The Clothes They Were Buried In

"The Death of Cleopatra." Reginald Arthur, 1892
“The Death of Cleopatra.” Reginald Arthur, 1892

I

MARILYN NEVER ARRIVED AT anything on time except for her death, at which she arrived early; singing Happy Birthday for President Kennedy, she was jokingly described by the compere – whose patience had worn just as thin as her Jean Louis gown – as ‘the late,’ as in: ‘Mr. President, the late Marilyn Monroe.’ In the clip, her ermine jacket’s a snowdrift. The stage is a great, velvet vacuum. When she really became The Late Marilyn, three months later, Monroe did not wear a skintight gown or an ermine coat, but a bright green dress by Emilio Pucci. When they found her body, she was naked. One can almost imagine her having been buried the same way. One can almost imagine the open casket. One can never really imagine that body becoming a body, meaning a body in the sense of a real cadaver, as you would never say that a Cadillac had ‘died.’ You would never suggest that a bottle of Coca Cola had died. You might say one had broken-down, and the other had smashed. Let us, then, say that Marilyn – not Norma Jean, but only Marilyn Monroe – had broken down. Had smashed. You cannot call her remains the remains of a dream, but only because saying so is too easy.

They put her broken-down chassis – an ex-symbol – into a green dress by Pucci because, simply, it was her favourite. Her housekeeper chose it, and then her half-sister approved it. The sleeves are long, the waist is tied by a rope, and the colour is something like peppermint, and it has not aged, so that it might as easily be worn by somebody now. It was not, of course, just some body that it was first photographed on. While in Mexico earlier that year, Monroe had been shot in the dress at a press conference. Some reporter or other had told her how lovely it looked, and she’d said in that Marilyn way – the one that let you know she was far smarter than her babywoman persona, and probably smarter than you: ‘You should see it on the hanger.’

‘Unlike her ‘working’ daytime wardrobe,’ says the official website of the Marilyn Monroe Collection, ‘which was predominantly black,’ her Pucci garments ‘were clothes for Marilyn to play in.’ Thinking about The Late Marilyn wanting to play in the afterlife does little more than offer credence to the idea that Monroe could not die in the sense that any other human being – anyone who did not represent in her body the whole of human beauty and sexual history and female complexity – might die. A coke bottle can’t die, but nor can a riddle. Nor can a mathematical equation. Nor can the abstract idea of desire, or something like the very image of love.

It both did and did not matter what they buried Marilyn in, because – just as she knew when she’d quipped in the green Pucci dress six months earlier – nothing could fill its potential unless she were filling it. When she removed her ermine coat at the President’s fundraiser, the audience gasped. They did not only gasp because her dress was something that approximated nudity, but because it meant that almost nothing stood between them and the divine. For her final picture, from which she was fired, she shot a promotional nude swimming scene. Here was the last gasp of Marilyn’s body. Clothes did not make the woman who’s so often seen as the silver-screen ur-woman – she made the clothes, which was obvious when she was moving around in them, or when she was photographed in them, and would not be quite so obvious once she had died: since the quality Marilyn brought to an image, a garment, a movie, a party, was something that could not be explained as anything other than lightning in a bottle. It takes real and steely and unflinching wit to play a dumb blonde, and Monroe played a hundred. We only really wanted, though, to look at her body. We could not behave with any convincing surprise when it became another kind of body altogether; but we could know from her dress that she stayed the same Marilyn, even in death. Norman Mailer was right when he called her ‘the silver witch of us all,’ if only because we have never quite figured out what her particular trick was.

II

‘America … loves the successful sociopath,’ wrote Gary Indiana, ‘and thinks it’s normal to dream of becoming like him.’ The most famous son of the geographical Gary, Indiana, Michael Jackson, proves the country’s attachment to – if not the sociopath – then the deeply flawed individual, and its wish to emulate him. Armstrong may have taken one giant leap for mankind on the moon, but it was Jackson who first learned to dance on it. ‘[He] cut his trousers short so you could read his ankles,’ Zadie Smith observed, in a dazzling essay called “What Beyonce Taught Me,” in which Smith suggests that the writer might learn from the consummate dancer. ‘Grabbed his groin so you could better understand its gyrations. Gloved one hand so you might attend to its rhythmic genius, the way it punctuated everything, like an exclamation mark. Towards the end, his curious stage-wear became increasingly tasked with this job of outline and distinction. It looked like a form of armour, the purpose of which was to define each element of his body so no movement of it would pass un-noted.’

