A daily tale from the compounder Marilyn Monroe: Vulnerability

"Say good-bye to Pat, say good-bye to Jack and say good-bye to yourself, because you're a nice guy." With these sleepy words Marilyn Monroe hung up – and in a few hours slipped into that deeper slumber from which we never awaken. On this night in 1962, she was lost to the world.

In a sense, she had always been lost. Bewilderment is the mark of vulnerability, and Monroe had from childhood a beautiful, trusting vagueness that called out for protection. Her stage fright was legendary; older co-stars, who you’d think would envy her rising fortunes, instead escorted her onto the set like mother hens. Notoriously impatient directors would gently shepherd her through scenes, working around her ever-porous memory for lines. Once, after 83 takes, Billy Wilder told her “not to worry.” “Worry about what?” was her wide-eyed reply.

No one formed Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe; instead the industry, baffled by her elusive qualities, sought vainly for a box to fit her in. She was certainly gorgeous, with an innocent belief that beautiful bodies are meant to be looked at – so the box marked “bombshell” seemed appropriate. It was a waste of her gifts. Sex as marketed in the 1950s was always tinged with burlesque: Marilyn’s early appearances are as brassy as a bowling trophy, all bumps, grinds and moues – the Monroe that agency lookalikes now imitate. Men would make nudging jokes about the “mountains of Marilyn;” catty older actresses, watching her liquid walk, would say “there’s a girl with her whole future behind her.” It seemed she was on the path to join Diana Dors and Mamie van Doren in the pantheon of winking, romping sex queens who, in Clark Gable’s words, “make a man proud to be a man.” Photographers, finding to their surprise that she was not hard and calculating but sensitive and intelligent, would signal their discovery by posing Monroe reading a book – while still wearing a pink chiffon nightie. 

What saved her career was her capacity to subvert her stupefying natural sex appeal in comedy, by letting the technique show as technique, inviting the audience to share her sense of the silliness of packaged seduction. “I Wanna Be Loved by You” in Some Like It Hot is written as the vampiest of numbers, but Monroe’s rendition is not coquettish – it's lovably gleeful. In serious drama, she was most herself when she appeared tentative, rumpled, a little tired. This was not a pose. The director John Huston said, “she had no techniques. It was all the truth. It was only Marilyn."

That did not satisfy her. She wanted (as we all do) to be admired for her craft, to succeed at what she found difficult. She hired drama coaches and haunted the Actors’ Studio – but in fact her art was only herself. “She was good at playing abstract confusion,” the critic Clive James points out, “in the same way that a midget is good at being short.”  

Abstract confusion is not the right attitude to take with drugs. Monroe’s trips around the Los Angeles medical community in search of more effective sleeping pills made every evening potentially her last; there was nothing special about August 5th. We still entertain the conspiracy theories – the President, the Mafia – because, like the industry, we wish to simplify her story and give it a point. The real story, though, was always the same:  a lovely, bewildered woman whom no one could protect.

This article originates from the blog bozosapiens.blogspot.co.uk

Michael Kaplan

The Srebrenica Massacre: Trust


On this day in 1995, the UN-mandated “safe haven” of Srebrenica fell to the Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladić.  Over the next eleven days, at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys, with an unknown additional number of women and small children, were killed by the Serbs in an operation that combined meticulous planning with bestial ruthlessness. This did not occur in some distant, inaccessible spot, but in a European country under the eyes of the international community.  It represented a memorable failure of negotiation to turn aside evil.

The history of Yugoslavia since World War II was a determined effort of amnesia. Yugoslavs would all forget the mutual slaughter of the war years, while the West would forget having handed over Serb nationalist resistance fighters to be executed by Tito’s Communist partisans. It was all part of drawing a line under history – the essence of Europe’s post-war settlement. But this was to ignore a Balkan culture of grievance and revenge that habitually treats the events of five hundred years ago as if they happened this morning.

When the slow-motion collapse of Yugoslavia reached its constituent republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, it became clear that any attempt to distribute territory peacefully between its Muslim, Croat and Serb populations would be like trying to unscramble an omelette, since Bosnian Muslims are not a separate  ethnicity from their Christian neighbors, just a separate religion.  The Muslim majority therefore fought to maintain a single, unitary state, while the Serbs fought to carve out a sub-state in which they could have the upper hand.  Their problem was the large number of Muslims living in the territory of this planned Serb enclave – so the Serbs set about driving them out, in a pattern of repeated atrocities to which they gave a new name: “ethnic cleansing.”

