05/16/2012 10:49 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Immortal Marilyn

From the earliest of times, humans have ennobled outstanding individuals as icons of the imagination to represent transcendent cultural meanings. Our icons can be saints or sinners; the word "icon" (derived from the Greek word "eikon," meaning "image") entered modern English in the late 19th century by way of the small portraits of saints with gold halos that originated in the Byzantine Empire and became all the rage in Europe at the turn of the 20th century.

Even today, centuries later, we extol Cleopatra and Joan of Arc as overarching representatives of Western culture, symbols of female strength and fascination. We still revere Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy as symbols of the United States in the 20th century. Given her continual representations in cultures worldwide, Marilyn Monroe is also becoming a major historical icon. Why has this happened? Why has a girl from humble circumstances become a secular goddess? My students today have never heard of the great film stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but they all know Marilyn Monroe.

In the first place, she died young, under perplexing circumstances, creating a mystery that everyone has tried -- and failed -- to solve. She may have committed suicide; she may have been killed. And, only 36 when she died, she was at the height of her beauty; we have no images of an aging Marilyn. She is fixed in time and space, eternally young, eternally beautiful. Moreover, beginning with Madonna and extending to Lady Gaga, many major female performers have drawn from Marilyn to create their image, extending Marilyn's fame in the process. Is there anyone unfamiliar with the image of Marilyn in the bright pink dress with the pouf on the back singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," or standing in the white dress with the skirt flying up in the scene on the subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch?

As time goes by and thousands of photographs of her surface, taken by amateurs as well as esteemed professionals, we realize that Marilyn was indeed the major photographic model of the 20th century. Her nude photographs are unsurpassed in the genre of aesthetic nudes. She became dramatic and comic in turn in representations of her as a sad ballerina by Milton Greene, as an innocent geisha girl by Cecil Beaton, or as an Eve coming to life as a "leopard in the bulrushes" by Eve Arnold. Above all, she lived a life beyond measure. She was the greatest hetaera in history since Cleopatra, as she married the greatest baseball player and the greatest playwright of her age and had affairs with great actors and directors, and with the Kennedy brothers, perhaps the greatest politicians of her age.

Above all, Marilyn created an image for the ages, in one of the great personal transformations of the American experience. A failure as an actress through high school, an ugly duckling until great beauty descended on her with puberty, she overcame her debilitating shyness to create a public person with many personalities, each unique, and all interconnected. There was a glamorous Marilyn, a comic Marilyn, a deeply sensual Marilyn, and a Marilyn who was an excellent businesswoman. The greatest screen personality since Greta Garbo, she could, like Garbo, project happiness and sadness in her eyes at the same time. Those eyes were mesmerizing; even today we easily fall under her spell. She is the child that is in all of us, the person we want to protect, as well as the sex goddess we want to possess.