Thursday, August 4, 2011

Marilyn Monroe meets the Haymarket Riot: a tale of two Chicago sculptures

Marilyn Monroe on Pioneer Square

Last weekend I stopped by Pioneer Square in Chicago, where a sculpture by Seward Johnson was unveiled a couple of weeks before, on July 15. You may have seen the photos already, though perhaps not the dorsal view included here. This representation of a kultural touchstone-moment from The Seven Year Itch stands 26 feet tall. It is a monumental exemplar of misogynist kitch, and it's booked to tower over the Magnificent Mile until spring of next year.

Am I overstating the case? Check out the trailer for the 1955 film, in which Monroe plays a wide-eyed, breathy, quintessentially dumb blonde who tempts the fidelity of her married neighbor when his family leaves town for the summer. Just the facts. You decide.

Film critic Richard Roeper titled his Chicago Sun-Times column of July 17th, Marilyn Monroe’s giant blowing skirt sculpture brings out the worst. Here's what he had to say, quite tamely I think, on the topic of misogynist kitch:

Even worse than the sculpture itself is the photo-op behavior it’s inspiring. Men (and women) licking Marilyn’s leg, gawking up her skirt, pointing at her giant panties as they leer and laugh. It’s not that the sculpture is shocking or sexist or obscene -- but it’s definitely bringing out the juvenile goofball in many of us.

I didn't spend a lot of time lurking beside the statue in wait for regrettable behavior. No need. A steady parade of tourists acted just as Roeper described, as if they were reading from his script.

I'd barely gotten my camera switched on when an Italian family walked up to the sculpture and set up to capture digital memories of the kids standing in the shadow of Marilyn's crotch. Look closely at the oldest girl, on the right in the photo. She's ten or eleven years old, I think, and she's posing. Yes, you see it now. She's posing in imitation of Marilyn herself, as if she too were struggling to hold down a flimsy, revealing dress that is being blown upward by the air rushing up from a subway grate, baring just-about-all.

Does this photo capture a moment of corrosive influence on a pre-adolescent? Or are we seeing an exemplary enactment of women's dignity, in which anyone would hope their daughter might participate?

Maybe the father holding the camera is Silvio Berlusconi's cousin.

The Haymarket Memorial on Des Plaines at Randolph

Later that morning I had breakfast with writer friends at Ina's, a Chicago institution to which a member of my virtual critique group & his wife introduced me. On our way, we passed a sign that clued me in that we were in the neighborhood of Haymarket Square, the site of a seminal event in American labor history, the Haymarket affair of 1886. In short, at a labor rally in support of regulating a standard workday to eight hours (c'mon, you didn't think the 8 hour workday was engraved on stone tablets at Sinai, did you?), somebody threw a bomb, killing and injuring both policemen and civilians.

Eight anarchists were charged with responsibility for the bombing, though they are now (and were, even as popular hysteria raged in the wake of the event itself) widely regarded as innocent of the charge. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer died on the gallows following a travesty of a trial. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his jail cell. Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab were pardoned by the Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, in 1893, a deed that demonstrated his integrity but wrecked Altgeld's political future.

(In response to worry that the pardon would poison his party's political fortunes, Altgeld replied, "No man has the right to allow his ambition to stand in the way of the performance of a simple act of justice." Subsequent governors of Illinois have disregarded Altgeld's straightforward moral position ever since.)

When I asked whether the locals among us knew where Haymarket Square was situated, they told me about the Mary Brogger sculpture dedicated in 2004 at the site itself, and suggested we try to find it after breakfast. We did -- with the help of an iPhone, but that's another blog post.

Here's a more complete account of the Haymarket affair given by Johanna Greie, as retold by Emma Goldman in the opening pages of her autobiography, Living My Life:

The entire speech concerned the stirring events in Chicago. She [Greie] began by relating the historical background of the case. She told of the labour strikes that broke out throughout the country in 1886, for the demand of an eight-hour workday. The center of the movement was Chicago, and there the struggle between the toilers and their bosses became intense and bitter. A meeting of the striking employees of the McCormick Harvester Company in that city was attacked by police; men and women were beaten and several persons killed. To protest against the outrage a mass meeting was called in Haymarket Square on May 4. It was addressed by Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and others, and was quiet and orderly. This was attested to by Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, who had attended the meeting to see what was going on. The Mayor left, satisfied that everything was all right, and he informed the captain of the district to that effect. It was getting cloudy, a light rain began to fall, and the people started to disperse, only a few remaining while one of the last speakers was addressing the audience. Then Captain Ward, accompanied by a strong force of police, suddenly appeared on the square. He ordered the meeting to disperse forthwith. "This is an orderlv assembly," the chairman replied, whereupon the police fell upon the people, clubbing them unmercifully. Then something flashed through the air and exploded, killing a number of police officers and wounding a score of others. It was never ascertained who the actual culprit was, and the authorities apparently made little effort to discover him. Instead orders were immediately issued for the arrest of all the speakers at the Haymarket meeting and other prominent anarchists. The entire press and bourgeoisie of Chicago and of the whole country began shouting for the blood of the prisoners. A veritable campaign of terror was carried on by the police, who were given moral and financial encouragement by the Citizens' Association to further their murderous plan to get the anarchists out of the way. The public mind was so inflamed by the atrocious stories circulated by the press against the leaders of the strike that a fair trial for them became an impossibility. In fact, the trial proved the worst frame-up in the history of the United States. The jury was picked for conviction; the District Attorney announced in open court that it was not only the arrested men who were the accused, but that "anarchy was on trial" and that it was to be exterminated. The judge repeatedly denounced the prisoners from the bench, influencing the jury against them. The witnesses were terrorized or bribed, with the result that eight men, innocent of the crime and in no way connected with it, were convicted. The incited state of the public mind, and the general prejudice against anarchists, coupled with the employers' bitter opposition to the eight-hour movement, constituted the atmosphere that favoured the judicial murder of the Chicago anarchists. Five of them ---Albert Parsons, August Spies, Louis Lingg, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel --- were sentenced to die by hanging; Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden were doomed to life imprisonment; Neebe received fifteen years' sentence.

