The Meaning of Marilyn


The Genius & the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe
By Jeffrey Meyers
Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010, 384 pp., $29.95, hardcover.

Marilyn Revealed: The Ambitious Life of an American Idol
By Ted Schwartz
Lanham, MD: Taylor/Rowman & Littlefield, 2009, 400 pp., $26.95, hardcover. 

The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
By J. Randy Taraborrelli
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2009, 560 pp., $26.99, hardcover.  

Reviewed by Lois Banner


Since Marilyn Monroe died nearly fifty years ago, at the age of 36, a multitude of studies of her have been published—close to one hundred by my count. The fascination with her is understandable, given the unsolved mysteries of her life and death, her superstar status, and her image, fixed in our minds as eternally youthful and beautiful. In 2009, we saw three more biographies: The Genius and the Goddess, Marilyn Revealed, and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe. As has long been typical of Monroe biographies, the authors of all three are men, and all are well-known for writing celebrity biographies geared to a popular audience. The tradition of male authorship began with journalist Maurice Zolotow, who published the first Monroe biography, Marilyn Monroe, in 1960, while she was still alive. It was solidified by Norman Mailer’s sensationalized Marilyn, in 1973, which portrayed her as a sex kitten and the lover of Robert Kennedy. The underlying message seems to be that men can best understand Monroe, whose appeal was innocent and erotic, childlike and sexual—the quintessential virgin/whore of the western imagination. There is also the widespread belief that any book about Marilyn Monroe will make money.

However, writing a Monroe biography is not easy—as I can attest, since I have been working on one for the past six years. Gossipy memoirs and showbiz stories about her abound, as well as interviews with her friends and associates. But letters and diaries, biography’s bedrock, don’t exist in much quantity. It’s not that they never existed. Some were destroyed on the night she died to conceal scandalous information—probably about the Kennedys. Others appeared briefly on the auction block before disappearing into private collections. Monroe herself put up roadblocks to biographers by constructing fictions about her childhood to get the attention of journalists and advance her career. Finally, authors of memoirs turned her life into a biographer’s nightmare when they falsely claimed to have been her lovers, her friends, and even, in one case, her husband. In Marilyn Monroe: Confidential (1979) Lena Pepitone, Monroe’s cook, claimed to have been the star’s closest friend although she spoke little English and Monroe spoke no Italian. And Robert Slatzer, the author of The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe (1974), claimed to have married Monroe, although he never produced a marriage license and none of her friends knew him.

Among the three biographers under review, Jeffrey Meyers doesn’t seem aware of the hoaxes, since he cites questionable memoirs more than once. In the matter of footnoting—often casual in popular biographies—Meyers’s footnotes are hard to follow, but at least he uses them, unlike Ted Schwartz or Randy Taraborrelli. Schwartz states that he intends to archive his research in his papers at Arizona State University, and one hopes he will do so soon. Taraborrelli states that he doesn’t use footnotes because no one reads them.

There are praiseworthy elements in each of these works. Schwartz persuasively contends that Monroe made herself into a successful photographic model and film actress through her enormous energy and drive. He also provides important new information about the filming of her movies. He points out that the pin-up magazine illustrator Earl Moran took nude photos of her from 1946 to 1949—so she wasn’t a neophyte to nude posing when Tom Kelley took the famous nude photograph of her in 1949, which appeared in the first issue of Playboy in December 1953. Schwartz is also insightful about Monroe’s psychological struggles. Once she attained stardom, she became a tough perfectionist intent on controlling her image. As difficult as her severe stage fright and frequent illnesses were for her, she was able to use them as bargaining chips in her struggles with the studios. She would call in sick or arrive late on the set, slowing down production and raising costs, until she got what she wanted.

Schwartz is often hostile to Monroe, although he praises her energy and drive. He categorizes her as a celebrity rather than an actor, who was able to perform only an over-the-top version of what her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, tried to teach her. Her desire to become a true dramatic actress was, in Schwartz’s view, ridiculous. His Monroe is an exhibitionist with an overbearing ego that drove her always to need a lover who was obsessed with her. He dismisses her claim that she was sexually abused as a child, citing the statement of her first husband, Jim Dougherty, whom she married at the age of sixteen. Dougherty said Monroe couldn’t have been abused, because she was a virgin on their wedding night. However, Monroe never claimed that the abuse she experienced involved intercourse but rather said it involved fondling.

