"Some time during the night of 4 August 1962, Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose of barbiturates."
It seems strange that the very first sentence of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" should be the precise details of her death. After finishing this book, I find myself going back to that first sentence, thinking, trying to pinpoint a shifting line in the sand and ask: is that where the real Marilyn ended and the fake Marilyn began?
Before picking this book up in the library, I had only second-hand knowledge of Marilyn Monroe. I knew she was born Norma Jean Baker; I had seen a movie of hers when it was on TV; I had studied her Warhol portrait in art lessons; I had seen footage of her cunningly (distastefully) incorporated in an advertisement for a perfume. I had also heard of her life and her suspicious death, but I had not read any biographies or read extensively of her life in any form before.
With this in mind, I would hesitate recommending this biography of Monroe to someone as passive and ignorant as I was. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is a dry, extensive book - a book with an index and a 6-page long bibliography - that presents itself as more of a critique of Monroe biographies than dealing with the substance of the woman, the legend, herself. Sarah Churchwell is a ruthless writer, one unafraid to point out the contradictory stances of those in her profession and indeed her particular niche - which can be confusing or seem pedantic to those who haven't read the books in question (myself included). Aside from critiquing biographers, Churchwell also covers nearly every aspect of Marilyn's life: her childhood, her marriages, her health, her career, her personality (manufactured, absent or otherwise), her image, her death - not through a collage of first- and second-hand accounts, but through the lens of the media itself.
Despite the many footnotes, quotations and rebuttals pertaining to hitherto unread material, I did find Many Lives compelling. Churchwell paints a picture of diverging lenses, smoke and mirrors, indistinguishable truths and myths that make up the cultural composition that we collectively call Marilyn Monroe. Churchwell sheds light on why biographers had their own reasons for manipulating facts, from playing up the conspiracy angle of her death to portraying her as a sex-crazed narcissist - many of them were sexist, sensationalist, phony, or simply riding the wave of Marilyn's fame.
Of course it is easy to forget that Churchwell, too, is not much different than the peers she so obviously disdains; but whereas others perpetuate an exaggerated and false identity to sell books, Churchwell collects information, examines it, rips it apart, and calls it an investigation. Churchwell is no different to the 'best finest surgeon' Monroe wrote about in her diary -- 'Lee Strasberg, come cut me open'.
However, Churchwell's incision into the media mythos of Marilyn only goes so deep as to barely scrape at the surface of Marilyn - Norma Jean. Who was she, beyond a sex goddess or a manipulated little girl? Churchwell takes the dichotomy of Norma Jean Baker / Marilyn Monroe and tears it down, razes it to pulp - interlinking with the strong theme of inherent hypocrisy built around Ms. Monroe's life. Marilyn Monroe is both revered for her beauty and despised for vanity, pitied as a victim and called a whore, scorned as a gold digger and labelled a dumb blonde, worshiped as an image, a body, a face, while being simultaneously as commonplace as a can of Campbell's soup. Even the cover image of this book evokes the duplicity between eroticism and innocence, from a notorious (and yet intimate) photo shoot with Bert Stern, himself a lover of Monroe's.
After all these reductions, after only the skeleton is laid bare, not much is left - there are not enough pieces to make Marilyn human, to paint a picture of her true personality, her thought processes, what drove her; to state the obvious, she is dead and gone, and it is only her myth that lives on. To briefly lapse into the dichotomy Churchwell so obviously despises, through reading this biography, the audience become further away from the falsified image of Marilyn Monroe - but they do not become closer to the real Norma Jean. Once the accumulated impurities of sensationalism and rumour are removed, all we have are ashes, stirred by lies or blown away by time. This is none so apparent than in the last chapter of the book, "Afterward: My Marilyn" where Sarah Churchwell's tone changes as she talks about her personal perceptions of Marilyn Monroe and her journey when writing this biography. As a final chapter, it is fitting bittersweet end.
Whether this biography is ultimately positive or a negative is ultimately irrelevant, because to still be the topic of worldwide fascination over 50 years after her death is the truest testament to the enigma and allure of Marilyn Monroe.
RRP: £18.99 (Paperback and Kindle editions available)
Publisher: Granta Books, 2006