“She was thinking that, after all, feet are the most important part of the whole person; women, she said to herself, have been loved for their feet alone.”
—Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting”
I’ve taken some posters of classic movie stars to be framed at the hobby shop, and have laid a photograph of Marilyn Monroe out on a long blond table to be measured. In it she sits on a wicker chair, black emptiness behind her, and bends toward the camera at an angle that pulls her strapless ballerina dress away from her chest. The tulle of the costume spills out over the arms of the chair. She is pigeon-toed, shoeless, and en pointe, her heels lifted off the floor, her weight focused onto her toes.
The clerk who’s helping me looks to be retired, picking up a few dollars to supplement his Social Security, and old enough to have experienced Monroe when her moon of fame first rose, now so long ago. As he takes the dimensions with his tape, he says forcefully, “They should have cut off her feet.” I see him at a job involving machinery, maybe selling chainsaws at Sears. I don’t think he has an artistic eye.
“You don’t mean literally,” I joke with a nervous laugh, hugging my purse closer. I like her feet. Her toenails are painted the same dark shade as her fingernails and lips, squarish disks of color that draw my eye down to her feet and unify the portrait.
“They should have cropped it at her knees. Or if not at her knees, somewhere on that stretch down to her ankles. Who wants to look at her feet?”
“I love her feet,” I interject. “That’s my favorite part of the photo.”
He looks at me funny, like Lady, this is Marilyn Monroe we’re talking about, not some run-of-the-mill dame. You know, the biggest sex symbol in history.
She of the come-hither visage and the plunging cleavage. Though those aren’t the words he’d use.
Besides the extra cash, I’ll bet he likes getting out of the house, away from his nagging wife, a modern-day Mrs. Van Winkle, whose crankiness sent her husband Rip scurrying up the mountain.
I want to put my hands on my hips and say, “I’m aware of who Marilyn Monroe is, thank you.” But I don’t, because I’m grateful for what he didn’t say and he’s right about what people want to look at in a photo of the famous one. To be honest, my protestations of love don’t tell the whole story. I didn’t buy the poster because of her feet. I didn’t even notice them when I stumbled upon it online. The usual reasons compelled me to this photo—the whole superstructure of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic image. I wasn’t thinking about the foundation of the structure, her feet. It took some time living with the photo for me to see that her feet demanded my attention.
Most people would look first at Marilyn Monroe’s famous face. It’s her face that occupies the most forward position in the photograph’s plane, the focal point, as if Milton Greene, the photographer, were saying “Look at her face, look at this amazing face, would you.”
But when the poster arrived, released from its tight cylinder and unrolled, I realized that while we all do look at her face, we don’t see it, not any more. If we lived during her lifetime and while paging through Life magazine came upon this photograph, maybe we’d stop and really see it. Now forty-odd years after her death, her face is too famous. We’ve seen it plastered on coffee cups and T-shirts and greeting cards for our whole lives. Our eyes move to her face, take it in, and say yes, that’s Marilyn Monroe’s face: I recognize the highly arched dark eyebrows, the short platinum mess of curls falling on her forehead just so, I know the straight-ahead look, open and startled and wistful, the lushly painted red lips, slightly parted, slightly panting, as if caught in the act of something, the small dark dot of a beauty mark strategically tattooed in the middle ground between the tip of her nose and the curve of her mouth. The image clicks so perfectly into what we know. There’s nothing unfamiliar about her face to stop us from moving on to the next image to look at, the next thing to read, the next thing to consume.
After all these years of looking at her, what would be required to make us see Marilyn Monroe in a new way? Would she have to be cut up into little fragments and rearranged? Would she have to be propped before us exposed, stripped of makeup and clothes after twenty sleepless nights and standing in the snow, or buried in a mound of dirt like a sad clown, with a fig leaf in her teeth and top hat perched on her beautiful head?
