Forbes magazine publishes a list of “Top-earning Dead Celebrities” every year. It is open only to the rich and the famous. Or in this case, the dead rich and the dead famous.
It’s a fascinating, if highly vulgar compilation, of the power and profitability of the deceased. The list varies from year to year depending on new entries, but there are certain names which rarely fall out of the top ten. It is usually because an estate or an image has been carefully nurtured, or to put it more bluntly, successfully exploited; a dead cash cow is still a cash cow (see Michael Jackson and before him, Elvis).
But the earning potential of the celebrity death industry, for that is what it has become, also cancels out any thought of what may, or may not be, appropriate. It is almost as if the usual rules and standards no longer apply and in the case of Marilyn Monroe, a regular on the dead rich list, everything is of interest and everything is for sale.
That’s what happens when you become public property. According to the last Forbes list, Monroe earned an impressive $10 million (£6.3m) in 2011. Not bad for a dumb blonde, particularly a dead dumb blond. It’s far more than she earned while she was alive and still making films. The figure for 2012 should be even higher; last year marked the 50th anniversary of her death – a date that was marked by a slew of new biographies and documentaries. It begs the question: what is left to say or to sell?
The answer is very little indeed.
But that does not take into account the ghoulish and on-going fascination with Monroe. From her diaries to her dresses, her false eyelashes to her melon-ball scooper, they’ve all at some point gone to the highest bidder. It means that the search for memorabilia has become ever more desperate. Tasteless and inapprop-riate scraps can command thousands of dollars. The latest such offering was put up for sale this week: an account of Monroe’s medical history and a set of X-rays taken just months before she died of an overdose. It is more than tacky. Then again, X-rays of Monroe’s chest sold for $45,000 a few years ago.
But this latest “discovery” has been loaded with false significance. It’s claimed the notes prove that Monroe, still judged to be one of the world’s most beautiful women, had had plastic surgery and wasn’t all that she seemed. They appear to confirm that she’d had a chin implant – which had started to dissolve by 1962 – and had also had a nose job earlier in her career. They are mere tweaks by today’s standards. But the notes also record an ectopic pregnancy. Why someone would want to buy such information, never mind sell it, is anyone’s guess. It’s surely a grubby betrayal, but then doctors had always made money out of Monroe. Today, it’s made easier by the fact she’s a business, not a person.
And for that, she must take much of the blame. Monroe’s enduring appeal is down to having the good grace to never grow old. Her face, body and voice remain forever young; time, alcohol and prescription pills haven’t left their mark. Dying at the height of her powers – it is easy to forget she was only 36 – guaranteed not only movie icon status, but tragic movie icon status. That’s what makes her so bankable – and vulnerable – even now.
So what do these private medical records tell us? Nothing very much. We already knew that Monroe was a Hollywood creation.
She changed her name, dyed her hair, wanted to be someone else and became someone else. It was an illusion and one that she and the studio pulled off together. She created another version of herself, one designed to seduce. She might not have been a great actress but she was a great star.
She’s also a dead woman who has been picked over and examined too many times. Revealing the secrets of her nose and chin and an unsuccessful pregnancy, smacks of bad taste and desperation. We knew she was troubled and unhappy. We don’t need to rake through her medical records for proof. Isn’t it time we simply left Marilyn alone?