Vanity Fair is supposed to be a "cultural catalyst," a "magazine that provokes and drives the popular dialogue." Then why does it dedicate so many covers to dead ladies? Who's buying these issues? And why is it getting worse?
This month's cover girl for a magazine that supposedly defines what's important in entertainment, politics, art, and society is Marilyn Monroe. This is her second appearance on the cover since 2006. The only other women to appear alone on the cover twice in the same time span are Angelina Jolie, currently the biggest female celebrity in the world; Lindsay Lohan, who is as close as we're ever going to get to a national obsession; and supermodel Gisele Bündchen, who is preternatural in everything she does. Jackie Kennedy graced the cover once alone and once with another person (her first husband, JFK) in that same time period, an honor shared only with Tina Fey, Amy Adams, and Julia Roberts (who hasn't had a cover since 2007). Marilyn Monroe has been dead twice as long as both Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga (the cover girls for the mag's October and September issues) have been alive. That's how long dead Marilyn is.
Look at who else has been on the cover this year. In July, it was Elizabeth Taylor who isn't quite dead yet, but hasn't been relevant in the better part of two decades. But it wasn't a picture of Elizabeth now or a story about her twilight years (which would actually be an awesome read). It was an old photo of her along with a story that rehashed her tumultuous relationship with Richard Burton. Snoozeville. Back in May, it was Grace Kelly's turn on the cover a mere 28 years after her death. I remember it as if it was yesterday! But with three old ladies on the cover, that means that one quarter of all Vanity Fair covers this year are devoted to subjects dustier than the sidewalks in Pompeii. And it might be higher. Who knows what December's cover might bring? Maybe Marie Antoinette!
As much as we pick on these covers of women from beyond the grave, they must be selling or else VF editor-in-chief Graydon Carter wouldn't keep producing them. Data shows that issues with dead people on the cover are regularly among the magazine's best-sellers at newsstands. That may explain why there's been a whole slew of them, and why it's been getting progressively worse. In 2009, perennial favorite Jackie O was on the cover in May. (Why not just recycle a "Jackie's Pain" headline from the '60s as well?) In 2008, Marilyn Monroe was on the cover in October, and in June of that year it was her old "acquaintance" Bobby Kennedy who was front and center. (The May 2008 cover featured Madonna, who isn't actually dead, but sure looks like she is.) Jack and Jackie Kennedy appeared on the cover in November 2007. But if you go back to 2006, you'll find that the magazine's staff was clearly thinking about the future, because there wasn't a single old-timer who made an appearance.
So is it an obsession with dead celebrities or is it something about the Kennedys and Marilyn specifically that has led to this? Maybe it's just that Graydon Carter and the baby boomer magazine market wants to keep reliving the icons of their youth. They find a comfort in seeing Marilyn, Liz, Jackie, and Princess Grace looking out at them from the newsstands like they're still young and hip and the world is full of promise. It's not that readers aren't responding to modern celebrities—otherwise, Angelina, Lindsay, or Gaga wouldn't have been viable cover models. And yet, still, at least once a year, VF trots out these old workhorses for another trip down memory lane.
It's really not about providing historical insight. These images—and the stories that have accompanied them—haven't educated people or given anyone any new info. It's purely about holding onto the past. It's the worst kind of nostalgia, really: people wallowing around in things that they already know, rehashing old gossip and retelling the scandalous stories of days past as if nothing that comes today can ever top the already masticated gossip of yesteryear. Just because Lindsay hasn't killed herself yet doesn't mean that she won't be able to live up to the glory of Marilyn Monroe. Have some faith in the future. Hell, have some faith in the present to deliver something that Vanity Fair readers will find just as interesting as the tales of days gone by.
We get it. No one will be more glamorous than Jackie, more tragic than Marilyn, better than the Beatles, more rocking-er than the Stones. There will never be another Vietnam or Watergate or Woodstock. The movies won't be as great as they were in the '70s and the novelists can't compete against Capote, Vidal, and Mailer. We get it, Vanity Fair. We get it. If we finally concede that your time in the sun was better than ours, will you finally shut up about how great it was?
Who knows, maybe in 40 years, we'll be celebrating the (39th) anniversary of Lindsay Lohan's death with yet another VF cover and an interview with her on-set tutor from The Parent Trap. We'll be indulging in our own senile revisits to the past. Until then, though, give us some new celebrity demi-gods to add to the pantheon and let all of these old ladies finally rest in peace.