His talent as a dancer – at making the big, spectacular gesture seem effortless – only cemented his Otherness. His talent as a big-league supporter of Big Pharma did the same thing (the Greek Apollo, after all, is not only the God of Music, but also of Medicine). ‘The average dosage of morphine is two milligrams,’ one of the singer’s doctors said after his death. ‘Michael’s typical dose was ten.’ Michael Jackson had no need for the typical. It had not occurred to me until just now that Jackson’s military stage-wear was not meant to be warlike, but regal. It had not occurred to me, either, that his black penny loafers and pristine white socks were the same as Gene Kelly’s. His body language is written in shorthand. His costume designer admitted that Zadie knew best – he is meant to be ultra-visible when he is dancing: visually inescapable; as conspicuous and strange as in all other ways, good and bad. (If we cannot talk about his proclivities or his alleged proclivities, we are left with talking about his appearance.)

‘As his physical transformations began to overshadow his life as a musician,’ Hilton Als wrote in White Girls, ‘Jackson’s now-famous mask of white skin and red lips…would come to be read as the most arresting change in the man who said no to life, but yes to pop.’ In equating fame with royalty, Jackson furthered the same kind of equation that Marilyn Monroe embodied; then solved it. What I mean to say is that he cultivated the kinds of eccentric behaviours we normally only forgive in a blueblood. (Kings are permitted their vices, since we let them believe they can drive back the waves with a word. They do not always make lucid decisions.) Like Marilyn dressed in her coffin in Pucci for ‘play,’ Michael Jackson was buried in clothes for performance, as if we might not know him otherwise.

Maybe we would not have done, as why else does a man wear a mask if it isn’t to obfuscate? It never mattered to Jackson that his body was not on display. It only mattered that we knew that the coffin was gold-plated. It only mattered for us to know, from the press, that his burial outfit cost $35,000. ‘For his final outfit, he was dressed in a copy of the pearl jacket he wore when his sister Janet handed him a Grammy in 1994. He was also dressed in black Levis encrusted in black seed beads, as well as Lucite shin guards that Jackson was supposed to wear for the opening number of This Is It, the tour he was rehearsing for when he died, as well as an 18-karat gold-plated champion belt adorned with semi-precious stones and a pair of his sunglasses.’

Most notable of all was not what they buried him in, but the one thing that he had requested should not be included – a single white glove. ‘To Michael, the glove was Billie Jean,’ said his costume designer, Michael Bush. ‘That represented that song. That’s not Michael Jackson.’ This is an absence that speaks to precision; it speaks to the fact that there are things that one can point to and say, definitively: ‘That’s not Michael Jackson,’ because it is so clear what is. More so than Marilyn, who was defined by her physical body, Michael Jackson changed and changed and changed again his whole physicality, only to still be immutably MJ by dint of his style, his slick grace; a spooky thing he never cultivated, but simply had, and which he could never escape. The high-notes, like delicate soaring birds. The moves, like acts of God ever since he was five. As the public began to love his interior less, an exterior that expressed – written in seed pearls, succinctly – what Was and Was Not Michael Jackson developed. The glove was supposedly not: this was fine. There were numerous ways of marking him out. There were other ways of outlining his shape. A costume is a means of distancing oneself from oneself, just as much as a look that’s definitive.

III

In order for us to know what someone famous has worn to be buried or burned, it’s worth noting that they must be somebody with a particular fame. Often, these people die young. Quite often they’re addicts; perhaps addicts are natural obsessives. They tend towards freakish singularity. We will never know what David Bowie was buried wearing. We will never know what Leonard Cohen wore to the grave: but Bowie and Cohen are not and have never been Jackson or Monroe. It has nothing to do with integrity: it has everything to do with simplicity. David Bowie was never one symbol, but several.

IV

‘The body of millionairess Sandra Ilene West,’ The Chicago Tribune reported in 1977, with what I can only describe as a healthy degree of incredulity, ‘seated at the wheel of her 1964 Ferrari inside the crate, is lowered into a 9-by-20-by-9 foot grave at a cemetery in San Antonio…West, who her friends said loved a practical joke, was buried Thursday just as she had asked to be – dressed in her best lace nightgown and seated in her Ferrari. ‘We followed her wishes to the letter,’ said mortuary spokesman Porter Loring of the $9,000 funeral. ‘Of course, this is the most unusual funeral I’ve ever handled,’ he said. ‘It s been a tough battle trying to keep this as quiet as possible.”

More specifically, a handwritten will had requested that West be buried beside her late husband: ‘in my nightgown and in my Ferrari, and with the seat slanted comfortably.’ If no grave on earth should really ‘clip in it/A pair so famous’ as Cleopatra and Antony, maybe this rests on an oversight.  It should add to the picture to know that the nightgown was white lace, and the car was powder blue; it might add to the myth to know that the grave was then covered in concrete to keep out the looters. Prior to her death – which was, although I hardly feel I need to write it given the context clues, from an overdose of drugs prescribed by a Dr. Feelgood, at the age of thirty-eight – West had, according one site’s apocryphal evidence, become ‘obsessed with the ancient Egyptians and their practises of being buried with their world possessions.’

