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Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois W. Banner

“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.

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Filed under Banner Lois W, Non Fiction

The Empty Glass by J.I Baker

Excerpt from a CIA memo dated August 3, 1962

“2. Subject repeatedly called the Attorney General’s office and complained about the way she was being ignored by the president and his brother.

3. Subject threatened to hold a press conference and would tell all.” (from The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe)

About 1/3 of the way through The Empty Glass, a debut fiction novel written by J.I Baker, almost unable to grasp the significance of what I was reading, I put the book down and started reading about the recorded events surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn had just been dumped by Robert Kennedy and she told Robert Slatzer, a former lover,  “If I don’t hear from Bobby Kennedy soon I’m going to call a press conference and blow the lid off this whole damn thing. I’m going to tell about my relationships with both Kennedy brothers.The Empty Glass is narrated by Ben Fitzgerald, a deputy LA coroner, who has the misfortune to be called to Monroe’s house on August 5, 1962, and the book details the mysteries surrounding this bizarre case. As I read the book, I asked myself if this was true–how much of this incredible stuff that I was reading was made up? Was this a figment of the author’s imagination? To my surprise (well, shock, really), I discovered that not only has the author very carefully reconstructed the events and the names of that night, but he also included some portentous events from both JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe’s life. The interesting thing here is that we will probably never know for certain what happened that night at Monroe’s home. We can speculate all we want, but by writing a fiction novel, the author effectively steps into a sequence of events in which the outrageous details were hijacked and an alternative narrative created by the people who…yes, I’m going to say it.. by the people who wanted Marilyn Monroe dead.

I have a vague childhood memory of hearing my mother discuss Marilyn Monroe and agreeing with the consensus opinion that she committed suicide as she was aging and couldn’t handle the knowledge that her looks were fading. Anyway, Monroe was a well-known loose cannon, so the suicide fit with that tragic star image. Author J.I.Baker shows that if the story fed to the public for the first 24 hours sails unchecked, then it’s virtually impossible to change the accepted narrative without invoking that nutball, dismissive phrase ‘conspiracy theory.’ What’s so very interesting here is that the author, using fiction as his venue, presents this story bolstered with the very-real facts as told by a fictional character. By using this approach the author effectively strips away the official story of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide which some (including me at this point) would argue was fiction presented as fact. And this novel is perfect timing, by the way, as this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

The novel begins with the information that something has gone horribly wrong in Ben Fitzgerald’s life, and then the story segues to the night of August 5, 1962 when Ben is rousted at 2:15 in the morning from bed at the cheap hotel where he rents a room. He’s told to go to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood to the home of Marilyn Monroe as she’s committed suicide. Upon his arrival, Ben notes that the whole suicide story doesn’t fit the scenario:

Her fingernails were blue. The cause of death seemed obvious: an overdose. Except–Except the body was in the soldier’s position: legs straight, head down.

“I don’t have to tell you what that means, Doctor,” I say.

“Yes,” you say. “You do.”

“Well, it looked as though she’d been placed.”

“What?”

“Placed,” I say. “People who overdose don’t drift happily away. There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”
“So?”

“A person dying of barbiturate overdose would not have died clutching a phone. She might have answered it. But a person dying of a barbiturate overdose would have gone limp before the convulsions began.”

Curiouser and curiouser, Marilyn’s housekeeper, doctor and psychiatrist have timelines concerning the events of that night, but within a few hours, they all change their stories. And then Ben discovers Marilyn’s diary, her “book of secrets” which for the record was never found–even though memos from both the FBI and the CIA acknowledged an awareness of its existence. He doesn’t grasp the significance of this find and in hindsight admits:

I had no reason to believe it would jeopardise my own life or that of my family. So you ask: If I had known, would I have just walked away?

Sniffing that there’s a lot wrong with Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide,” Ben takes the diary and begins doing a little freelance investigation of his own. Big mistake.

Some factors about the autopsy strike Ben as odd and inconsistent with suicide. Marilyn’s stomach was empty, so how did the overdose occur? He’s told in no uncertain terms that ‘s not his job to “speculate,” but his curiosity leads him into a nightmare existence of surveillance and threats–an existence in which Ben becomes increasingly paranoid and powerless.

The Empty Glass is a fast-paced read, full of short, sharp sentences that match the novel’s subject. The novel covers the weekend before Marilyn’s death when she travelled to the Cal-Neva resort, and also includes the JFK-Florence Kater-Pamela Turnure affair, along with fictional diary entries in which Marilyn Monroe mentions “the general.” The diary entries didn’t ring true for me–perhaps they just didn’t sound like Marilyn’s voice. On the down side, I doubt the novel will appeal to readers unless they have an interest in Marilyn Monroe. On the positive side, the author did some phenomenal work with the facts and effectively deconstructed the official story.

Wikipedia has a very interesting page devoted solely to the death of Marilyn Monroe. And here for the author’s web page for additional information about the life and death of Marilyn Monroe.

review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under Baker J.I., Fiction