By J.B. Miller
We all know about the 27 Club, that cabal of live-fast, die-young rockers who kicked off before they could pay off their mortgages (Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, et al). But this August it’s jubilee season at the 36 Club, when we mark the anniversaries of its two most distinguished members who died at that tender age. Appropriate for the girl whose best friends were diamonds, Marilyn Monroe’s passing commemorates its diamond jubilee on August 4 (she died in 1962). And that other shiny-object maven, Princess Diana, marks her silver jubilee on August 31 (died 1997). These two celebrated blondes share more than just an Elton John song — recall he recalibrated the lyrics to Candle in the Wind from Marilyn to Diana for the latter’s funeral. Both icons have been fully consumed by the culture, their images withstanding the ravages of time and fashion.
Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, controls her estate, and you can visit the grounds where she’s buried at 25 quid a pop (though her tomb is on a small island off limits to the riffraff). The Monroe estate, left largely to her acting guru Lee Strasbourg, ended up in the control of his second wife’s daughter, who established Marilyn Monroe, LLC and recently sold it to Authentic Brands for between 20 and 30 million dollars. They make sure her visage keeps up its presence on coffee mugs and t-shirts, though a more expensive likeness was recently sold at auction for 195 million dollars in the form of Andy Warhol’s Blue Shot Marilyn. Her famous 1962 “Happy-birthday-Mr-President” sequined frock (in which she sang sexy returns of the day to JFK) was recently in the news for getting ripped when a Kardashian tried to squeeze into it for the Met Gala. Meanwhile Princess Diana’s poof-sleeved wedding dress has been on display at Kensington Palace, her former address, where they also unveiled a poorly reviewed statue of her, standing with three random children to represent the “universality and generational impact” of her work.
The Marilyn saga has been refashioned into drama over the years, by third hubbie Arthur Miller’s marriage exegesis After the Fall, as well as Terry Johnson’s brainy-comic Insignificance (in which she explains the Theory of Relativity to Albert Einstein), not to mention an opera, Marilyn: Scenes from the '50s in Two Acts by Lorenzo Ferrero, which they’re still talking about in Finland.
Meanwhile, the Diana legend has been turned into its own Broadway musical, which was filmed and streamed on Netflix last year to universal disparagement (though a lot of people seemed to watch it). And on film and TV, Diana could have programmed her own festival, with depictions of her in Diana (Naomi Watts) and Spencer (Kristen Stewart) as well as The Crown (Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki). Other actresses who have played her in TV movies over the years include Catherine Oxenberg, Caroline Bliss, Serena Scott Thomas and Julie Cox.
In bookshops, there have been the tell-all memoirs, by her butler, her bodyguard, her alleged best friend, even the woman who once hired her as a babysitter. There’s a book devoted to her jewelry. In Monica Ali’s Untold Story, a Diana manqué fakes her own death and moves to the US. Marilyn underwent her own novelization by Joyce Carol Oates, in the fictionalized biography Blonde. It has been filmed, natch, with Ana de Armas as the titular redhead — I mean flaxon-haired bombshell.
What does all this mean? It means that 60 years after Marilyn’s passing, and a quarter century post Diana’s exit, we’re not finished with either of them yet. Both self-destructive (Marilyn dying by over-self-medicating, Diana by failing to buckle up), they still romp breathily through our dreams, batting their eyelashes, blowing us kisses, remaining the standard by which both movie and palace royalty is judged. When Prince Harry married an actress, poor Meghan had to compete on both scales.
So they’re still with us, those two vixens, displaying a greater resiliency than the latest Instagram phenom or Tiktok hero, each a talisman still ticking in our hearts, as well as on those t-shirts and in those films, more A-list than any pop idol, more box office than any movie star. The Monroe estate made $13 million last year.
It’s a little uncanny to think that had she lived, Marilyn would now be the same age as the Queen (i.e., 96), and Diana would be applying for her senior travelcard at 61. But in our consciousness, neither one passes her 36th year, forever glam, forever money, forever diamonds in our midst.
J.B. is an American writer living in London.