When I picked up the fat new Marilyn Monroe biography, I thought I was in for a racy, gossipy read. Instead, I found an intense book that’s as much a revelation of the deeply psychotic Hollywood of the time as it is of one of its most enduring icons. Writer-historian Lois Banner brings her considerable scholarship to bear on her fascinating subject, often in fact exceeding the brief with a plethora of detail that can get slightly overwhelming. For instance, the book doesn’t stop with describing a religion or psychoanalysis that Marilyn tries but analyses each one, telling the founders’ life story, their motivations and their politics. It’s too much pure research that doesn’t necessarily add to the Marilyn narrative but, equally, cannot detract from the overall brilliance of the book.
One of the benefits of being a historian is that Banner is never tempted to colour outside the lines. She scrupulously presents every little life detail, every friendship and association, every episode and experience that went into the making of a woman who ruled men’s fantasies for much of the swinging 60s. From this, we are allowed to make what we will of the personality that emerges.
At the beginning, Banner asks if Marilyn might not be a feminist. It’s a loaded question. Marilyn would not have recognised the word, which came into coinage many years after her death in 1962, but she had achieved many of the goals the movement aspired for: self-made success, ownership of property and business, sexual liberation. Some of her stances were indeed post-feminist, especially her recognition of her femininity and sexuality and her celebration of the power that this could wield over men. But the actor was too deeply disturbed a personality to see this through, allowing her sexuality to victimise rather than empower her.
Banner describes a childhood that’s frighteningly unstable — unknown father, mentally ill mother, 11 foster homes, proxy parenting, and abuse by an older male authority. You are not really surprised when she grows up into a terribly messed-up adult who is not so much in control as being controlled by the men in her life, the demons in her head, and the demands of her profession and ambition. Most of our generation know her from the iconic images — Marilyn on the subway grate, her white halter dress blowing up to expose her legs and underpants; Marilyn in a bright red dress at Niagara Falls; Marilyn nude on red satin. The imagery we take away is that of a star, overpoweringly glamorous and exulting in it. When the book strips off the prettiness to expose the extent to which Marilyn was broken, it makes for an unsettling read.
It’s tempting to cast Marilyn as the eternal victim, exploited by a rapacious Hollywood, and as the reluctant participant in a studio culture that humiliated women. Aspiring starlets started off as party girls, euphemism for being passed around studio moguls. They were displayed, squeezed and picked like produce. In one chilling episode, Banner describes Look editor Mike Cowles visiting Fox when Monroe is paraded into a studio executive’s office and her blouse lifted to display her unusual breasts.
But incident after appalling incident also shows a Marilyn who not only didn’t object but seemingly participated in her abuse. She let the Kennedy brothers share her. She compulsively exposed in public — during shoots and interviews, in studio dining rooms, in public rest rooms. She acquiesced readily to destructive relationships, had random drunken encounters with taxi drivers and strangers, and generally played the insatiable monster of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Was this Marilyn’s nymphomania, as much a serious ailment as her debilitating stammer, sinus, allergies, and other psychoses? Was it the fallout of her childhood abuse? Both seem likely.
Then there’s the other Marilyn, the fighter who signed up for Lee Strasberg classes, had diction and styling tutors, and conned up on art, politics and current affairs just to make intelligent small talk. She read extensively, grasped at learning, and coped in relationships with intellectuals like Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan.
Banner diligently connects these dots, and doesn’t leave out a single book, friend, religion, drug or philosophy that the actor tried. At the end, we get a Marilyn who is fascinating, annoying and infinitely sad. And a wealth of nuance and detail that makes it impossible to attribute her actions simply to a damaged personality or to being victimised. While both are true, I think Norman Mailer came closer when he called her “our sweet angel of sex”. Innumerable people have spoken of the innocence in her eyes even in the most erotic poses. Marilyn in a strange, atavistic way was probably a purely sexual being. Sex and nudity were as natural to her as breathing and she likely couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. It’s a difficult philosophy to carry off and it’s unsurprising that Marilyn didn’t stay whole.
(Vaishna Roy is a deputy editor with The Hindu)