For somebody with so many worldly possessions, this seems like a sensible malady. The very same blog reports that West once dated Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Engelbert Humperdinck, and that she displayed ‘a fondness for attention grabbing behaviour.’ Given the funeral, this figures. ‘Never one for subtlety,’ it adds – as breathless as anybody can ever be breathless in writing – ‘she was seen about town dressed in large amounts of jewellery and a mink coat or in a Texas Rodeo Queen ensemble, complete with rhinestones and a stylish hat…on one occasion, she drove in all her finery to Chasen’s, the landmark Beverly Hills eatery frequented by Johnny Carson and the Reagans, where she made a grand entrance, and then ordered a hamburger to go and sped away.’

‘You think twenty-first century culture is celebrity-obsessed?’ the literary critic Wendy Smith asked, reviewing a new biography of Cleopatra for the Los Angeles Times. ‘Try Mediterranean society at the dawn of the first millennium, when politics were entirely personal, and rulers’ romantic entanglements could be as important as the battles they won.’ The burial rites that West supposedly aped are just as vicious as they’re ostentatious (one can’t help but wonder whether she kept a lapdog and, if so, why nobody buried it with her), but so is celebrity – and so, too, was Cleopatra, who TIME magazine suggests would have undoubtedly ‘skillfully combined both Greek and Egyptian elements in her wardrobe.’

‘Today’s peplum,’ style correspondent Allison Berry continues, ‘is descended from the ancient Greek peplos style, a long tube-like garment belted at the waist and cleverly folded to give the illusion of a flared piece of fabric at the hips. The Queen of the Nile mixed these more modest gowns with seductive Egyptian fashions, much in the same way that modern women mix designers and styles both high and low.’ She was also known to wear ‘copious amounts of perfume,’ ‘black kohl eyeliner…in a cat-eye style,’ and ‘blue or green eyeshadow on her lids for a pop of colour that contemporary makeup artists would recognise,’ which sounds like the kind of big, unsubtle look that might work well in Texas. If Cleopatra never stunned by overdressing for a ‘landmark’ hamburger joint, one suspects it’s only because there were none yet erected in Egypt. If Cleopatra’s tomb has never been found, we can guess at its contents – ipso facto, we can guess that if she had died in San Antonio in 1977, she might be buried inside a Ferrari and wearing a negligee.

Plus ça change. Style has evolved: the specifically feminine power of glamour, in life and in burial, has not and never will. Cleopatra was not a silver witch, but a golden one. Sandra West is easier by far to align with the rhinestone; but power, like money and celebrity, is marked by degrees. We have always behaved like lunatics when it comes to our best-looking, most noted dead.

V

Anna Nicole Smith was not a good actress. She was a good gold-digger. I don’t mean this in any pejorative sense; I only mean to point it out because it explains her burial attire, as only somebody sick of men – utterly sick of their interests, their bodies, and all of their violence – would go to their grave in a pink princess gown and a crown, and a pink-rhinestone-blanket-draped coffin. It is so true to the late woman, and so untrue to the image of what men (straight men; rich straight men) might find interesting that it’s hysterical. Much the same volte-face occurred at the funeral of Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose life spent in pursuit of millionaires and billionaires left her wanting a death spent in Gucci, Cartier, Versace and De Beers. ‘Zsa Zsa wanted to be buried in her favourite dress and favourite jewellery,’ Radar Online reported, ‘which included one of her most expensive diamond necklaces.’ As it happened, she ended up being cremated, while her ashes ‘were carried into her funeral, held Friday at Beverly Hills’ Church of the Good Shepherd, in a Louis Vuitton bag.’

At Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral, the Daily Mail reported: ‘high drama, pink roses and rival lovers dabbing away their tears…Beside [the casket] stood a large photograph of Miss Smith looking like her idol, Marilyn Monroe. Mourners had been told to wear something pink – Miss Smith’s favourite colour. The pall-bearers wore pink ties and pink roses in their buttonholes.’ ‘She’s got a presidential kind of media frenzy going on,’ a tourist from Columbus, Ohio, told Access Hollywood. ‘I’m just incredulous at all the fuss. She was not a world figure. She was not a queen. She was not a president. She was not anything.’ Not being anything was not a charge that was new to Anna Nicole. Zsa Zsa Gabor, likewise, started from nothing and earned more through marriage.

