“Multiple Marilyn,” a Memoir

By Joanne Pateman

    When my friend Matthew came to visit and went to use the bathroom, he came out and said, “Wow, I never peed in front of Marilyn Monroe before.” He was referring to the poster made up of 36 photos of her that hangs over my toilet.

    Marilyn Monroe stares down at me every time I go to the bathroom. Her images are reflected in the mirror above the sink and when I turn to flush, she’s right in my face. Sometimes, I look closely and examine each of her body parts. I find flaws — legs too short with no shape, a bulge of a belly and soft, flabby upper arms, the type of flaccid flesh that waves at you in middle age.

    But when the not-perfect parts come together, they form a sexy, voluptuous whole woman. I think of her holding her white skirt down as she stands over a subway grate in “The Seven Year Itch,” and of her lascivious rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mister President,” in a nude-colored, skin-tight gown that she had to be sewn into, creating the illusion that she was naked.

    She wasn’t just a symbol; she was flesh and blood with a little cellulite. She loved to read and she wrote poetry. And she liked to cook. The New York Times printed her handwritten recipe for turkey stuffing in its food pages. “Boil the livers or hearts for eight minutes in salted water, then chop until no piece is larger than a coffee bean. No garlic,” it said.

    One of the photos shows her dressed demurely in pink and white gingham, a good little girl. Marilyn in gingham reminded me of a black-and-white gingham dress I wore when I was 16. It was tight under the bodice and pushed my modest breasts together, creating an impression of more volume than really existed.

    In another photo her face is raised as if inviting a kiss, her full lips parted and welcoming, her eyelids at half-mast in anticipation, her sultry eyes slits from just-awakening sleep. I wish I looked that good waking up.

    Marilyn was abundance, a cornucopia of desire. In another photo she looks like a piece of ripe fruit. “Take a bite,” she seems to suggest. Her soft, cushiony bosom overflowed from her low-cut top. Rubens-like curves pleased the eye. Without make-up, a scattering of freckles sprinkled across her nose made her look like a mischievous Norma Jean. Despite all her natural beauty, she lacked self-confidence.

    Being beautiful doesn’t happen to everyone. I am one of the lucky ones. I was a model for 15 years doing ads for Revlon, Clairol, Breck, and Almay cosmetics. Beauty is a gift but it’s also a challenge. Going into an audition with a dozen equally beautiful blonde models was disconcerting, as if I had been cloned. I couldn’t see much difference between the golden beauties, so I don’t know how the casting people did. But I got to go to Madrid to film an Ultrabrite toothpaste commercial where I blew a kiss to a handsome matador in a bullring. I went to Finland on a fashion shoot during the summer solstice and remember coming out of a restaurant at 11 p.m. and being surprised by the bright light. In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a three-piece mariachi band serenaded our arrival at the airport. I went to Florida and California for fashion shoots and battled mosquitoes in Haiti. I was getting paid to learn about other cultures. I worked as a model in Paris for a year, where I learned French slang, the correct use of the subjunctive, how to make a cheese soufflé, and that red table wine in carafes was good and inexpensive.

    I don’t know if Marilyn took being beautiful for granted. I did. Beauty was something I accepted without question. It’s lucky DNA. It’s better to be good looking than not, but I couldn’t take any credit for my appearance. Perhaps ironically, what I looked like motivated me to study harder and to excel at school. I desperately didn’t want anyone to think beauty and intelligence were mutually exclusive. I enjoyed the positive reinforcement I perceived in a teacher’s eyes when I answered a difficult question. I loved to read. I chose classics over thrillers every time. And I wrote poems . . . like Marilyn.

    As I grew older, I got used to the admiring glances from strangers. But I no longer stop traffic. My hair is now white. I save lots of money on the blonde highlights I used to get regularly so I can afford good haircuts. I eat what I want without having to worry about maintaining an unrealistic weight. But best of all I can feed my mind. I live in the present and embrace and squeeze the essence from each day like a juicy orange. I’m too busy to notice exactly when being beautiful lost its importance. Beauty ebbed and vanished so slowly and imperceptibly, I hardly missed it.

    Recently at Oren’s, a coffee shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I sat in the window, sipping my java, and watched the warp and weft of human traffic weave itself along the street. As I dropped my cup in the garbage, I heard a male voice: “Let me get the door for you.” I looked up and saw a tall, attractive, 60-something, silver-haired gentleman pulling on the handle. He was well dressed in a camel overcoat, white shirt, and tie. I caught his look like a baseball in a glove. I could almost hear the thwack as it hit. Our eyes connected. I felt beautiful and wanted. I walked through the proffered door delighted with myself and wore a silly smile that made my wrinkles crease up in delight. I was no longer invisible.

    Marilyn, however, stays frozen in time. I am aging but Marilyn didn’t get a chance to age. Marilyn died when she was 36. I look at a photo of myself at the same age and see a young mother with two children, working as an art director, creating TV commercials and print ads. I got to see my kids educated and married with children of their own.

    I was putting eyebrow pencil on my thinning, graying eyebrows when my daughter’s son Cullen asked me, “JoJo, what are you doing?” Using every moment as a teaching opportunity, I explained that my eyebrows were disappearing and that we needed eyebrows for expression. Later that day my daughter found Cullen in a corner drawing with a pencil on his forehead.

    “What are you doing?” she asked.

    “Putting on my eyebrows, just like JoJo.”

    Cullen once convinced me to wear a small red Christmas ball and one green one on my gold Tiffany hoops when we were taking him to see “The Nutcracker” in San Francisco. “JoJo, you will be much more beautiful this way.” I was charmed.

    There’s a book about Marilyn called “Fragments” that has a photograph of her reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It shows she’s near the end of the book. Do you suppose she might be have been reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy? And what did she think of its life-affirming ending, “ . . .Yes. I said yes I will. Yes.”?

    The Marilyn poster in my bathroom is a portrait of an icon, a famous movie star, and also a lesson in beauty. It’s about acceptance — of the flaws I possess — the little paunch, the five pounds to lose, the encroaching crinkly laugh lines, and the red, broken spider veins on thighs.

    I’m lucky. Luck is beautiful.

    Joanne Pateman received a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Southampton College. She has previously published fiction and “Guestwords” columns in The Star.