30 years after her death, the sex symbol's legend looms larger than ever

After Murphy Brown, Sister Souljah, and Susan Faludi, why do we still care so much about Marilyn Monroe? In a time of postfeminism and dual-gender empowerment, how relevant is a woman who seems a symbol of retrogressive sex-object passivity?

Pretty darn relevant, apparently. Monroe endures as a figure of such mythic scale that she still pervades pop culture 30 years after her death on Aug. 5, 1962, at age 36 of a barbiturate overdose. More than 50 books have been written about her (one of the latest, Marilyn: The Last Take, is being excerpted in People), dozens of documentaries have probed her life and death (the most recent, Marilyn: The Last Interview, premiered last month on HBO), and this month there’ll be an onslaught of newspaper and magazine articles commemorating the anniversary of her passing.

Fired on the set of her last (and never finished) film, 1962’s Something’s Got to Give, for playing hooky — she showed up for only 12 of the film’s 33 shooting days — Marilyn is now a major attraction on video, where her films are among the most popular classics on the shelves. But the Monroe oeuvre is no longer limited just to her own movies: There have been dozens of dramatizations of her life (the latest was ABC’s 1991 TV movie Marilyn and Me), and even a few films in which she appears as a character (in 1985’s Insignificance, for instance, Marilyn spends an afternoon in a New York hotel room discussing the theory of relativity with Albert Einstein).

For three decades now, America’s myth-making corps has been building up the Monroe mystique, revising it — often radically — for every generation. One of her ex-husbands, playwright Arthur Miller, immortalized her in his 1964 tragedy, After the Fall. Andy Warhol transformed the onetime Norma Jean Baker into a silk-screen trademark of pop iconolatry. Elton John recast her glimmery allure for the blue-denim generation with his hit tune ”Candle in the Wind.” Norman Mailer deconstructed her as a near-intellectual Everywoman in his 1973 coffee-table tome, Marilyn: A Biography, gushing that she was the ”Stradivarius of sex.” Gloria Steinem liberated her, reinterpreting Monroe’s life and work with a feminist eye in Ms. magazine (and later in her 1986 book, Marilyn: Norma Jean).

She isn’t always put to such ideological purposes, of course. As a commodity, Monroe may be worth more in death than she was in life. It’s not just movie studios divvying up the spoils. Merchandisers use her face to sell everything from sunglasses to high heels to wine (Marilyn Merlot, a Napa Valley red that bears her picture). The huge machine spews out Marilyn T-shirts, ”collector’s” plates, calendars, clocks, ashtrays, address books, shower curtains, and hundreds of other items worth an estimated $20 million to $30 million in sales every year.

To market products with Monroe’s image, merchandisers need permission from her estate and must pay licensing fees, which reportedly total more than $1 million a year. It all goes to the estate’s two beneficiaries: The estate of Lee Strasberg, Monroe’s acting teacher, gets 75 percent, and the Anna Freud Centre (a London psychiatric institute) receives 25 percent. They also decide which products to allow in the marketplace. ”We’ve turned down lots of ideas,” says estate licensing agent Roger Richman. Among them, Marilyn toilet paper, cigarettes, and vibrators. ”We only want quality products,” he says. ”Nothing disgusting. Right now, we’re looking at a proposal for Marilyn jeans.”

But no number of T-shirts and clocks can cast much real light on our persistent passion for Marilyn Monroe — they’re just its manifestations. Something in us will not let her go. Is it her sheer sex appeal that touches us so deeply, or her childish vulnerability? Her taffy-haired Hollywood sheen or the sweet, raw Norma-ality that pokes through? Is it the movies she made, the songs she sang, the men she married, the chances she missed?

Maybe it’s simply the fate of stars who die young and tragically that we make of them what we want, molding them to our hopes and disappointments like second skin. More than James Dean — perhaps even more than Elvis — Marilyn traces the line where our sunny, all-American love of celebrity crosses into the dark.