Marilyn Monroe is emblematic of the enigma of celebrity. Although she resides as one of the most famous women in history, the unadorned Marilyn Monroe remains a mystery. She started out in an orphanage, got a job painting army supplies in a war-effort warehouse and ended up becoming one of the first pop culture paradigms for the great engine of social mobility that was fame.
However, with her meteoric rise wrapped in rumour, salacious gossip and leaked nude images, she remained guarded in her own liberated way. Despite the howling press, she did not regress into herself, even when nude images hit the headlines in the staunchly conservative era she arose, she proudly took ownership of them and brought about further progression. It was this daring attitude that Bert Stern always tried to capture in his strikingly intimate images of the star.
Away from the world of celluloid prints, the author, filmmaker and all-round creative force Norman Mailer also sought to get to depth of Monroe in his novel Marilyn. In his extraordinary biography on the star he delves as deep as anyone ever has into her life remaining typically unflinching throughout. In his classic trial-esque defence of the book for the New Yorker he famously wrote the following…
“Originally, I wished to title it Of Women and Their Elegance, by Marilyn Monroe as told to Norman Mailer, but it was decided the title could prove misleading to the public, who might think the interview had actually taken place. I suppose it would be better to describe the text as a false autobiography. Or an imaginary memoir, since the story, but for a few recollections, only covers a period of three or four years in her life.”
It is this acerbic style that Mailer possessed, whether right or wrong, that makes the pair a befitting match and in his own way, he does indeed capture the essence of Monroe, even if at times he does let his unkindness through the cracks. The same can almost be said of the images of Bert Stern, who although tender in his exposition, seemed also obsessed with the intimacy of the star.
In the unique Taschen publication, Norman Mailer/Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe they have pared the striking images with the equally evocative prose that encapsulates her best. As the publication says itself: “TASCHEN has paired Mailer’s original text (his 1973 biography Marilyn) with Bert Stern’s extraordinary photographs—widely considered the most intimate ever taken of Monroe—to create a fitting tribute to the woman who, at the time of her death in 1962, was the world’s most famous, a symbol of glamour and eroticism for an entire generation.”
Adding: “But though she was feted and adored by her public, her private life was that of a little girl lost, desperate to find love and security. Mailer’s Marilyn is beautiful, tragic, and complex. As Mailer reflects upon her life—from her bleak childhood through to the mysterious circumstances of her death—she emerges as a symbol of the bizarre decade during which she reigned as Hollywood’s greatest female star.”
Perhaps the true depths to Monroe will now never be revealed to us, but what is indeed striking is how truly important a figure she was. In the images below we can catch a glimpse of the star at her innermost resonant, and with it see both the veil of fame lifted and the beauty, charm and liberation that not only got her there in the first place, but made her a hero whose force we still feel today.