Marilyn Monroe was Hollywood’s archetypal dumb blonde. She was also one smart cookie.
That’s the twist in Lois Banner’s richly researched biography “Marilyn: the Passion and the Paradox.”
The passion part is that Monroe worked tirelessly toward her goal: to become a movie star. Her name was Norma Jeane, but even her surname is the subject of debate. Her mother, Gladys Baker, was an independent woman from a Missouri family who moved to Los Angeles during the boom years of silent cinema and worked as a film editor. Her daughter, born in 1926, was given the last name Mortenson, after Gladys’ estranged husband. Her real father was probably a polo player named Stan Gifford whom the girl spent a lifetime trying to find, literally as well as figuratively.
In the oft-repeated legend, Gladys went mad – which is true – and Norma Jeane was bounced between Dickensian orphanages – which is not. Most of her childhood was spent with foster parents who were acquainted with her mother, and the orphanage where she briefly lived in the shadow of RKO Studios was well-funded.
But young Norma Jeane did suffer, most notably at the hands of some sexual abusers, and Banner’s book takes a psycho-sexual approach to analyzing the legend’s life.
At 16, she was introduced to a sailor named Jim Dougherty and soon they were married. But while Jim was serving in the merchant marines during World War II, a photographer spotted Norma Jeane at the munitions factory where she worked. The busty brunette became a fresh-faced model for pre-Playboy men’s magazines, and she educated herself about fashion and photography.
Banner ably documents the passion for fame that led to Norma Jeane’s divorce and her first contract with 20th Century Fox, which changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. (“Marilyn” was an invention, but “Monroe” was her mother’s maiden name.)
The most titillating sections of this refreshingly frank book describe Monroe’s years as a party girl. Banner builds a case that she shamelessly serviced agents, journalists, producers and studio executives to achieve her ultimate goal of stardom.
Monroe, raised a Christian Scientist and surrounded by seekers, didn’t care much about money, which she gave to friends or spent on classes in literature, singing and acting. Banner believes that Monroe had a lesbian relationship with acting teacher Natasha Lytess, who was a fixture on the set of such movies as “Asphalt Jungle,” “All About Eve” and “Niagara.”
But Monroe gravitated toward father figures, and in 1954 she married homebody baseball star Joe DiMaggio – at the very moment when she was becoming a worldwide sex symbol. DiMaggio was appalled by her performances for American troops in Korea – who hoarded the nude calendar photos she’d shot a few years earlier – and soon after her skirt-billowing scene in “The Seven Year Itch,” the couple divorced. Yet they remained close, and DiMaggio was a protective presence in her life while she was married to coldly intellectual Arthur Miller and cavorting with various Kennedys.
Monroe was adept at juggling a diverse set of friends and lovers, but like many of her recent biographers, Banner believes that the star’s sexual relationships with both John and Robert Kennedy led to her death.
It’s indisputable that Monroe was romantically involved with John as early as 1954, when the handsome young Massachusetts senator was sampling his mogul father’s West Coast holdings. But Banner also documents that after JFK was elected president and became worried about bad publicity, he handed the Hollywood star to little brother Bobby, with whom she enthusiastically discussed current events.
Readers will rush to the final chapter of the book, where Banner convincingly speculates that Robert Kennedy visited and argued with Monroe on the day of her death, 50 years ago next month. There’s enough material here for a full volume – and indeed there are entire books that speculate that Monroe was dosed by bogeymen and didn’t commit suicide – but Banner is more interested in the actress’s life than her death.
The Monroe we meet in this sympathetic, feminist biography is a self-nurturing narcissus who blossomed in front of the camera. Monroe was cut down before she could germinate, but in these pages she comes alive.