Up until Milton Greene’s portraits of Marilyn in fifty-two themed sittings, like a portfolio of essays, each with a slightly different persona, a different made-up self, photographs of Marilyn were either taken on sets or were glamour shots. With Greene, Marilyn participated in creating the poses—gypsy, saloon girl, circus performer, barely clad ballerina. My photo is one of the best known from the Ballerina Sitting, and is sometimes called Marilyn Monroe in Tutu. The sitting took place at Greene’s studio in New York City in 1954. Ann Klein sent the ballerina dress to the studio, but it was two sizes too small. Most of the poses from the sitting are the result of Marilyn holding the dress together.
I’m looking at the way her dress opens up, the word would be gapes, when I notice the spots sprinkled liberally over her chest up to her neck. Are they freckles? Some of them are big, and might be small moles. I never noticed moles on Marilyn Monroe’s chest before. Either they’ve been carefully camouflaged in her glamour photographs or I didn’t look carefully. She has slightly splotchy skin. But here’s the thing, I find the freckled, mottled skin endearing—more than endearing, I find it compelling, so much more interesting than the alabaster body achieved through thick layers of pancake makeup or airbrushing away all signs of life. There is nothing duller than a smooth, perfect-skinned woman. Marilyn has a trail of freckles leading down to her nipples. We can’t see how far they go, but we can speculate, we can guess, and I guess they go pretty far. Her skin looks like real flesh that has burned in the sun, that flushes red during sex and takes a long time to calm down and compose itself. The skin tone of her chest is defiantly not the tone of her face, which has been made metaphorical by heavy makeup.
Her roughened skin leads me to her arms—the left one is bent awkwardly behind her and disappears into the tissue of her costume, a romantic tutu made of net and soft pink tulle. She’s gripping the dress to keep it from slipping further. She rests her right arm on her leg and bends it up from the elbow so that her outstretched hand reaches her collarbone and her index finger points up to her face as if she were caught mid-sentence. She might be saying something profound, quoting Tolstoy—“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Or something mundane like “God, what I’d give for a cup of coffee.”
So much vies for attention. There’s tension in the portrait—between the sculptural perfection of her face and the fleshiness of her body, between the hand pointing up to her manicured lips and the vulnerability of her feet, between the childlike tutu and the adult sexuality it can’t control. Real ballerinas look otherworldly in their ballerina dresses, slender, mobile dolls whose sliver of humanness has been eradicated in their complete inhabitation of their role. Marilyn pours out of her costume; the ballerina dress, like so many other dresses she wore, will not contain her. She is not a doll, not a ballerina. She is a woman who is more comfortable in a state of undress. There’s a curious incandescence under her skin that bubbles up and spills over.
In looking at Marilyn, I can’t keep myself out of the picture. I remember a dress I wore in college that bears a resemblance to Marilyn’s ballerina dress. I had been cast in the role of Heavenly Finlay in The Sweet Bird of Youth, which calls for Heavenly to “parade” about in a white dress as the perfect virgin. The limited resources of the college had turned up exactly one dress properly virginal for me to wear—a strapless white chiffon whose bodice was form fitting and whose skirt sashayed. The problem was it didn’t fit. Like Marilyn’s, it was two sizes too small. In other photos from the Ballerina Sitting, you see that the back of her dress was unfastened, held together by her hand or simply left drifting open to expose the slope of her back. It wasn’t an option for me to hold the dress loosely upon my body, allowing it to slip and slide. I was pushed and prodded into the dress—many hands did the work, and I was told to hold my breath until the tracks of the zipper could be closed. It was a coffin of a dress.
In a photographic still from the production I am seated in my white dress upon a chair in the center of the stage’s black space just like Marilyn. Only Marilyn manages to look at ease in a dress that won’t stay put, and I look like I am embarrassed. I can’t lean forward or move or smile. I can’t breathe and my breasts are going to pop right out of that dress. Playing Heavenly may have been my greatest performance. I was anything but a reed-like virgin; I may have been the only married student at Pomona College. I couldn’t think about my lines or who I was supposed to be because all my energy was focused on staying inside the dress, terrified that if I exhaled or moved suddenly, the zipper, so laboriously cloven together, would undo itself and the whole length of the dress would heave apart, and I, in my fleshiness would fall out for the world to see, or at least those in the audience.
