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With the possible exception of Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe is probably the most written-about deceased woman in twentieth-century history. The thirty-six years of her life (1926-62) and the manner of her death will no doubt continue to provide an opportunity for as many writers as they have already done since her sudden passing. After a decade of research Lois Banner, a Professor of History and Gender Studies at university in California, has added another weighty tome to the relevant shelves. As a self-styled pioneer of second-wave feminism and the new women's history, she has some interesting insights to offer into her subject's life as a gender role model.
Marilyn's career is recounted thoroughly and with frankness. As a film star she was hardworking, but not exactly professional at the best of times. She frequently turned up late on the set (her car had broken down, she had lost her keys, she was not feeling well - the usual excuses), fluffed her lines, and needed to put everyone through numerous takes before the right result was achieved. That she managed to pursue a film career despite all this, and also when the scandal of a set of widely-circulated nude photographs of her taken in 1949 might easily have killed it stone dead, suggests that she was not totally unlucky throughout her life.
Another handicap she was cursed with was a severe stutter, the very last thing an actress needed. And there were numerous psychological problems which constantly dogged her. Some of these probably had their roots in episodes of child abuse which Ms Banner asserts, contrary to the opinion of previous biographers, were not fabricated. When accused of narcissism because she spent so much time looking at herself in the mirror, she defended herself by asserting that she was practising facial expressions or redoing her makeup, as she regarded herself as a perfectionist. She once told the press that she liked to be really dressed up or really undressed, and did not bother with anything in between. Such honesty was not necessarily the best policy in a nation which still had its share of prudery, thought the unclothed female human body was shocking if put on public display, and expected people in the public eye to be good role models.
In addition she suffered from endometriosis, and never had the children for which she longed. One cannot help thinking that any family she might have had if things had been different would not have enjoyed a happy childhood. While more sinned against than sinning, she was notoriously unfaithful to her husbands and perfectly frank about her readiness to sleep with any man who would advance her career. She never forgave film companies who laid her off, although they were probably justified in doing so. Admittedly she was a huge box office draw, but there is more than a grain of truth in the adage that a star is someone who maintains professional standards and is a pleasure to work alongside, not a prima donna who feels that everyone is out of step except for him or her.
Frequent references are made to her dependency on drink and drugs, although the author does not go into detail on these - perhaps not a bad thing, as blow-by-blow accounts of celebrities' indulgences can rapidly become boring. Yet enough is said to leave us in little doubt that by the end of her short life she had an increasing problem with both.
Marilyn saw herself as a Hollywood misfit, one of those who did not follow the rules and was critical of the system. In the McCarthy era of witch-hunts, her left-wing opinions and outspoken support of the communist struggle against capitalist imperialism did her no favours either. It is certainly to her credit that she preferred to be true to herself and did not make any pretence of toeing the political line, although she had to accept the consequences. Angry at being seen as a stereotypical dumb blonde, she devoted a certain amount of time to reading books on art, literature, philosophy and self-improvement, although she 'always read ponderous books - and got them mixed up'.
Although everybody knows what became of her, there is still a sad inevitability in the closing chapters. Distraught at the constant downward spiral of her personal and professional life, in 1961 she confided in a photographer that her mother and her family had been 'all destroyed by insanity', that she had been used and abandoned by so many people, and she was confused about who she wanted to be - but she was not merely, as she put it herself, a sex freak with large breasts. In spite of this, a few months later she appeared at Jack Kennedy's birthday celebration, at which she was wearing a gown made from material which left very little to the imagination under stage lighting. She then gave a deliberately provocative, oversexed performance at the microphone which proceeded to shock not only the more staid guests present. The show had been televised, and although Ms Banner is sympathetic to her subject throughout, she admits that it was a tasteless bit of exhibitionism which cost her dearly in terms of support when she needed it most - and what was left of her reputation.
Perhaps it was just as well that time was running out for her by then. Was she mentally ill? The question is not really examined in depth, but one cannot help wondering. Anyway, less than three months later, she was dead. As in the case of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein five years later to the month, was it suicide or the result of an accidental overdose? Or was it murder, in which the first family of the United States were said to have had a hand? Conspiracy theories abound, and there is no conclusive answer. There never will be one.
This is a very readable account of a tragic figure, admirably sympathetic while not seeking to conceal her faults. The three sections of plates, in colour (including two of the notorious nude shots) and black and white plates are well chosen.
My major criticism is the author's preoccupation at times with herself, her insistence on showing us how thoroughly she has done her research, and how she is the only person - or almost the only one - to examine a certain item of evidence, or interview a certain person. Frankly one suspects she could have done with a rather more forceful editor to call her 'me myself I' elements to heel. That apart, this is a very worthwhile book on a fascinating and complex twentieth-century icon.
[This is a revised version of a review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao]