By the time she had nibbled Pat Boone’s shoulder in State Fair and shaken the nation’s tail feathers in Bye Bye Birdie, it was obvious that the 22-year-old Swedish-born Ann-Margret was not just any screen icon in waiting, but the heir apparent to Marilyn Monroe. Even the Kennedy White House took notice. In 1963, the year after Marilyn slithered on stage to turn ”Happy Birthday” into an aural wet dream, JFK picked the equally breathy Ann-Margret, with her beguiling virgin/vixen persona, to do the honors.
Eventually, there would be more personal parallels between Norma Jean Baker and Ann-Margret Olsson, parallels that went beyond the fact that Monroe’s stand-in and hairdresser would become Ann-Margret’s own, and that their hyperfemininity bound them in a shared camp quotient that fueled the fantasies of gay men and pubescent girls alike.
In 1960, the broken goddess and the spunky star-to-be eyed each other across the set of The Misfits. Monroe, inquiring about the visitor, looked into the past and the future and saw it all: the gothic elements of their childhoods (after the Olssons moved to America, they lived for a time in a Chicago-area funeral home, where the 11-year-old electrician’s daughter slept in close proximity to the caskets), the search for Daddy in every man they met, the struggle to rise from sex toy-tramp to respected actress, the disappointment of failing to conceive a child, the alcohol haze, the overdose of pills, the periods of psychosis, the years of psychotherapy.
In Ann-Margret: My Story, written with PEOPLE magazine’s Todd Gold, the actress explains how she managed to avoid Monroe’s ultimate tragedy. Unlike Monroe, she refused to be used and abused by men. And she had a savior – or a Svengali – in her husband of 27 years, actor Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), who refused to marry her until she allowed him to take total control of her business affairs – and her life. ”That husband,” a Hollywood wag once joked. ”He cuts her meat for her.”
Ann-Margret’s autobiography is one of Hollywood’s most anticipated stories (”Jessica Rabbit talks!”), in part because she has lived her private life like a recluse. Everyone wants to know the truth about her much-rumored affairs (JFK, Sinatra, Elvis). This is a woman who survived not only a 22-foot fall on her face in Lake Tahoe in 1972 but sexploitation movies like Kitten With a Whip, only to resurface with Carnal Knowledge and a fistful of Oscar and Emmy nominations.
In a 1991 Vanity Fair profile, this actress, who was once literally a cartoon (the model for The Flintstones’ Ann-Margrock), proved herself to be thoughtful, articulate, and capable of insight and candor. But My Story is almost completely devoid of such observation. It isn’t so much an autobiography as a press agent’s career history, fleshed out with the occasional glimpse of a real person. Her ”revelations” about Elvis don’t go any farther than to admit they were wildly in love but that it had to end. As for her discoverer, George Burns, her first movie costar, Bette Davis, and almost every other famous person she names, well, they were ”generous.” Ann-Margret has mastered the art of talking without saying a thing.
After 200 pages of this white-glove treatment, written in bad women’s magazine style, the book finally springs to life in its last third. By the end of the book, we see that Roger Smith may have saved her career, but Ann- Margret saved herself. We salute her, but we also feel we’ve been had – we don’t know much more about her than before we began. Like Marilyn, Ann-Margret plans on taking her mysteries with her when she goes. C