I had a body more like Marilyn Monroe’s than Twiggy’s, but unlike Marilyn, I didn’t know what to do with mine. I wanted to put my body into a big sack and throw it to the back of the closet with all the rest of my messy life. I spent my youth trying to fit that dress, fastening zippers, buttoning buttons, cramming myself into a smaller size made for a different body. Marilyn was happiest when her clothes were falling off; the halls in her house were littered with discarded dresses, underwear, and, of course, shoes.
“Do you have a thing for feet, a foot fetish?” the clerk asks with more than a hint of aggression.
“Not that I know of,” I reply, looking sheepishly down at my feet sheathed in worn-out boots, standing solidly on the linoleum floor made filthy by holiday shoppers. Shopping carts clog the aisles, pushed by bundled-up women looking for bargains on ornaments and artificial wreaths. When I stop to listen, I hear the endless clattering of wheels.
But maybe I do notice feet more than the average person. When I think of my mother, I think of her feet. Their extreme narrowness meant that she was forever twisting them; they just gave out without warning. Her feet were like willow-thin canoes: size 9, quadruple A. That’s 9AAAA. Better as the subject of photography than as the proper foundation to support her. I inherited my mother’s flat skinny feet, and passed them onto my own daughter: we are the women of useless feet. Pretty to look at, but they break down when we try to cross the street. Dancing in a tight dress across a treacherous stage in high-heels is out of the question. Given this personal history, I look to see whether a person stands on sturdy feet or doesn’t. I ask: how wide is her stance, how high is her arch, does she totter on tiny feet in bondage to her past?
Marilyn Monroe stood on sturdy feet. Her feet are perfectly proportionate to the rest of her body. A very normal size 7. Not too thin, not too wide, just right, with a good arch to support her. She did not totter in high-heels. But in the photos that weren’t movie stills or publicity shots, she is often shoeless, running on the beach, lying on beds, chaise lounges, beach blankets, talking on the phone at home, or famously reading James Joyce’s Ulysses on a jungle gym scrunching up her toes. The woman liked to go barefoot. She liked to touch the ground, feel where she was even when reading. In her “jump” portrait taken by Phillippe Halsman in 1954, she achieves the height and compactness of a trained gymnast. She hangs in black space, in nothingness, yet it’s as if there’s an invisible thread, a, electrical connection of some sort, running from her head down to the ground, powering her and mooring her to the spot, drilling a hole where she’ll eventually land.
Some people cover lots of miles in their lives, traveling a far distance from where they began. Marilyn Monroe’s nomadic life began as an orphan and she was in and out of different residences her whole life, never staying long anywhere. The number of her addresses exceeds the number of years she lived. She once said she never belonged to anything or anyone. Her life, a series of arrivals and departures, hellos and goodbyes.
And some people dwell, circling where they are in ever penetrating waves that make their way down.
She wanted to get somewhere—fame, success, stardom. And early on she was willing to do what it took to reach her goals. But part of her, was a dweller, someone who wanted to kick off her high-heel shoes so her feet could touch the ground, to bury her toes in sand, someone who wanted to get down and dirty, down real deep, and who wanted to stay in one place, where she could turn from east to west, and north to south, to see where in the world she belonged. After the end of her marriage to Arthur Miller, she bought the first residence that would be hers alone in Brentwood, California. She had this Latin inscription embedded in the tiles at the entrance: “Cursum Perficio,” or “I have completed my journey.”
Greene hasn’t subjected Marilyn to any radical reinvention or artistic assault. Yet his portrait has made me see something new about one of the most photographed women in the world. Perhaps finding something new involves more than just the composition of the photograph. Perhaps it involves more than just looking carefully. I had to enter the photo, get inside it, move up and down and up again, from side to side, circling the photo from all angles and yet holding all its parts in my head.
I’ve chosen my wood and glass, paid my bill, and take a last look at Marilyn before handing her over for framing. To the clerk and the people waiting in line behind me, I say, “Your eye wants to go elsewhere. But do not cast it on the varicolored portraits lined up by Warhol, the drooping, heavy eyes, the damaged lines of dialogue and empty set, the bottles of Nembutal. Look at her feet, will you. Look at her amazingly alive feet.”