Joan Didion’s Tribute to Marilyn

Joan Didion, considered one of America’s prose stylists, cut her teeth as a junior editor at Vogue. One such assignment was for the magazine’s September 1962, accompanying Bert Stern’s fashion shoot with Marilyn from that summer, showing her modelling the black Christian Dior dress seen above, and clothes by her favourite designers, Norman Norell. Sadly, Marilyn’s death meant the resulting pictorial had a very different tone than originally envisioned. And as Brian Dillon reveals in the New Yorker today, it was Joan Didion who wrote the accompanying text, which stands out as one of the most thoughtful eulogies for Marilyn.

“In the early nineteen-sixties, while on the staff of Vogue, Joan Didion was only half known to the magazine’s readers. Her name appeared intermittently … She wrote about Dr. No and The Manchurian Candidate; about the atom bomb, Telstar, and the construction of the Guggenheim; about the budding careers of Willem de Kooning, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand; and about the death of Marilyn Monroe, whom she called ‘a profoundly moving young woman.’ And she composed photo captions: those ‘signposts,’ as Walter Benjamin put it, that had become essential to the printed magazine page in the twentieth century.”

Devorah MacDonald revisited Didion’s short essay – including her captions and even a poetic fragment – in full (uncredited until now) in a 2011 post for her devodotcom blog.

“The word of Marilyn Monroe’s death came just as this issue of Vogue went on the press. After the first shock of tragedy, we debated whether it was technically possible to remove the pages from the printing forms. And then while we waited for an answer from our printers, we decided to publish the photographs in any case. For these were perhaps the only pictures of a new Marilyn Monroe – a Marilyn who showed outwardly the elegance and taste which we learned that she had instinctively; an indication of her lovely maturity, an emerging from the hoyden’s shell into a profoundly beautiful, profoundly moving young woman.”

“In the contemporary fable her allure was infallible off-screen, too. Yet, in the phrase of a practiced observer, ‘No woman could dislike her.'”

“Shy, witty, inventive, she walked through the long Vogue sittings in what Norman Norell called her ‘Funny short-cuts.’ (One of his favourites on Joe DiMaggio’s looks: ‘He’s just a Michelangelo.’)”

“the magnificent blond image
in the American memory-stream,
in the great film collections,
in movie houses as
unlikely as Tehran’s …”

“She has given a warm delight to millions of people, made them smile affectionately, laugh uproariously, love her to the point of caring deeply – often aggressively – about her personal unhappiness. That she withstood the incredible, unknowable pressures of her public legend as long as she did is evidence of the stamina of the human spirit. Too late one can only wish that somehow, somewhere that pressure might have been lifted long enough to let her find the key to the self behind the public image. The waste seems almost unbearable if out of her death comes nothing of insight into her special problems; no step towards a knowledge that might save, for the living, these beautiful and tormented.”