The Marilyn Monroe of Biography
On July 17, Bloomsbury will publish Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, by Lois Banner, author of the classic American Beauty and the remarkable Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle. Even for me, a Monroe biographer and a student of the biographies that appeared during her lifetime and after her death, Banner’s book is nothing less than a revelation, marking a historic moment in biographies of Marilyn Monroe.
To convey the startling nature of this new biography, I have to back up to the early 1980s, when I was researching my own book, Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. I had spent the summer of 1980 reading the Monroe literature. Three biographies stood out: Maurice Zolotow’s Marilyn Monroe (1961), Fred Lawrence Guiles’s Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe (1970), and Norman Mailer’s Marilyn: A Biography (1973). Zolotow had the advantage of actually knowing the actress and reporting vividly on her movie-set behavior. Guiles was the first biographer to probe deeply into Monroe’s early years, especially her experiences with foster families. Both biographers made a start in defining a Monroe who was hardly the passive victim of Hollywood earlier accounts had portrayed. And the much-reviled Mailer, condemned for his male chauvinism, excited my admiration because his work shrewdly drew on both Zolotow and Guiles to portray a much more proactive Marilyn Monroe—a personality he deemed Napoleonic. To this day, no one seems to have recognized how much Mailer’s synthesis and insight catapulted Monroe biography to a different level. Instead, he was accused of plagiarizing from Zolotow and Guiles and turning Monroe into nothing more than a male fantasy—a fantasy that Banner takes quite seriously, even though, as I learned in conversation with her at a recent meeting of the New York University Biography seminar, she disparages Mailer. But more of that anon.
Not having written a biography before, I sought out both Guiles and Zolotow for inspiration and guidance. Both of them welcomed my focus on Monroe’s acting and seemed delighted that a young academic (I was then an assistant professor of humanities at Wayne State University in Detroit) took them seriously. Zolotow became a friend and advisor. Guiles greeted me from a hospital bed, having just suffered a heart attack. He supplied me with a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg discussing Monroe’s work at the Actors Studio. Mailer wished me well, but pleaded overwork and the claims of friends wishing his help and endorsement. In a memorable letter, he referred to their supplications as part of his “guilt impost pile.”
Do you know what it was like for a biographer like me in the early 1980s? You don’t unless you understand what academia was like then. It was all right to write a book about a Hollywood or foreign film director. After all, this was the heyday of the auteur theory, when certain directors were treated like authors. But to write about a movie star? Find a biography of a movie star published by a university press before the year 1986. I dare you. My female colleagues looked askance at my work, although most were polite enough not to come right out and say my subject was unworthy. I say most, because at a popular culture conference in the mid-1980s a prominent feminist scholar told me that next time I should pick a “strong woman to write about.” That scholar could have been Lois Banner. In her Monroe biography, she confesses that her own attitude toward Monroe has gone through a sea change. Indeed, both in conversation with me and in her book she singles out my work for showing her just how serious and accomplished an actress Monroe was.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in the mid-1980s I was in the wilderness. In Detroit, I would pick up the phone and call editors in New York, pitching my book. I got polite responses but no takers. Now I’m astonished that those editors even deigned to talk to me. In frustration, I turned to Matthew Bruccoli, a professor at the University of South Carolina who had all sorts of contacts in publishing. He had been recommended by a friend. The brusque Broccoli suffered my importuning telephone call for several minutes before finally coughing up a name: Shaye Areheart. She was an editor at Doubleday he thought would be receptive to my approach to Monroe. She was, but she could not get the publisher’s editorial board to buy my book. “It fell between two stools,” I was told. It was written in an engaging style, but it was also “serious” and “scholarly.” The question of how to market that kind of book puzzled them.
Eventually, through Shaye, I found an agent who convinced me no trade house would publish my book. But if I convinced UMI Research Press, publisher of my revised dissertation on William Faulkner, to take the book and limit their rights to a three-year deal for the hardcover, I could launch my biography. Then she could get deals for paperback and foreign publication. And that is what happened. Souvenir Press published the hardcover in England, then Hodder & Stoughton came out with a paperback, followed by Da Capo Press with the American softcover, proving not only that a market existed for my book, but that readers were eager to see more facets of Marilyn Monroe than had been on display in the earlier biographies. I asked readers to consider what Marilyn had been confronted with: the prospect that she was going to portray basically the same character, the so-called “dumb blonde,” in picture after picture. If she took herself seriously, then she had to find a way to make each of her characters live within the very narrow range the sex symbol occupied. By describing Monroe’s incredible repertoire of gestures—from Bus Stop to The Misfits—I showed that she was, indeed, a consummate professional and more: She was a great artist. When Gloria Steinem read my book, she concurred, writing this blurb for it: “More than anything else in her life, Marilyn Monroe wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Rollyson has done just that in Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress the first and only book that is entirely an analysis and appreciation of her work. It will be important to both film historians and to Marilyn’s fans—it would have made Marilyn feel honored and worthwhile.”
