Norma Jean Mortensen, the future Marilyn Monroe, spent part of her childhood in Los Angeles orphanages. Her days were filled with chores and no play. At school, she kept to herself, smiled rarely, and dreamed a lot. One day when she was thirteen, as she was dressing for school, she noticed that the white blouse the orphanage provided for her was torn, so she had to borrow a sweater from a younger girl in the house. The sweater was several sizes too small. That day, suddenly, boys seemed to gather around her wherever she went (she was extremely well-developed for her age). She wrote in her diary, “They stared at my sweater as if it were a gold mine.”
The revelation was simple but startling. Previously ignored and even ridiculed by the other students, Norma Jean now sensed a way to gain attention, maybe even power, for she was wildly ambitious. She started to smile more, wear makeup, dress differently. And soon she noticed something equally startling: without her having to say or do anything, boys fell passionately in love with her. “My admirers all said the same thing in different ways,” she wrote. “It was my fault, their wanting to kiss me and hug me. Some said it was the way I looked at them—with eyes full of passion. Others said it was my voice that lured them on. Still others said I gave off vibrations that floored them.”
A few years later Marilyn was trying to make it in the film business. Producers would tell her the same thing: she was attractive enough in person, but her face wasn’t pretty enough for the movies. She was getting work as an extra, and when she was on-screen—even if only for a few seconds—the men in the audience would go wild, and the theaters would erupt in catcalls. But nobody saw any star quality in this. One day in 1949, only twenty-three at the time and her career at a standstill, Monroe met someone at a diner who told her that a producer casting a new Groucho Marx movie, Love Happy, was looking for an actress for the part of a blond bombshell who could walk by Groucho in a way that would, in his words, “arouse my elderly libido and cause smoke to issue from my ears.” Talking her way into an audition, she improvised this walk. “It’s Mae West, Theda Bara, and Bo Peep all rolled into one,” said Groucho after watching her saunter by. “We shoot the scene tomorrow morning.” And so Marilyn created her infamous walk, a walk that was hardly natural but offered a strange mix of innocence and sex.
Over the next few years, Marilyn taught herself through trial and error how to heighten the effect she had on men. Her voice had always been attractive—it was the voice of a little girl. But on film it had limitations until someone finally taught her to lower it, giving it the deep, breathy tones that became her seductive trademark, a mix of the little girl and the vixen. Before appearing on set, or even at a party, Marilyn would spend hours before the mirror. Most people assumed this was vanity—she was in love with her image. The truth was that image took hours to create. Marilyn spent years studying and practicing the art of makeup. The voice, the walk, the face and look were all constructions, an act. At the height of her fame, she would get a thrill by going into bars in New York City without her makeup or glamorous clothes and passing unnoticed.
Success finally came, but with it came something deeply annoying to her: the studios would only cast her as the blond bombshell. She wanted serious roles, but no one took her seriously for those parts, no matter how hard she downplayed the siren qualities she had built up. One day, while she was rehearsing a scene from The Cherry Orchard, her acting instructor, Michael Chekhov, asked her, “Were you thinking of sex while we played the scene?” When she said no, he continued, “All through our playing of the scene I kept receiving sex vibrations from you. As if you were a woman in the grip of passion. … I understand your problem with your studio now, Marilyn. You are a woman who gives off sex vibrations—no matter what you are doing or thinking. The whole world has already responded to those vibrations. They come off the movie screens when you are on them.”
Marilyn Monroe loved the effect her body could have on the male libido. She tuned her physical presence like an instrument, making herself reek of sex and gaining a glamorous, larger-than-life appearance. Other women knew just as many tricks for heightening their sexual appeal, but what separated Marilyn from them was an unconscious element. Her background had deprived her of something critical: affection. Her deepest need was to feel loved and desired, which made her seem constantly vulnerable, like a little girl craving protection. She emanated this need for love before the camera; it was effortless, coming from somewhere real and deep inside. A look or gesture that she did not intend to arouse desire would do so doubly powerfully just because it was unintended—its innocence was precisely what excited a man.
The Sex Siren has a more urgent and immediate effect than the Spectacular Siren does. The incarnation of sex and desire, she does not bother to appeal to extraneous senses, or to create a theatrical buildup. Her time never seems to be taken up by work or chores; she gives the impression that she lives for pleasure and is always available. What separates the Sex Siren from the courtesan or whore is her touch of innocence and vulnerability. The mix is perversely satisfying: it gives the male the critical illusion that he is a protector, the father figure, although it is actually the Sex Siren who controls the dynamic. A woman doesn’t have to be born with the attributes of a Marilyn Monroe to fill the role of the Sex Siren. Most of the physical elements are a construction; the key is the air of schoolgirl innocence. While one part of you seems to scream sex, the other part is coy and naive, as if you were incapable of understanding the effect you are having. Your walk, your voice, your manner are delightfully ambiguous—you are both the experienced, desiring woman and the innocent gamine.