Saturday 7 December 2019

Review: Marilyn The Passion And The Paradox by Lois Banner

Bloomsbury, €28.60

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

THERE could hardly be a more saleable image for a jacket cover than the face of Marilyn Monroe, with her shimmering hair, alabaster skin and innocent-but-guilty eyes.





Lois Banner's new biography does not disappoint, seducing readers with a close-up vision of the young Marilyn looking like a country-girl goddess, her halo of hair slightly mussed, wearing a pale-blue spotted dress and thoughtfully toying with a pink flower.

The photograph makes a number of points, as Banner must have intended: Marilyn was not just the drugged diva who sang happy birthday to JFK before a roaring audience (though she was that), or the sexpot in a billowing white dress holding her skirt down as a subway train rushed past underneath (though she was that too). She could also be demure and low-key -- just a sweet girl, in a naturalistic setting.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death. When she died she was only 36. During her short life she pulled herself out of poverty, trained herself to act and rose to the peak of Hollywood stardom -- remarkable achievements for a young woman who had spent her childhood in 11 different foster-homes. In the USA, a nation that applauds the self-made man, Marilyn became one of the first internationally known self-made women. As her tragic story shows, it wasn't a simple or easy position to occupy.

Monroe never knew her father, and her mother, Gladys Monroe Baker, spent most of her life in a psychiatric institution with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Marilyn spent several of her childhood years with a family of evangelist Christians, an experience which, Banner suggests, left her with a sense of guilt around sex. The other households that cared for her between the ages of eight and 16 were mostly comprised of friends and acquaintances of her absent mother, but still it must have been tough. Her marriage, just after she reached legal age, to a local high school heartthrob, was encouraged by her mother's friend Grace Goddard so that that she would finally be in safe hands.

The Second World War helped to forge her career. The young Norma Jean -- a beautiful, buxom woman with shoulder-length honey-coloured hair -- was discovered while working on an assembly line at an aircraft factory. Her husband was away at war, and his absence enabled her to experiment with modelling, which brought in good money. Soon her semi-clad body would grace the pages of the girlie magazines popular with soldiers fighting abroad. From early on, Marilyn's glorious face and body were tied up with America's image of itself.

In her gradual ascent through the Hollywood system Monroe left as little as she could to chance. She transformed herself physically -- running, cycling and lifting weights. Her hair was dyed blonde and her hairline lifted by electrolysis. She had plastic surgery when that field was still in its infancy, getting a bump on the end of her nose removed, and having her chin -- which was slightly weak -- emphasised with a metal plate. In 1955 she legally changed her name.

At first she was incredibly pliant and worked on spec for photographers, but when her film career took off, she increasingly turned up late, infuriating producers and fellow actors. Her first husband Jim Dougherty worried about her mood-swings, which foreshadowed the troubles to come. Banner writes: "When she got busy or seriously depressed, she could be lax about hygiene, not bathing and wearing the same clothes for days on end. Sometimes she didn't walk her dog, Josefa, so there were piles of excrement on the carpet of her apartment -- or stains when she cleaned them up."

Her second husband was Joe DiMaggio, a baseball superstar and icon of all-American masculinity. Their marriage (1954-1955) symbolised the American dream. Yet behind the scenes the couple had many problems. DiMaggio, an Italian-American with links to the mafia, was moody and aggressive, while Marilyn struggled to stay faithful. In a revealing anecdote from their honeymoon, Banner reports that DiMaggio accidentally broke his wife's finger. When journalists asked her what had happened, she replied: "I bumped it against a door."

Her relationships are almost too numerous to count, including John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, the actor Yves Montand, her voice coach Fred Karger and some women. But the tumult of such experience -- and the stresses of being a powerful sexy woman in a man's world, both desired and despised -- took its toll.

Jacqueline Kennedy, who had made peace with JFK's philandering, chided him and his brother Bobby for sleeping with Marilyn, according to Banner remarking that she was "a suicide waiting to happen".

As a feminist, Lois Banner is intent on presenting Marilyn as a woman in charge of her destiny. She implies that the young actress may have been a genius, and frequently mentions how intellectual Marilyn was -- how much she liked plays and enjoyed reading and poetry (such as Yeats' Never Give All The Heart). Unfortunately this comes across as special pleading: if Monroe really was so intelligent, why is it necessary to repeat the fact?

Monroe's decline, which occurred just as she seemed to get exactly what she wanted, was as sad as it was inevitable. The people around her had become increasingly sinister. The FBI were watching her and DiMaggio -- by now her ex-husband and supposedly a friend -- had put private detectives on her trail. She spent the weekend before her death partying at Sinatra's resort hotel on the shores of Lake Tahoe, using a lot of drugs. Late on Saturday night a group of men carried her to her room where it was rumoured that they raped her and took photos that have since disappeared. Her death a week later must not have been a surprise.

That is perhaps the paradox of Marilyn Monroe -- a gleaming beauty on the outside who held complexity and secrets within. Although Banner's biography lays out the facts of her life, by the end of this book Marilyn's motivations and her inner world remain obscure. That may be why her charm continues to enchant us. Arthur Miller, her third husband, put his finger on her appeal: "She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery." It was an effect she had not just on him, but on almost everyone else.

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