As these horrors became public, the outside world did what comes naturally to it: it convened conferences and set up structures. The United Nations extended its peacekeeping mandate, UNPROFOR, to Bosnia. There was debate about rules of engagement. The Vance-Owen plan was succeeded by the Owen-Stoltenberg plan. And Srebrenica was declared a de-militarized “safe haven” for Muslim civilians driven out of the surrounding countryside. Its defense was entrusted to a battalion of Dutch soldiers – which was considered an ideal arrangement because the Dutch have no Balkan history.

Less ideal, however, was that they had no Balkan expertise.  The mild-mannered, tolerant citizen-conscripts found all local traditions equally alien, making it hard for them to pick up the fleeting clues that mean so much in a volatile situation: suddenly empty markets, engines in the night, smoke on the horizon. They attempted to act strictly according to their tangled set of instructions, but, isolated alike from the local population and the political center, they failed to note the purposeful movements in the surrounding hills. When the Serbs attacked, the Dutch backed up the Bosnian army, then didn’t; called for air strikes, then didn’t; blocked the path of the Serb advance, then gave in.  Srebrenica fell.

That afternoon, the Dutch commander asked for a meeting with the Serb general – but Mladić’s idea of negotiation was not in the style of the UN: “You are not a commander. You are nothing. I am in charge here… your soldiers and officers have only one life, just like yourself. I don’t think you wish to lose your life.”  Mladić alternated between death threats and an ominous joviality.  He forced the cowed lieutenant colonel into a mutual toast, which he had filmed and broadcast; he had a pig slaughtered outside the window during the meeting, in a not-so-subtle hint.

By the next day, Mladić had everything he wanted: a free hand with Srebrenica in exchange for the extrication of UN forces.  The UN’s attempt to negotiate a way out of horror failed because, to a man like Mladić, talk is not a means to peace; it’s just another weapon.

This article originates from the blog bozosapiens.blogspot.co.uk

Michael Kaplan

Guy de Lusignan: Crusading


The First Crusade of 1099 was a remarkable success – well, not if you were an Arab or a Jew, both of whom were slaughtered in their thousands... nor if you were among the enthusiastic but untrained civilian crusaders, most of whom were killed or enslaved by Hungarians and Turks.  No, the success devolved on a small but astoundingly violent force of Norman, French and German knights who battled their way south from the Bosphorus and, almost to their own surprise, took possession of Jerusalem and the entire Holy Land.

So few and so inter-related were they that crusading could almost be called a family business: younger sons of chillblained Northern noblemen saw following the Cross as a way to trade on their military expertise to gain glory, riches, absolution of sins, and perhaps a kingdom in the sun-blessed, luxurious East. 

Guy de Lusignan was just such an adventurer, although by the time he arrived the spoils of the First Crusade had already been parceled out.  His method of achieving greatness was therefore more agreeable:  he married the heiress of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Sibylla.

Like many family businesses, the Kingdom had moved from relentless and single-minded growth to squabbling about assets, with various branches of in-laws hoping to place their candidates into advantageous positions.  Newcomers from Europe lusted after further conquests and regularly broke truce with the Arabs in hope of carving out fresh domains.  Such pernicious in-fighting had not mattered much while the forces of Islam were fragmented and demoralized, but now a new Muslim commander had appeared:  Saladin, a Kurd who combined the gifts of generalship and diplomacy. The times called for a Christian who could match Saladin's genius.

That Christian was not Guy de Lusignan.  As Saladin advanced, Guy continued to feud with his most prominent rival, Raymond of Tripoli, then suddenly reconciled with him and insisted on leading all their forces to relieve the Arab siege of Raymond's city of Tiberias – against Raymond's own advice.  The siege was, in fact, a trap laid by Saladin:  when Guy's armies appeared, the Arabs wheeled round to encircle them on a dry plateau, the Horns of Hattin, with no access to water.  As the contemporary Muslim commentator Bahā' ad-Dīn describds it:  "they were closely beset as in a noose, while still marching on as though being driven to death that they could see before them, convinced of their doom and destruction and themselves aware that the following day they would be visiting their graves."

On this day in 1187, Guy made his last frantic attempts to escape Saladin's noose.  Charge after charge of his knights down the hill failed to break through to a pond or stream; the Arabs had learned how to contain the shock of Frankish tactics.  When at last he surrendered, Guy was received by Saladin with a goblet of iced water – but the Holy Land was lost forever.

This article originates from the blog bozosapiens.blogspot.co.uk


Michael Kaplan