Ron Briley: Review of Lois Banner's "Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox" (Bloomsbury, 2012)


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On the fiftieth anniversary of her death, Marilyn Monroe remains a woman of mystery and paradox as is evident in this long-awaited biography of the actress and sexual icon by feminist scholar and University of Southern California historian Lois Banner. In her more than ten years of research into the life of Monroe, Banner has obviously grown attached to her subject, but as a biographer she is not uncritical. On the other hand, Banner refuses to perceive Marilyn as simply the victim of powerful men and the difficult circumstances in which she grew up. While following some paths trodden by previous Monroe biographers, Banner has also expanded her research into previously neglected interview, archival, and newly discovered letter collections to reveal a "woman who made herself into a star, conquering numerous disabilities in the process, creating a life more dramatic than any role she played in film" (3).

The first part of the biography focuses upon the difficult early Norma Jeane years.  Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926. Her father was likely Charles Stanley Gifford, who refused to acknowledge his parenthood, contributing to Marilyn's sense of abandonment and search for a father figure. Her emotionally unstable mother Gladys Monroe Baker was a film cutter in a Hollywood editing studio and later was admitted to state mental hospital. She entrusted her daughter in the guardianship of her friend Grace Atchison McKee, who, in turn, placed Norma Jeane in eleven foster homes and an orphanage until her marriage at age sixteen. Although Grace could not provide Norma Jeane with a permanent home, Marilyn refused to criticize her, insisting that Grace did the best she could and was as close to a mother as she really ever had. Banner also asserts that young Norma Jeane developed a strong sense of fear, guilt, and fascination with her genitals through exposure to evangelical Christianity under the foster care of the Bolender family.  Under the influence of another foster mother, Grace McKees aunt Ana Atchinson Lower, Norma Jeane became a Christian Scientist which provided the young woman with a sense that her spirit could exercise control over her body; also helping her to cope with severe menstrual cramps and painful endometriosis.

Although some biographers discount Marilyn's claim that she was the victim of abuse during her years of foster care, Banner finds these allegations credible and Marilyn courageous for sharing these accounts with reporters. Banner asserts that many aspects of Marilyn's adult behavior point to a childhood traumatic sexual experience. Among these qualities would be the creation of the sexual self-confident alter ego of Marilyn Monroe, a low self-image existing alongside megalomania, dreams of witches and demons, lesbianism -- which both attracted and frightened Marilyn -- and sex addiction.

As the young Norma Jeane rapidly matured from an ugly duckling into a young woman whose body was desired by men in the rapidly expanding Southern California environment on the eve of World War II, Grace conspired to marry the sixteen-year-old high school student to Jim Dougherty; a twenty-one-year-old former high school football and thespian star at Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles. The marriage, however, could not contain Norma Jeane's budding sexuality. She was discovered by photographers David Conover and Andre de Dienes while Dougherty was with the Merchant Marine serving in the South Pacific, and the marriage was over by 1947.

Although flirtatious, the young Norma Jeane, influenced by her evangelical upbringing, was apparently a virgin when she married Dougherty, an increasingly sexually self-confident Norma Jeane seemed to be sleeping with many of the photographers with whom she was working. Nevertheless, Banner emphasizes how talented and hard-working Monroe was as a model in the post war period; appearing as a cover girl on magazines ranging from Family Circle to U.S. Camera.

Norma Jeane next turned her attention to Hollywood and the creation of Marilyn Monroe; employing sexuality to storm the citadels of power in Hollywood. Marilyn became a "Hollywood Party" girl; eventually securing a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, but she often quarreled with studio head Darryl Zanuck who was reluctant to allow Marilyn to move beyond blonde sexpot roles into challenging dramatic films. By the early 1950s, nevertheless, Marilyn was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But unlike her modeling shoots, where she displayed a sense of confidence and control, Marilyn often seemed uncomfortable on a film set. She often showed up late, putting expensive shooting budgets behind schedule, and her behavior was erratic under the influence of pain medication. Marilyn also struggled to learn her lines as she suffered from dyslexia and stuttering in her speech patterns. She was also a perfectionist, who insisted upon numerous retakes; infuriating many of her directors. Nevertheless, with box office appeal and marriage to baseball hero Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn was seemingly at the apex of American popular culture in the early 1950s. Banner writes that similar to American popular culture Marilyn was a paradox, "In all of her personas -- the comic Marilyn, the dramatic Marilyn, the glamorous Marilyn -- Marilyn combined the 'high arts of photography, drama, literature, and literature with the 'low arts of burlesque, striptease, and the pinup. She moved among them, dividing and uniting them to create varying looks, personas, and meanings" (245).

