It is with a sense of shock that I realised that Marilyn Monroe died fifty years ago. I remember hearing the news on our old black and white television and the sense of shock I felt. As I had not seen her in any films or knew her work at all I wonder why I was so upset, but she was so often in the papers and magazines and we all felt we knew so much about her, that it was almost like losing a friend.
This new biography of Marilyn by Lois Banner is the most exhaustive and researched biography we have had yet of this remarkable woman. Most biographies about Marilyn are written by show business reporters or biographers, but the author of this one is a co-founder of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. This is not her first book on this subject, she has already published MM-Personal which reproduced and discussed items from Marilyn's personal archives so she is certainly well qualified to write this biography.
It is heavily researched and there is no part of Marilyn's life which is not explored in detail. I don't think Marilyn ever really knew who her father was, a fact which certainly impacted on her attitude to men as she grew into adulthood; her mother was mentally fragile and was incapable of looking after her daughter properly and Marilyn spent most of her childhood in foster homes with an assortment of friends and acquaintances who took her on when her mother could not cope and she had no stable childhood at all. She spent time with a family who were very involved with Christian Science and it was during this time that she later revealed she had suffered sexual abuse. She was rather vague about it and would not name who it was but the general consensus was that it was the foster father who was responsible though it was never proved. Indeed, some thought Marilyn had made it up in order to gain publicity.
It would take too long to chart the ups and downs of Marilyn's early life and her career, but one thing that stands out most clearly is just how hard she worked. All I remember reading about her was her lateness on set, days when she did not turn up at all or could not be bothered, and yet it seemed that she was regarded as one of the hardest working young actresses in the studio, conscientiously taking her acting classes, turning up on time and spending hours perfecting her technique and concentrating on the expressions on her face in revealing emotion and feelings. Also clear that she was no intellectual slouch and she was bright and clever and witty and amusing. Marilyn had a clear eye and a level head and knew exactly what to do in order to push her career forward.
The more I read, the more fond of Marilyn I became. She struck me as being a really, well, nice woman. There seems to be no record or comment anywhere of her doing down another actress or behaving badly towards them. There appear to be plenty of actors who are quite happy to be sarcastic or unpleasant about her, Laurence Olivier being one of them. Seems he treated her very badly during the making of the film The Prince and the Showgirl - no surprise there - and her husband Arthur Miller who thought he had married a dumb blonde only to find out he was mistaken, seems to have spent most of their married life chipping away at her confidence and reducing her to a nervous wreck.
Conspiracy theories abound over her death, was it an accident or was it murder? My feeling always has been that it was an accident, but the problem seems to be that her body was moved and her death not reported for some hours. It seems to me that the main reason for this delay was purely to get Bobbie Kennedy, who had seen her earlier in the day, well out of the way and out of the vicinity. I don't think for one moment that he had anything to do with her death but the Kennedys have a way of distancing themselves from scandal. Remember Chappaquidick when the death of Mary Jo Kopechne was not reported for some time while the conclave surrounding Ted Kennedy concocted a story to explain his abandoning of the car in which Mary Jo drowned. Cowards all who run scared and I don't think this was any different.
A fascinating book about a fascinating person, but, and there is a but, the author's feminist credentials are clearly to the fore and there were several occasions when I wish she had reined in her own personal feelings about Marilyn and her reasons for her behaviour, as they began to intrude and become tedious and I found some of the writing verging on the precious end of academic:
After her tragic miscarriage: "She felt it damaged her femininity, her status as the representative of all women. Internalising 1950s domestic values, wanting to re-mother herself by mothering a child she saw it as an ultimate blow......only by having a child could she prove her femininity and blot out her fear that she was really a lesbian by nature"
On a photographic session: "these portraits show Marilyn as a beautiful blonde, both aesthetic and dramatic; as a clown satirizing cultural icons; as a resonant and joyous symbol of the nation; and as a cross-gendered individual mocking her position as the world's heterosexual sex queen"
I am afraid my reaction to this sort of pyschobabble is one of profound irritation. Lois Banner is a professor of history and gender studies in California and boy does she have an agenda and boy does she make sure we know it. Though I found this book absorbing and fascinating these excursions into academicspeak are both distracting and annoying and though the research is impeccable and the knowledge of her subject absolute, I never felt that she was truly engaged with Marilyn at all and that she viewed her with a rather distant eye. In other words, I never felt she liked her.
Which is a shame, because I do.
But read it and see what you think.