Becoming Jewish: The Fame, Love & Faith of Two Hollywood Legends
In Becoming Jewish: Warhol's Liz and Marilyn, currently on view at the Jewish Museum, the single-gallery exhibit leads you on a fascinating study of fame, religion and art history centered around the lives of cinema icons Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Taylor and Monroe, both rivals and contemporaries, shared many parallels in life, such as being products of the Hollywood studio system, immense public scrutiny, weight issues, fragile health, and battling complicated romantic relationships. Yet, they were utterly mesmerizing onscreen and seduced the world with their individual mix of beauty, magic, and savvy. They were also united by another factor - their Jewish faith - as both women converted to Judaism in the late 1950s, a fact they heavily guarded, and led a lifelong commitment to honor the tenets of the religion. Becoming Jewish, consists of three components - 'Celebrity', 'Conversion', 'Myth & Legend' - and is supported by film memorabilia, photographs, letters and highly significant personal objects. Also on display are Andy Warhol's iconic 'Liz' and 'Marilyn' portraits - including two canvases and two prints - which serve as anchors of the exhibit. It is where Warhol forever immortalizes Taylor and Monroe into American pop culture.
Taylor once said, "I feel as I have been a Jew all my life", and although having been raised as a Christian Scientist, she held a deep connection to Jewish culture and ideals since her childhood, as her mother and godfather were strong supporters of Zionism. Her emotional bond with Judaism continued into adulthood and she officially converted in 1959 at the age of 27 at Temple Israel of Hollywood (under the helm of Rabbi Max Nussbaum), taking on the Hebrew name Elisheba Rachel. Taylor's conversion came at very trying time in her life, she was still mourning her third husband Mike Todd (born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen), the Oscar-winning Jewish producer who was tragically killed in 1958, and moving on to marry his best friend, the performer Eddie Fisher who was also Jewish. Yet Taylor didn't convert for her husbands as many would believe, it was a willful choice, shaped by grief and hope, declaring, "It was something I had wanted for a long time." Taylor became a fervent activist and advocate for Jewish/Israeli endeavors for the remainder of her life.
From left to right: Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, 1957. Image provided by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy. Elizabeth Taylor on the cover of Screen Stories, September 1959. John Huston, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, 1961. Image provided by Photos 12 / Alamy. Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Modern Screen, November 1956.
In the case of Monroe, her conversion stemmed from a longstanding admiration for the Jewish community (and a rejection of her Protestant values), whom she called "underdogs", and cited Albert Einstein as one of her personal heroes. She made the definitive choice to convert prior to her marriage to Arthur Miller, the highly esteemed Jewish intellectual and playwright who became her second husband. Rabbi Robert Goldburg oversaw Marilyn's conversion process, meeting on several occasions to discuss essential Hebrew texts he had assigned her to read. After a civil ceremony on June 29, 1956 (held to distract paparazzi from attending the religious ceremony), Marilyn officially converted July 1, 1956, followed by a religious ceremony officiated by Rabbi Goldburg in Katonah, New York. Some time later Marilyn was invited to Philadelphia by the American Friends of the Hebrew University to share her conversion testimony, Arthur was also present and spoke to the audience. The marriage eventually failed and they were divorced in 1961, yet Marilyn vowed to continue practicing Judaism. The conversion of Taylor and Monroe, along with Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Anne Meara, and other celebrities, beaconed a growing acceptance of Jewish people and culture in mainstream America.
In the early 1960s' as the golden era of Hollywood began to fade, films stars were no longer sheltered by the powerful studio system. Celebrities were more vulnerable to predatory paparazzi, and fan magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen, and Screen Stories fed the public's insatiable appetite for celebrity culture. Taylor and Monroe cautiously navigated this treacherous landscape, often living painful public lives, and protecting whatever privacy they could afford. Andy Warhol, Pop artist and enfant terrible of the art world, was infatuated with glamour and fantasy and reveled in exploring the morbid aspects of celebrity life. He was intrigued how excess, wealth, controversy, mortality, and notoriety played a role in celebrities' lives. He drew upon his extensive publicity still collection of movie stars to create his most celebrated body of work during this period. In 'Blue Liz' from 1962, the overly saturated, brash approach aims in exaggerating Taylor's persona. Taylor appears cartoon-like, transformed into a caricature derived from her usually elegant identity. Warhol never met Monroe, but he met Taylor for the very first time in Rome during the summer of 1973. He was cast in a small role as her love interest (much to his delight) in her latest film, 'The Driver's Seat', directed by Franco Rossellini, nephew of the legendary Roberto Rossellini. She later purchased one of his 'Liz' paintings in 1977 and they remained lifelong friends.
Warhol commenced his 'Marilyn' series shortly after her death in 1962. He enjoyed and was inspired by the tawdry news headlines in the aftermath of her passing, and collected tabloid media for his Marilyn reference archive. One of Warhol's most revered works, 'Marilyn' from 1967, is a harsh dissection of the actress' exalted beauty. Her face seems deconstructed and collage-like, fragmented components of idealized female beauty standards seem to be strewn together. In a way it represents the mask of the 'blonde bombshell' Marilyn had to hide behind, even though it's a stereotype she tirelessly fought to overcome. Through these exemplary portraits Warhol eulogized both Taylor and Monroe as Hollywood's quintessential film goddesses.
Becoming Jewish: Warhol's Liz and Marilyn will be on view at The Jewish Museum through February 7, 2016.