By 1958, Marilyn Monroe’s life was beginning to unravel. Her relationship with husband the playwright Arthur Miller was not the idyll she had hoped. She would parade guests around their apartment into his study to show off the great writer at work before telling these guests to be quiet as darling Arthur is hard at work on another play. He was working on an essay called “My Wife” and notes for a screenplay called The Misfits which captured the failings in their marriage.
That year Monroe posed for a series of photographs taken by Richard Avedon for Life Magazine. The photographs were to accompany an article titled “Fabulous Enchantresses” where Monroe recreated five famous actresses. These were Lillian Russell, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, and Marlene Dietrich. Though Avedon was not completely happy with the photographs, the pictures appeared in the Christmas issue of Life. This issue also included Miller‘s article “My Wife” which introduced Monroe’s “Fabulous Enchantresses”.
As in life so in these pictures — [Marilyn] salutes fantasy from the shore of the real until there comes a moment when she carries us, reality and all, into the dream with her, and we are grateful. Her wit here consists of her absolute commitment to two ordinarily irreconcilable opposites — the real feminine and the man’s fantasy of femininity. We know she knows the difference in these pictures, but is refusing to concede that there is any contradiction, and it is serious and funny at the same time.
I am quite conceivably prejudiced, but I think this collection is a wonder of Marilyn’s wittiness. As Lillian Russell, Marilyn sits [on] the solid gold bicycle just inexpertly enough to indicate that she is, after all, a lady… Her hands lace around the bike handles so much more femininely than they grasp the fan as Clara Bow. And here again is the difference between imitation and interpretation, between making an affect and rendering a spirit.
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