Art-book publisher Taschen creates books so sensual and lavish that when you are finished reading them you feel, whether you are married or not, as though you had just cheated on your spouse. When the book happens to be Taschen’s latest offering, “Marilyn,” that feeling is not so irrational. This stupendous creation is as much coffee table as coffee table book. It is a 16-inches-by-12-inches, 235-page volume housed in an enormous Kodak box, filled with stunning photographs of Marilyn Monroe taken by Hungarian photographer Andre de Dienes. (It is so massive that Marilyn’s most ardent fans will quickly discover that it is too cumbersome for bedtime reading.) Accompanying the photographs are excerpts from de Dienes’s candid but gentlemanly memoir of his time spent with Marilyn, who met the photographer when was a fresh-faced aspiring model named Norma Jeane Dougherty.
The earliest photos are all white teeth, ginger hair, and blue skies. Driving around the West together just after World War II, Andre shot Norma Jeane everywhere a lonely urban dweller might dream of spending time with a pretty girl. She beams at us from the beach, the desert, and the mountains. She flirts with us amid autumn leaves, behind a wagon wheel, atop a giant pumpkin. Her outfits are as naughty as they are innocent. The most striking is a farm-girl ensemble that reveals pink-and-white underpants peeping above the waist of crispy denims. This is mid-century American cheesecake at its best. Playboy with clothes on.
A few years later, De Dienes photographed Marilyn during a New York publicity tour for “Love Happy.” Even though she appears only briefly in the film (opposite Groucho Marx), the press has already picked up her scent. She is on the brink of stardom and feels it. In these sessions, Marilyn adores the camera almost as much as it adores her. She scampers confidently on Jones Beach, hair golden, skin luminous, body ripened. A startling transformation. Because de Dienes, her friend and mentor, was partially responsible for it, it is no wonder he conveys it so vividly.
Later, more troubling sides of Marilyn emerge. Always desperate to be taken seriously, she poses self-consciously with a movie script next to a bookcase on which sits a photo of Eleanora Duse; lounging naked in bed, entwined in a sheet, she smiles like she just swallowed something unseemly (the canary?); doing her calisthenics by the pool, she seems not to notice or care that her pubic hair curls shamelessly from her shorts.
Their last session together is the most haunting, exquisite, and, I suspect, enduring of the lot. Late one night, Marilyn, suffering from insomnia, proposed to Andre that he take pictures of her in a dark alleyway. Lighting her only with the headlights of his car, Andre obliged, capturing her tormented essence. We glimpse at last the void that lurks in the heart of even the most gaudy narcissist.
De Dienes created his final shots of Marilyn after she was found dead in her Brentwood home. He superimposed his loveliest, simplest images of Marilyn onto sunsets, nightscapes, and beds of flowers. This is hagiolatry at its most flagrant, the apotheosis of dorm-room art. While it will make the fillings of any serious lover of photography ache, Monroe’s devotees will swoon.
De Dienes died in 1985. He might have been forgotten entirely were it not for the efforts of his widow, Shirley T. Ellis de Dienes, and Steve Crist, who together edited this book, and Bendeikt Taschen who was planning to publish a book on de Dienes’s work before he even knew of the Norma Jeane archive. Thanks to a smartly bound photocopy of the original typescript of his memoir, de Dienes will live on in another way.