I know I've written a lot about Marilyn lately but that's because, since my husband bought me a copy of the fabulous photographic book Metamorphosis Marilyn Monroe for Christmas, I've been a little obsessed. I was so dazzled by the photographs in the book that I was prompted to read Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde which had been sitting on my bookshelf for about a decade. I've got no idea why I didn't read it earlier - especially as I've been a fan of Marilyn's films since childhood - but perhaps it had something to do with page length (considerable) and false impressions. One can never really know what celebrities are truly like unless you spend significant time with them (I've met enough of them in my time to know) but overall the impression I've had over the last few years - contrary to the 'difficult' persona cultivated by the gossip press while Marilyn was alive - is of someone damaged but also very likeable. Blonde is a novel - it is not a biography - but it draws on Marilyn's life heavily and is a powerful story of celebrity, beauty, sexuality and womanhood.
Anyway, back to the pretty pictures ...
It was only on receiving Metamorphosis that I discovered this amazing set of photographs Marilyn sat for with Richard Avedon for the December 22 1958 edition of Life magazine. Labelled the 'siren' series of photos, in them Marilyn poses as greats from Hollywood's past: Clara Bow, Jean Harlow, Lillian Russell, Marlene Dietrich and Theda Bara.
A letter from Marilyn's publicist Joe Wolhandler in January 1959 (courtesy of the book MM Personal) says the 'issue of Life magazine that carried your picture set an all-time record in sales. More copies were sold of that issue than any other issue in the history of Life. The figure was 6,300,000 and more could have been sold if they had printed more. Life's circulation department tells me that this is the highest circulation figure in their entire publishing career.'
In the latter part of her career Marilyn was very much in control of her own image. These pictures are testament to Avedon's talent and Marilyn's smarts. And they go to prove that retro has always been in vogue for portrait and fashion photography. Even in the 1950s they glamorised the flapper age.