if he’d lived the hard way I’d lived. I loved his book.”
But not producer Joe Mankiewicz, who warned her not to drag such stuff onto the set during the McCarthy frenzy: “I wouldn’t go around raving about Lincoln Steffens,” he counseled his innocent starlet. That sorely misused human being (her early life reads like a handbook on the varieties of child abuse) was sort of a Rorschach blot on whom individuals projected their own characters.
Compare Groucho Marx’s playfully generous epithet—“Mae West, Theda Bara, and Bo-Peep all rolled into one”—with Jack Paar’s bitchy snarl—“I fear that beneath the façade of Marilyn, here was only a frightened waitress in a diner.” Or Mailer’s macho rumination that having sex with her would be like having ice cream. (To his frustration, he never got a single scoop.)
Steinem ends her speculations about this emblem of our national imagination’s malaise with believable guesses about what Monroe might have made of herself were she 60 today.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large