What if these three icons of 20th Century sexuality could weigh in on the modern woman?
As I walk into the Biltmore, I shiver. Sure, it could have been the air conditioning, but when is a Los Angeles venue ever set below an ever-so-temperate 68 degrees? I take a deep breath, flexing my toes in my heels. After all, I’m about to interview three icons of beauty from the 20th Century – women who not only gave birth to the modern sex symbol but continued to influence her beyond the grave. Were they proud of the modern beauty? Or did they see her as a monster of conflicting parts, with her duck lips, puffy cheeks, and jutting collarbones?
And then, I see them before I see them. You know how you can feel electricity in the air before a storm? Even the cloud of cigarette smoke that hangs over their heads is curling beautifully. Sitting together at the center of the Gallery Bar are Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Josephine Baker. Blonde and raven heads bob together, laughing, as the women lean into the waiter lighting their cigarettes. Yes, you are still allowed to smoke in fantasy pieces if the participants request it. As for me, I just shift my notepad from one hand to the other.
Flash forward a few moments, and I’m seated among the legends at a round table. Josephine Baker was a sensation in Paris in the 1920s. Marilyn Monroe holds the patent for sexy womanhood in the 1950s. And Elizabeth Taylor helps define strong womanhood in the decades since. I want to know what they think about beauty, Botox, and maintaining a size 2 in a world gone mad with weight issues.
I rattle the ice in my glass and lean forward. “You are all among the biggest icons of feminine sexuality for the 20th century. Would you call yourselves beautiful?”
The women stop smoking for a moment, cigarettes hanging in surprise. Then they burst out laughing, a musical swing of husky voices blending together like music. Josephine exhales over her cigarette, eyeing me up and down. “This one cuts right to it,” Elizabeth says before lighting up another smoke.
“Beautiful? It’s all a question of luck,” Josephine Baker says, snapping her fingers for a drink refill. “I was born with good legs. As for the rest…beautiful, no. Amusing, yes.”
Elizabeth Taylor turns her eyes on Josephine. “This coming from a woman who performed wearing nothing more than bananas at the Folies Bergère in Paris. It was 1927, darling, own your courage! The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”
“And how!” Josephine returns, clicking glasses with Elizabeth. But Marilyn Monroe wears a worried look. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” she shares. “A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing.”
But Josephine is not having it. “Don’t be such a funny old bird, love. You’re the bees knees, every drugstore cowboy on both sides of the Atlantic wanted to get their wiggle on with you,” she offers, waving her hands over Marilyn’s blonde mop. “Maybe that’s true. But what good did that really do me? Dogs never bit me, just humans,” Marilyn sighs.
Elizabeth and Josephine exchange glances. Yes, she’s always like this. “You’re gorgeous, darling. You’re better than this tragic little girl bit. Own how powerful you were. Don’t let the specter of your failed relationships define your whole life. I sure didn’t.” Elizabeth pats Marilyn’s hand. Then she takes off a giant diamond ring and places it on Marilyn’s. “Big girls need big diamonds, right?”
I use the opportunity to interject. “Miss Baker, how do you think the perceptions of beauty have changed over the decades?”
Josephine turns her honey-brown eyes on me, her hand touching her close-cropped hair. “It’s like this, chickadee. I was too skinny and dark for America, so I hit Paris in the 20s. By 1927 I was one of most photographed woman in the world.”
“Maybe it’s because you were always topless in a short skirt,” Elizabeth smirks. “I wasn’t really naked, I simply didn’t have any clothes on,” Josephine returns. “But I felt good about myself all the same. I used sexuality as a political statement, as a way to empower myself and others.”
Elizabeth raises her glass. “Touche, mon ami!” says Elizabeth, as the women click glasses. “To tell you the truth, darling, I so wish I could have had your body confidence in my own life,” Elizabeth sighs. “I remembering going on and on to The New York Times in 1986 about being a size 6. Growing up, I hated the way I looked, the sound of my voice. I was into my 50s before I finally figured out that happiness wasn’t about being thin, but clicking your head into the right place. Without that inner click it doesn’t matter how many fad diets you go on.”
Marilyn chews on her finger. “You were called the most beautiful woman in the world, and you hated the way you looked? Good gracious, no wonder the rest of us had such a hard time.” Then she flashes her legendary smile. “But I see your point. Sex is part of nature, and I go along with nature. I never thought the body was meant to be all covered up. But it’s really all make believe, isn’t it? The idea of what’s beautiful. It’s all just silly moments in fashion.”
“That’s true, doll,” Josephine sighs. The women look pensive, pausing a moment to attend to their cigarettes and scotch. “If natural is sexy, what do you think of the 21st century woman, with her arsenal of Botox and fillers?” I ask.
“What’s this Botox?” Josephine asks. Elizabeth grins. “Oh, it’s this darling little beauty aid I used later in life. A little bit here and there, and the wrinkles just melt away.”
“I don’t understand, it’s poison? That you put in your skin?” Marilyn shakes her head.
“All I know is that I sweat real sweat. I shake real shakes. It’s not that complicated,” Elizabeth counters. “Yes, beauty comes from within, but I always maintained that if someone’s dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down. I wanted to stay pretty. Who are you to judge me?”
Josephine shrugs it off, laughing. “Beauty is entirely subjective, and we need not poison ourselves for it. It didn’t matter how beautiful the French found me – when I returned to America in 1936, they called me a negro wench and sent me packing. I fought that racist standard the rest of my life and was honored for it.” She fiddles with her drink. “See, this is why I loved the French. Even when they insult you, they do it nicely.”
“Miss Monroe, is there anything you’d like to add?” The actress tucks her blonde hair behind her ear. “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring,” she shares. “That, my dear, is what it means to be beautiful.”
“Well said!” Elizabeth holds up her glass. “To beauty!”
As Josephine and Marilyn hold up their glasses for the toast, I realize my time with the legends is over. Maybe it was because a crowd has gathered around the women, straining for glimpses. Or maybe it’s because I realize that there really are no clear answers. Is beauty defined by nature? Society? Or is it all about how you age? Maybe, in the end, beauty can be measured by the mark you leave on the world.
*Answers guided by quotes from Elizabeth Taylor, Josephine Baker, and Marilyn Monroe.