“She sometimes had a vacuous expression on her face,” David Conover remembered, “as though she lacked an identity.”
Two books about Marilyn Monroe in less than a month? Yes, and why not? It’s been fifty years since her death and with this milestone distance, there seems to be a general feeling for the need to re-evaluate this legendary star. The two books I read are very different. First came J.I. Baker’s fictional account of the death of Marilyn Monroe, The Empty Glass, and now comes the non-fiction book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, a feminist critique by professor of History and Gender Studies at USC, Lois W. Banner. As it turns out, the two books complemented each other in an unexpected fashion, or perhaps, my mind was just in the right place to enjoy them both. I approached the non-fiction book with the idea that I wanted to learn something new about Marilyn, and with that goal in mind, I came away satisfied.
As the title suggests, the author explores the paradoxical aspects of Marilyn Monroe beginning with the iconic photo in which she stands over a subway grate and appears to be holding her skirt down as it blows in the air. The photo gives the appearance of modesty, and yet the photo is far from that. The author asks the questions was Marilyn a “precursor of 60s feminism” and was there “power in her stance as a sex object?” Marilyn often played the role of the dumb blonde sex kitten–the living, breathing embodiment of men’s sexual fantasies, and the reigning, unkind story of her life shrinks her down to a hysterical out-of-control pill-popper who committed suicide because she couldn’t bear the thought of her encroaching 40s. A large chunk of the book is spent exploring the other side of Marilyn–the tough side, the complex aspects of her character that survived a nomadic childhood, an early marriage, illness, and crushing childhood stress that resulted in stuttering. For this fan, Marilyn seemed to become whatever you wanted her to be: not so much malleable but adaptable, and in spite of the fact that she supposedly committed suicide (I don’t believe that), she was also a survivor. In many ways, Marilyn was a hell of a lot tougher than she appeared–that’s the only explanation why someone so damaged survived and even, for an all too brief period, soared.
With a bit of a dry start, this is, after all, an academic work, the author spends a fair portion of the book delving into Marilyn’s childhood, tracing the mental instability of Marilyn’s mother & family. The author recounts Marilyn’s troubled and disrupted childhood after her care was assumed by Marilyn’s mother’s friend, Christian Scientist Grace, a rather strange and formative character, and the “puppet master” of Marilyn’s life according to the author. The number of homes Marilyn (or should I say Norma Jeane) lived in was appalling, but the author makes the point that these were not state-run homes but the homes of people who were known to the family–some of whom wanted to adopt young Norma Jeane. The author argues that through this constant change, Norma Jeane tried hard to ‘fit in’ to her ever-shifting family situation:
Such behaviour would become standard for her, as she entered families and left them, testing her ability to charm again and again.
In her teens, Banner begins to show us the tenacious Marilyn as she struggled to overcome numerous crippling obstacles in order to rise from her tragically sad early life. She “mocked current fashion” became a “genius at self-creation,” and subsequently set out to become an actress, but also at the same time, her need for male attention became apparent. Of course, the book explores the three troubled marriages of Marilyn Monroe and touches on (but does not detail) the numerous sexual relationships she had.
If I had to select the information that surprised me the most, it would be the appalling ways she was treated by the men in her life. Not all of them–some men obviously recognised that abusing Marilyn didn’t help at all. Director Henry Hathaway, for example, appreciated her as an actress and seemed able to coax the best performance from her. Daryl Zanuck (who seems to have been Marilyn’s bete noir) and Billy Wilder, however, are an entirely different matter.
According to actress Gene Tierney, in order to keep off the “casting couch.” an actress needed either an “assertive mother to protect her, or an upper-class background or Broadway acting experience to impress studio executives.” So a woman needed to be rich, connected or protected, and that leaves a single woman and especially a divorced woman as easy pickings for the studio system. Some of the information regarding Marilyn’s treatment while she was a “party girl ” is rather distressing. I was unaware that early in her career she was seen as a ‘freebie’ to be passed around to whoever happened to be in town that week. On the other hand, it’s interesting that some women liked Marilyn: Jane Russell and Louella Parsons are just two examples of women who saw more in Marilyn than a dumb blonde with a killer body.
Some considerable time is given to the last week of Marilyn’s life–along with the prevailing suicide theory, and the aftermath of her death. There’s also an argument pro and con Marilyn as a feminist icon. Personally, I go with the latter: that it was her “fixation with her femininity … that caused her victimization in the end.” The book makes it clear that she tried so hard to overcome her beginnings but was hobbled by her own demons and by the system in which she was defined. The author includes a number of interviews with individuals who’ve somehow been bypassed by the plethora of Marilyn biographers, and the book succeeds in accomplishing its goal of showing just how complex a woman Marilyn Monroe was. Perhaps it took a feminist writer to recognise Marilyn’s struggles for exactly how hard they were.
Review copy from the publisher.