Being a fan of Marilyn Monroe since 1987, I have amassed quite a collection of books on her over the years. One of these is Marilyn Handbook by Mike Evans, which was published in 2004 with the cover price of £14.99. You can buy it for this price from Amazon UK at the moment, though they have cheaper second-hand copies available in the Marketplace.
It is a small sized hardback, but pretty heavy as it contains around 430 pages. It has a striking cover with a portrait photo of Marilyn on a hot pink background. The inside jacket promises "a fresh perspective" including "first-hand accounts" and "rarely seen photos" but Marilyn fans have heard all this before and been disappointed. Will Marilyn Handbook live up to these claims or is it just another re-hash to cash in on her fame and legendary status?
I own around fifty books on Marilyn and flicking through the photographs in Marilyn Handbook, there are all the old favourites there - the film stills, movie posters, the early swimsuit pics, singing at the President's birthday and her white dress flying up over the subway grating. There are a few lesser-seen photographs including some beautiful magazine covers from Glance, Scope, True Experiences, Laff and Life, as well as an advert for City Club that I don't think I've seen before. But if you are buying this to see rare pictures, I wouldn't bother. There are better books around for rarities.
If you are a casual fan, this book could be a good choice though. It contains a large array of photos from her childhood through to her final year, including those by such famous photographers as Bert Stern, Andre De Dienes, Richard Avedon, Sam Shaw and Bob Willoughby. The text also covers the major parts of her life - her childhood, her introduction to modelling, her marriages, her movies and her death - and is written chronologically, so it is easy to follow.
The extensive bibliography at the back does suggest to me though that a lot of this is regurgitated from other books already written about Marilyn. Although there are many quotations used throughout, the three pages of credits in the book show where these came from and none were obtained directly by the author. Despite Marilyn being dead for almost fifty years, it is possible for authors to find people who knew her and to interview them, as is well illustrated in the excellent biography Marilyn Monroe - Private and Undisclosed by Michelle Morgan, which was published in 2007 (and will be out in paperback next year, with new additions).
However, this is not to say Marilyn Handbook is a bad book. Mike Evans presents an image of Marilyn as a "fragile, complex woman" rather than lazily adopting the 'dumb blonde' tag of the gutter press. He shows her as the talented actress she was, who was willing to study her craft and learn new skills to improve her performance. He shows her intelligence and how her attraction to playwright Arthur Miller was an intellectual one as Marilyn hoped to better herself and gain knowledge.
The circumstances surrounding Marilyn's death in 1962 remain a topic for heated debate and Evans covers this, while refusing to state his own personal views on the subject. Again, if you are interested in this area, there are better books available, including several which concentrate almost exclusively on her death, such as The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe and Victim - The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Smith.
Marilyn Handbook does include a few interviews though, which are generally worth reading, including one with Roy Ward Baker (the director of Don't Bother to Knock) from 2004. I don't think I have read this before and there were some interesting bits in it, such as the first time he met Marilyn, she was carrying two big books on Stanislavsky and there are some good observations about Marilyn's relationship with her drama coach Natasha Lytess. However, some of it came from Baker's autobiography and again, it is unclear if the author actually met him.
The interview with photographer Bob Willoughby from 2004 covers two half pages and reveals very little new information, so feels hardly worth the fanfare. The transcript of Marilyn's appearance on The Jack Benny Show from 1953 is even more pointless, as it was only a kind of lame comedy sketch and is much better watched than read. (It's available on YouTube, amongst other places, and you get to see her sing Bye Bye Baby too.)
Ed Pfizenmaier is interviewed too, who was the assistant to the photographer Cecil Beaton. Again not a long interview, but a complimentary one, recalling Marilyn as being easy to work with and even doing her own make up.
Anyone who has seen the recent film My Week with Marilyn may be interested to read the chapter on Marilyn's relationship with Arthur Miller and their time spent in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl, as this is the subject for the new movie, based on Colin Clark's books. Clark himself is not mentioned in Mike Evans's book though.
The final sections of the book illustrate how the Marilyn image is so iconic with photos of Madonna and Kylie copying the look, pictures of some of the Marilyn memorabilia available and brief sections on Marilyn in Art and Bert Stern's final photo shoot with her - The Last Sitting. However, if you already own the books Marilyn in Art (compiled by Roger G. Taylor) and the incredibly beautiful The Last Sitting by Bert Stern (easily one of the best Marilyn books around), Mike Evans's watered-down versions are hardly worth a glance.
Overall, Marilyn Handbook isn't a terrible book. Its tone is respectful not scandalous and it tries to bring a few new things into Marilyn's story - but falls way short of the mark. A casual fan will enjoy this, but for a more serious fan, there are many other better books out there which tick all the boxes.