Interested readers might also want to check out Frank Harris's 1908 novel, The Bomb, a controversial fictionalization of the riot and its aftermath written by a journalist (and, according to John Dos Passos, an "objectionable little man").

Perhaps not so objectionable as The Seven Year Itch, and the inexplicable wish to glorify Marilyn Monroe's humiliation.


  1. Misogynist kitch. Hmp. I can't argue that the definition fits today, and yet I'm a little uncomfortable with the simplification of a popular, but yes, dated movie of the time. I haven't seen it. Is it right to call a medieval knight misogynistic? Hm. I think what I'm asking is whether calling someone misogynistic or the like is something we can do outside of causality, or is it too harsh because to judge severely we have to have a reasonable expectation that they should have known better? Should Tony Curtis and the makers of the film have known better? What are we missing, that's going to be used to tar us in 50 or 100 years, because of what we don't see? Maybe I'm questioning the value of judgement put towards things set in a specific time, as opposed to framing them in that time and clarifying that judgements are being made from a modern perspective, rather than with a general statement. Very interesting stuff, and nice post. I still think it would be cool if Marilyn pooped every hour on the hour. That'd give the people under her something to think about!

  2. @SteveL -- "Should Tony Curtis and the makers of the film have known better?" Known better than what? To depict a human being as an objectified (female) creature whose role is solely to serve as a sexual object and foil for the fully-fledged (male) humans in the film? Well, yes.

    I included a long excerpt from Emma Goldman's autobiography as a subtle (perhaps too-subtle) marker that women's political struggles for parity were not invented after Marilyn Monroe's time, but well before, in the very nation and culture where she lived.

    It's fair to criticize my poor sentence construction. In the sentence that begins "It is a monument to misogynist kitch..." the subject is Seward Johnson's statue (paralleling the subject of the preceding sentence), and I might have made my intent more clear if I'd written "It is a monumental exemplar of misogynist kitch..." My bad.

  3. Wonderful post. This came out on the perfect day. I can imagine Monroe's chirping "Happy Birthday, Mr. President!"

    And for that, it's another sign of our Misogynistic society.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  4. I think I agree, but my dad probably liked this movie at the time... but also was fairly progressive in his thinking, so as a product of his time, does my dad get labeled, also (this isn't a fishing expedition so I can huff about my dad - feel free to call him a mysogynist!)? Maybe it's the term - is all objectification misogyny? Probably part of a longer, more complex discussion.

  5. I've edited the post now, per my reply to Steven...

  6. nice one steve!the pic says it all..a very layered situation ...the movie actually was poking fun at the 1950s idea of marriage(trap) and straight values and works on many levels, including just watching the power dynamic...not a simple movie bec of the writing and directing by billy wilder, and marilyn's and the main man's delivery of the material...the moment whemn she stands over the grate to feel the air on a hot day in the summer is very sexual and taboo and sort of different than the use of it or her later...this furthers that bec it frozen and not free and a gesture in a moment but maybe the kitsch aspect is to take it out and leave her there as a big sort of sexual bunny....?I saw it this year and it is a great and totally over the top movie...drag performance of a lifetime...

  7. @Karen -- Fair enough. I'll have to go back and watch the movie carefully. What the trailer conveys looks pretty ugly to me, looking from a 2011 perspective, as did the scene on Pioneer Square. But I'm open to the possibility there's more to the whole work than the frozen-moment trope that has survived into our time as the film's (and Marilyn Monroe's) emblem and legacy.

  8. yes exactly, such a good point steve, and to all ...see the movie....k

  9. and ps to steve L... tony curtis is not in this movie!it is Tom Ewell...he is a pretty reg guy, (I guess the actor from the orig play on broadway ,an" everyman "that is having fantasies when his family goes away, and yes they involve his neighbor in the 50s view of that, goosed up by putting marilyn that role, and some surrealism...k

  10. Karen, when I mentioned Tony Curtis whether he was really in the movie was something I wondered. I think I'm thinking of Seven Year Itch... which was the one where he was in drag (I know... this is what the internet is for).

  11. this is "The Seven Year Itch" 1955, Steve L. ... Tony Curtis was in the movie "Some Like it Hot",as one of two musicians,who go in drag to escape the mob... w Marylin Monroe and Jack Lemmon, also written and produced and directed by Billy Wilder, might have a double feature sch here!.....easy to see the confusion, believe favorite Billy Wilder movie is my favorite movie,"Double Indemnity" a perfect movie ,and great example o pure film noir...he also made my second favorite movie," Sunset Boulevard" much later on..."The Apartment" and "The Lost Weekend" also really really good movies..check them out!