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America's changing culture

Marilyn Monroe and Me

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 By Alan Caruba  Thursday, August 4, 2011

On August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her Los Angeles home, an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bed. She had become what she had aspired to be, a movie star. I doubt she ever conceived that she would become a cultural icon, the embodiment of sensuality, glamour, and radiant beauty.

In July a 26-foot statue of MM was unveiled in Pioneer Court, Chicago; the work of sculptor Seward Johnson who called it “Forever Marilyn.” Good name because MM is etched into history as surely as President John F. Kennedy to whom she famously sang Happy Birthday.

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan, took note of the present “American unease” saying the reasons for it were in some ways “deeper and more pervasive” than concerns of the current financial crisis. “Some are cultural. Here are only two,” she wrote. “Pretty much everyone over 50 in America feels on some level like a refugee. That’s because they were born in one place—the old America—and live now in another.”

More than a 100 million Americans are over 50, a third of the nation’s population. Noonan said, “They hear a new culture out of the radio, the TV, the billboard, the movie, the talk show. It is so violent, so sexualized, so politicized, so rough. They miss the old America they were born into, 50 to 70 years ago.” That would have been the 1930s to the 1960s.

MM’s death led off the 1960s after a blazing film career from 1950 until her death. Lost amidst much of what has been written about her is the fact that she was a talented actress who could also sing as she demonstrated in now classic films like “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” and in 1959 as I was graduating from the University of Miami,  she created the unforgettable Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in “Some Like It Hot”, starring with Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis.

The Draft ensured I would spend the next two years in the U.S. Army. I was discharged in April 1962. In a very real way, my teen years through high school and into my twenties in college were spent, like millions of young men, dreaming of Marilyn Monroe.

So there are lots of us old men—and women, too—who vividly remember the affect her beauty, her sensuality, and a frisson of innocence, had on us. We marvel that men like Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller would marry her, the former for a brief few months and the latter from 1956 to 1961. By all reports, her fame did not bring much happiness with it.

The rest of us, however, had our lives to live far from the glamour of Hollywood. In 1962 a gallon of gas cost 28 cents, a new car on the average cost just over $3,000. We had a young, handsome president who was married to a stunning woman, Jackie Kennedy, who was a star in her own right. The first Wal-Mart would open its doors in Bentonville, Arkansas. John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule and a British singing group, the Beatles would release their first song, a single “Love Me Do.”

As Peggy Noonan said, it was a very different time, a very different culture, an America with a very different set of values and one locked in an ideological battle with the Soviet Union that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, threatened a kind of Armageddon. The one thing Americans wanted more than anything was peace because memories of World War Two and the Korean War were still sharp in our minds.

We wanted to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. Johnny Carson had taken over as the star of The Tonight Show. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 were coming of age.

As the 1960s came to a close there was a music concert called Woodstock in 1969 and Americans would become aware of “hippies” and a drug culture that appalled the parents of young people who were expected to go to college and get a job, not get high, “tune in and drop out.”

There are a hundred million of us who think that we were very fortunate to have been born into an era where vulgarity, profanity, and deviancy were not celebrated, not required by political correctness to be accepted as normal.

It was not a perfect time. The Civil Rights movement, a century after the end of the Civil War, finally recognized the American principle of equality with laws to back it up, ending segregation and the ugly Jim Crow era I had witnessed while living in the South.

I was busy being a journalist in the 1960s, a front row observer of the turbulence, a participant in the fear of the Soviet Union. I could not have found Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan on the map, but I knew where to find the Berlin Wall whose construction began in August 1961.

Now a huge statue in Chicago demonstrates Marilyn will never die. She has joined the immortals, a fragile foster child who grew up to fulfill her dream of becoming a movie star and became an American icon, dead now 49 years ago.

© Alan Caruba, 2011

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