Meyers has written biographies of male authors, including Edmund Wilson and Somerset Maugham. In The Genius and the Goddess he analyzes Monroe’s relationship with the playwright Arthur Miller, drawing on his considerable literary learning for interesting analogies and insights. But his book is tainted by his use of questionable sources and by his many errors with regard to Monroe’s childhood. For example, Ida and Wayne Bolender, who raised her during her first seven years, were neither Pentacostal Christians nor followers of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, as Meyers claims. Nor did they “order her to stop doing anything that gave her pleasure,” as he writes. Monroe had a difficult childhood, but recent research has uncovered mitigating factors, such as the fact that the foster families with whom she lived were all relatives or friends of her guardian, Grace McKee Goddard, while the orphanage where she lived for a year was caring and well-run.

Like Schwartz, Meyers doesn’t seem especially to like Monroe, whom he blames for destroying her marriage to Miller because of her drinking, overuse of prescription drugs, and emotionalism. None of these charges is inaccurate, but Meyers inflates them, partly because he relies on Pepitone’s discredited memoir. He also incorrectly claims that during Monroe’s years in New York, her friends were drug addicts and oddballs such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, and that she spent her time at the Miller/Monroe farm in Connecticut rearranging the furniture and fussing with her appearance. On the contrary, ample evidence proves that she had a range of friends in New York, drawn from the city’s literati, the Broadway stage crowd, and old friends such as the photographer Sam Shaw and new ones such as the poet Norman Rosten. She tended to keep those relationships secret because she didn’t want the press bothering the individuals involved. At the Connecticut retreat, she rode her bike, gardened, cooked, went shopping, and entertained visitors.

Meyers recognizes but downplays Miller’s own emotional issues. He was withdrawn and controlling, and could be a narcissistic workaholic, seduced into diva behavior by his fame as much as Monroe was by hers. Meyers admires Miller to the point of overlooking Miller’s vicious portrayal of Monroe in After the Fall, calling the play “Miller’s most innovative and underrated work.” In fact, the work is so one-sided that James Baldwin walked out of the theater during a performance and considered gathering together a group of friends to picket the production, while Jacquelyn Kennedy cancelled her attendance at a fundraising luncheon for the American Theater, because she considered Miller’s representation of Monroe reprehensible.

Taraborelli’s approach to Monroe is different from those of the semischolarly Schwartz or the literary Meyers. He relies on interviews: indeed, he and his team of researchers are to be congratulated for ferreting out family members and friends who had never before been contacted. However, he pays little attention to work done on Monroe before him, as though he imagines himself as cutting through the thicket of analysis to arrive at a more accurate representation. He relies on his own sources, implicitly rejecting most others. His extensive discussion of the “paranoid schizophrenia” of Monroe’s mother, Gladys Eley, adds a new dimension to Monroe scholarship, since Eley is a shadowy figure in previous biographies. Yet one wishes he had clarified what happened to Eley during the nine years she spent in state mental hospitals. Schwartz contends—without much hard data—that her experiences during her years of incarceration sent her over the edge into paranoia, and that before then she was sane.

Taraborelli’s other conclusions are also problematic. Even more than Meyers or Schwartz, he places Monroe’s prescription drug use at the center of her life, arguing that it was much more extensive than previous biographers have realized. I agree with him about her drug use during the final two years of her life, but I think he goes overboard regarding the earlier years. Anyway, he is not the first to discuss this.

Moreover, his allegations that Monroe, like her mother, suffered from paranoia schizophrenia are debatable. He has consulted no experts on schizophrenia, nor on bipolarity, borderline behavior, or multiple personality disorder—each of which might also fit Monroe. Instead, Taraborrelli decides that the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia consist of “hearing voices” and splitting from reality, and his task becomes proving that Monroe exhibited such symptoms throughout her adult life. He inflates her episodes of shyness and her fear about being stalked (endemic among celebrities) into full-blown episodes of auditory hallucinations and delusions. Thus, as an example of mental disturbance, he cites an episode in which Monroe hid in a bathroom during a party and then disappeared. He doesn’t realize that any shy young woman might behave similarly, especially if she were trying to avoid someone.  

