Not the Marilyn Kind; Christopher Caldwell, unmoved by Marilyn

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Byline: Christopher Caldwell

“Decaying industrial cities” are no longer a blot on the American landscape. What we have now is decayed industrial cities. From a certain vantage point–the consumerist one–the empty shells of these places are more pleasant than the actual, living cities were. Factories, tanneries, and high schools have been refitted to serve the people who survived them, whether as malls or as assisted-living facilities. The firehouse is now the Firehouse Pub. Stan’s Muffler Shop has become Melissa’s Muffin Shop. It is not urban planning so much as taxidermy.

I am writing this in an exceptionally pleasant place in such a city–a coffee shop with high-speed Internet. The people who run it are Albanians. How the place is decorated probably has a lot to do with when it opened: in the years just after September 11, 2001, when the distrust of newcomers that is usual in blighted cities was running high. What Americans know about Albania is easily summed up, and some of it may even be true: It’s full of Muslims. It once had a king named Zog who was 7 feet tall and sailed away with its national treasury. Bill Clinton bombed Serbia to smithereens in order to enlarge it. Its economy is dominated by what you might call, if you were being polite, an impressive stolen-car sector.

Aside from a couple of photos of the owners’ native village, this place is a shrine to American culture. There are photographs of American haystacks, American country lanes, and the New York skyline. There is one of those “old-fashioned” pressed-tin ceilings that materialized simultaneously in every yuppie eatery in the country around 1998. The Weather Channel plays all day long on a flat-screen TV. This is immigrant assimilation of the more-Catholic-than-the-pope variety. If a native doesn’t feel comfortable here, there is something wrong with him.

And that is why the gigantic black-and-white photograph of Marilyn Monroe in modest autumn dress leaves me ill at ease, as photographs of Marilyn Monroe always do. If she is the great American sex symbol, then there is something I am missing about either sex or (preferably) America. Really, this is not contrarianism–from almost four centuries’ distance, I can see quite clearly what Charles II saw in Nell Gwynne, and from two I can see the Maja through Goya’s eyes. But Marilyn Monroe?

The message that that big black-and-white poster in the Albanian coffee shop intends to convey is: “Her matchless beauty haunted the dreams of passionate men, and goaded them to scale the summits of poetic eloquence.” But the message it conveys to me is something more like: “Her tuna-noodle casserole is always a hit at the PTA potluck.” Or maybe: “She has a kind word for everyone who walks into the hardware store.”

Over the years, I have confided to a few friends this terrible secret: The feelings Marilyn Monroe arouses in me can be printed in a family magazine. To my relief, I find I am not alone. At the end of the day, she is a bit like Marmite: Either you love it or you miss the whole point of it. The question is how she came to be considered the cynosure on which all American libidos converged.

Since those inclined to make a big cultural deal of Marilyn Monroe have tended to be either (like Norman Mailer) pretentious or (like Andy Warhol) frivolous, one suspects a cultural fraud. Many of the values that dominated life in the period from 1914 to 1989 proved to be not waves of the future but ephemeral delusions: Communism in politics, Modernism in the arts, Freudianism in social relations. What makes us so sure the culture’s conception of sex appeal was not similarly misdirected?

But there is a second possibility: that her appeal, while genuine, was never so much sexual as social. In a sexist age, masculine power of various kinds swirled around her. She became iconic because Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio, and the Kennedys saw her as iconic. How come? It is probably not an accident that all of those men were of recent immigrant stock. The Sicily that Joe DiMaggio’s parents fled produced great things, but not Marilyn Monroes. Back then she was a symbol of America, not for America. We shouldn’t expect her to reflect the average American’s idea of sex any more than Maurice Chevalier reflects the average Frenchman’s idea of culture. The prize she represented was not sex but belonging. The wall of an immigrant-run cafe in a changing American city in the Internet age is probably the most natural place on earth for her to be.

Christopher Caldwell