Both were laid to rest while dressed for a fantasy that had nothing to do with male fantasy – after a lifetime in service to men and their sex drives, it followed that Zsa Zsa and Anna Nicole armed themselves for the next world in line with the tastes of young girls, or at least girlie girls. Where were you, and at what age, when childhood first ended? Anna Nicole Smith certainly knew. (‘You want to hear all the things [my mother] did to me?’ she once asked a journalist. ‘All the things she let my [stepfather] do to me, or let my brother do to me or my sister? All the beatings and the whippings and rape?’ We did not want to know, as this would only spoil the illusion.) Zsa Zsa Gabor, in the manner of all ambitious, sexy blondes who grow too fast to escape men’s notice for too long, could not have missed knowing. ‘Being jealous of a beautiful woman,’ she was fond of saying, ‘is not going to make you more beautiful.’

Something else Gabor was fond of saying was that there was strength in a woman’s being loved, but that for a woman to love a man – really to love him – was only a weakness. It was a weakness for Marilyn, certainly. Anna Nicole Smith may have agreed deep down with Gabor, given that she seemed to love no man more than her son, Daniel, and that she once claimed to hate the way men wanted sex all the time. A princess dress does not invite male attention. A rhinestone blanket for a shroud does not signal sex. It does signal something like pre-adolescence. The two women’s choices diverge here, as Zsa Zsa Gabor was too jaded for child’s play.

Having your ashes placed in a handbag by Louis Vuitton is another way of writing a love-letter, not to a man, but to commerce. If Marilyn had only meant what she sang in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she and Zsa Zsa and Anna Nicole would have been in agreement. There was never any question of landing a man until death do us part in ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’; the part that mattered was having the diamonds to die in. The thing that people without a great fortune always say about riches is: ‘you can’t take it with you.’ The thing that rich, dead women seem to say is ‘watch me.’ All of this waste is almost punk in its dumb excess. The squandering of the spoils of war when the war in question is the battle of the sexes is, when all is said and done, a great middle finger in Cartier diamonds.

VI

Bela Lugosi died for real in 1956, and in the song in 1979; the first of these deaths was the cruelest, for reasons other than those you might at first suspect, i.e. the fact that he’d actually died. The cruelty lay in the presentation – Bela Lugosi was buried as Dracula rather than Bela Lugosi, which meant that his wishes were roundly ignored, and his coffin became a prop-coffin instead of a dignified resting-place. ‘He hopes, when the talkie Dracula is completed,’ the Associated Press wrote in 1930, ‘to escape the shackles of the role. He will never again play Dracula on the stage, he says. If the wide distribution of the film did not make such a venture unprofitable, he would refuse because of the nervous strain the gruesome character puts upon him.’

I can think of several modern celebrities who, if pressed hard enough, might agree with this idea: that playing a character costs lives. It costs us the self. As I said about the mask (celebrity being, as John Updike once wrote, one that eats at the face), it obscures, and it obfuscates. Michael Jackson used his costume as a means of either disguising his monstrous, real self, or disguising his bad reputation. Lugosi stayed hidden behind his regalia. One might argue that the same thing had happened again and again in his life, and that necessity forced him to play at the vampire, the ghoul, even when his desires ran counter. He had never wished to spend his eternity acting the bloodsucker, but this is sometimes a Hollywood symptom. The whole town is full of extortionist evil; almost everybody who is very rich or very famous has sucked and is sucked on.

Someone later bought a faithful replica of the dead Lugosi’s burial cape for just shy of two million dollars, which shows you how highly the place prizes devils. The very best route for appropriating horror is, after all, capitalism. The other role that vampirism plays in Bela Lugosi’s story is in the fact that he lived as a drug addict – most addicts being, by nature, a little vampiric and mostly nocturnal. ‘Seventeen years ago, on a trip to England, I heard of Methadone, a new drug,’ he told the Associated Press in 1955, just after being discharged from a hospital. ‘I brought a big box of it back home. I guess I brought a pound. Ever since I’ve used that, or Demerol. I just took the drugs. I didn’t eat. I got sicker and sicker.’ There are photographs of his body made up in the coffin to look like the Count. These are odd, but they’re also not terribly sinister. Seeing him lying there feels less like evil than seeing, for instance, the picture that covered the National Enquirer when Whitney Houston had died: another dope fiend or dope ghoul under cover of darkness, who drowned in the coffin-like space of the bathtub.

The notable thing about Houston is that she is just Houston, lying there. Barefaced and wearing a basic black dress, there is no mistaking her. This makes it easier to see that a spark has gone out. Ebullient in life even when life was not necessarily easy, a person like Whitney whose fame does not and has not ever relied on a costume, a marker style, or on a falsified character – someone whose particular famousness is rooted in talent and joy qua talent and joy – is a different thing. More than anybody who wanted their burial clothing seen or discussed, a stolen image of Houston’s basic dress underscores the whole truth of death, which is that nobody – famous or un-famous – ever escapes it. Kings, Queens, gold-diggers, sex symbols, monsters and Hollywood vampires all end the same way. To die with style is still to die; the rest is debated by history.

Philippa Snow is a London-based freelance writer and features editor of the magazine Modern Matter.