Taraborrelli is also off-base about the relationships among John and Robert Kennedy and Monroe. He pays no attention to the considerable evidence advanced by previous biographers that she was deeply involved with both of them, relying instead on sources close to the Kennedys, who have an obvious vested interest in playing down those relationships

Regarding Monroe’s sexual promiscuity, a major trope in most of the works about her, Schwartz and Meyers opt for the scandalous version of continual sexual affairs, while Taraborrelli tones it down. Because he argues that Monroe’s mental illness and drug abuse often rendered her nonfunctional, her can’t have her engaging in too many sexual adventures, since that would indicate a lively personal life rather than one lived in a haze of drugs.

Unlike Meyers and Schwartz, Taraborrelli is sympathetic to Monroe’s problems, but none of these authors pays much attention to her humanitarianism and radical politics, her multifaceted, magnetic personality, or her ability to make friends. Too, they downplay her creative genius—evident in her film roles, her singing, her ability to move her body with enormous grace, her skill at publicizing herself, and her magnificence as a photographic model.

Norma Jeane Dougherty became “Marilyn Monroe” almost by accident, after she didn’t succeed as a girl-next-door at Twentieth Century-Fox or a glamour queen at Columbia Pictures. Monroe’s persona of “sex siren”/“dumb blonde vixen” worked. But she was also a businesswoman who formed her own production company and a tough strategist who fought the executives at Fox to a standstill when they tried to control her. She managed her own career, helped by a host of publicists, agents, and lawyers, whom she oversaw. The “Marilyn Monroe” character she created was a brilliant archetype, who stands between Mae West and Madonna in the tradition of twentieth-century gender tricksters. On some occasions she celebrated her sexualized image and on others, such as at Madison Square Garden in May 1962, when she performed for John F. Kennedy’s fortieth birthday, she burlesqued it. Wearing a transparent dress covered with rhinestones, her hair in a sculptured beehive resembling the hairdo that Jackie Kennedy sometimes wore at the time, a white fur stole wrapped around her shoulders, she minced to the microphone with tiny Geisha-like steps, looking like a transvestite version of herself.

It seems to me that these three biographies, with their negative portrayals of Monroe, draw on the backlash against women that is everywhere today—in the rhetoric of antiabortion and opting-out moms, and the demonization of “welfare mothers.” As a feminist, a major question for me in writing about Monroe is: What is her position in the history of feminism and of femininity? How should we as women relate to her? Is she a mirror of ourselves? Should we dismiss her as nothing more that a sex object for the male gaze? In contemplating these questions I think of the book Marilyn/Norma Jeane (1986), by Gloria Steinem, one of the few women to write about her. In a sensitive discussion, Steinem sees Monroe as trapped by the prefeminist, 1950s view of women as subordinate to men and by her inability to come to terms with her inner child—one damaged by foster homes, an orphanage, and sexual abuse.

Monroe could have used feminism. The real tragedy of her life may be that she died six months before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in February 1963, which launched the second wave of the feminist movement. Monroe is too easily taken up by the “vulgar” variety of postfeminism endemic at the present moment, which sees the source of women’s power as sexual, and has facilitated the development of our contemporary cult of huge breasts, ever more public nudity, and dangerous spike heels. Cloaking itself in a doctrine of freedom and power, postfeminism too often encourages women to conform to norms set by business and the media, as our visual culture is increasingly taken over by what used to be called pornography.

Of all the lives I have studied, including those of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Mead, Monroe’s is the most complex and the hardest to comprehend. Like many of us who became adults in the 1950s and early 1960s, she herself didn’t have the words to describe either her experiences or her responses to them. Feminism, though, gives us those words, and it provides the best way in to understanding Monroe’s failures as well as her successes, her flaws as well as her brilliance.


Lois Banner is a professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. The author of many works on women’s history, her most recent book is Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle (2003.) Banner’s Marilyn Monroe: Personal (with photos by Mark Anderson) is forthcoming in September 2010. It is an expanded, scholarly version of her October 2008 Vanity Fair cover story.


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