Marilyn would rebel against both the efforts of Zanuck and DiMaggio to control her life and career, and she fled Hollywood for New York City in December 1955; eventually divorcing the Yankee Clipper and forcing Zanuck to free her from her Fox contract and recognize her independent production company. Marilyn also began to develop serious dramatic skills to go along with her seemingly natural comic personality. She began to study at the Actors Studio with Lee and Paula Strasberg, employing the method school of acting, but Marilyn appeared somewhat dependent upon Paula who accompanied Marilyn to many of her film shoots. In 1956, Marilyn earned glowing reviews for her performance as a honky tonk singer in Bus Stop.

She also married Arthur Miller, who was impressed with how well read Marilyn was despite her lack of a formal education. Although she could hardly be considered a political activist, Marilyn, as a product of her working-class background, often expressed sympathy and support for leftist political causes. Miller admired her innocent child-like nature which she displayed in caring and playing with the children from his first marriage. Yet, the playwright was also intrigued by her sexually provocative nature such as publicly flaunting the fact that she wore no underwear under her skin-tight clothing. According to Banner, Miller "was persuaded by her views on nudity and nature that she was in the vanguard of a new sexual rebellion that would undermine the Puritanism he now viewed as a central part of the anti-communist movement. Liberating people from conservative views on sex might inspire them to become more liberated in their political views in general" (262).

But Miller's infatuation with Marilyn did not survive a miscarriage, infidelity, and his sexual insecurities. He would later extract a degree of revenge in his play After the Fall focusing upon his relationship with Marilyn. By the time Marilyn filmed The Misfits with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, a part Miller had written for his wife, the marriage was falling apart. Shortly after filming on The Misfits wrapped in 1960, Clark Gable died of a heart attack. Marilyn's many late arrivals on the set were blamed by the media for the stress and strain which led to Gable's death. A distraught Marilyn left New York for California, divorced Miller, and attempted to resume her film career. But as she entered her mid-thirties, Marilyn was becoming more insecure and dependent upon powerful men and stimulants. She formed relationships with Frank Sinatra and both John and Robert Kennedy, and she was fired from the film Something's Got to Give. The failure of these relationships and the film project seemingly offer ample reasons for a suicide attempt alongside ample use of stimulants.

Banner, however, paints a much more complicated picture of Monroe's death on August 5, 1962. She dismisses the notion that Marilyn's psychiatrist Ralph Greenson was involved in her death, but Banner does observe there were also reasons for Marilyn to be optimistic in August 1962. She was involved in negotiations to resume production of Something's Got to Give, and she was renewing her relationship with DiMaggio, who was finally prepared to give her more space and freedom. Although Banner stops short of directly suggesting that there was foul play involved in Marilyn's death, Banner finds many unanswered questions in the fact that Bobby Kennedy was apparently with Marilyn at her home earlier in the afternoon of August 5, before he was whisked out of the Los Angeles area that evening.

Banner's biography is a powerful piece of scholarship, but in the final analysis, we are still left with unanswered questions and the concept of paradox. Norma Jeane was a talented and beautiful woman who used her sexuality to create the 1950s sex symbol of Marilyn Monroe. But behind this seemingly confident woman was an insecure child and sexual exhibitionist who suffered through abuse and abandonment. Despite the exhaustive research conducted by Banner, there remain aspects of Monroe's life that will likely stay in the shadows, but Banners biography sheds considerable light on Marilyn's life and times and will remain the standard work on the actress.

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