Steinem also contributed an important feminist analysis of Monroe to a book published the same year as mine. Steinem wondered whether Marilyn might have been heartened by the second wave, which would have put her plight into a historical context and made her protest against male chauvinist movie making all that more powerful. Perhaps—although Banner, who is sympathetic to this argument, also wonders if Monroe, as a male identified actress, would have been able to make the transition to a new era. On balance, I side with Steinem because of what I know about Marilyn Monroe: She never stopped reading and learning and arguing. Hers was not a closed mind.
At the same time as I was writing my interpretative Monroe biography, I encountered Anthony Summers, then very involved in researching the star’s life, especially her connection with the Kennedys. He called me at the urging of one of our mutual friends, Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Sidney Skolsky, a Hollywood gossip columnist and Marilyn Monroe confidant. I exchanged information and ideas with Summers and agreed with his assessment that we were writing very different kinds of books. When his book Goddess appeared in 1985, it was highly praised and roundly denounced. In over six hundred interviews, he had amassed an astounding record of testimony that some deemed gossip and others suggestive evidence that considerably widened and deepened our understanding of the incredible range of Monroe’s connections. It is not too much to say that Summers’s work made the endeavor to comprehend Marilyn Monroe into a Napoleonic campaign that attracted other ambitious biographers. Without Summers’s spade work, I don’t see how the noteworthy biographies of the 1990s by Donald Spoto and by Barbara Leaming would have been published.
Lois Banner has taken their work into account, but in her own ten-year Napoleonic drive has uncovered much new material that has led to new insights into Monroe the person and the actress. I was amazed, for example, that Banner went beyond Fred Guiles in tracking down the identity of every foster family that Monroe mentioned but did not name. It turns out that these families knew one another, usually through Grace Goddard, a close friend of Marilyn’s mother, Gladys. Although Monroe certainly embroidered the trauma of living with nearly a dozen families, conferring anonymity on them had less to do with her self-promoting story than with her desire to protect them from publicity.
Banner provides a riveting account of the role Christian Science played in Monroe’s life. Monroe became a believer during her years with Ana Lower, a kindly “aunt” related to Grace Goddard. Ana Lower believed in the triumph of mind over matter. No matter what setbacks Marilyn experienced, she had to remember she was one of God’s children and destined to triumph if only she would remain true to her faith. And Marilyn did for several years, although her drug use caused her remorse since she was departing from the strictures of her religion. Christian Science, by the way, has a special hold on certain artists. In my forthcoming biography of Sylvia Plath, I show that this church appealed to her because, again, it explores the ways in which spirit can triumph over the material world, instilling a faith in the self that can overcome the “evils” or ills that are, it is believed, an illusion. Christian Science could not, in the end, minister to the deep hurt that afflicted Marilyn and Sylvia, but for a time it seemed to promise deliverance.
Almost every page of Banner’s book has a new detail, a fact unearthed during the biographer’s decade of epic research. Thanks to Banner’s diligent work, we have new Marilyn Monroe letters and other fresh examples of her writing. On the subject of the Kennedys, Banner is inconclusive—mainly because no one has yet been able to penetrate the cover-up perpetrated in the early hours of August 5. Actually, it was more like a cleanup, with material (files, letters, and possibly a diary) removed from Monroe’s house. Banner cannot say that Monroe was murdered, but she provides compelling evidence that the Kennedys were on the scene and had something to do with the star’s death. Even for those, like me, who still believe Monroe was a suicide, the circumstances of her death—as officially reported—are deeply suspect.
But I have saved the most important element of Banner’s biography for last. With one word, she helps explains why I was so taken with the actress and so certain she was a genius. Banner calls Monroe a “clown,” a clown in the same sense that Chaplin was a clown. She studied with the best mimes and acting teachers in the business. “Marilyn Monroe” was her creation, her creation, but that fact was not generally recognized. Directors like Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) thought she was their creation. And even directors like Henry Hathaway (Niagara), who understood otherwise, could never convince Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century-Fox, to permit Marilyn to do the great dramatic roles, to cast her, for example, in Of Human Bondage, the film Hathaway wanted to direct.
Because Marilyn Monroe became a sex object, because sex came to define her image, the idea that she was clowning never seemed to occur to the men who made pictures. Milton Greene, one of the few men who did understand, and who helped Marilyn form her own production company, used to cheer her up by saying, “One day we will do a picture with Chaplin.” The trouble for Marilyn was that unlike Chaplin, she could never really jettison her costume, save for appearing as a fish cannery worker in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night and portraying her alter ego, Roslyn, in The Misfits, Arthur Miller’s botched tribute. She rejected Miller when he refused, in his art, to show her dark side, the demons that contributed to the dissolution of their marriage.
Marilyn never could do without male adulation, without the desire to prostitute herself—a desire Banner traces back to the sexual abuse Marilyn suffered as a child. She made herself available for the world to fondle. It dismayed Banner to discover that Marilyn really did like the catcalls and whistles of men in the street. She was, as the maligned Norman Mailer argued, many selves, a truly protean personality and artist we are just beginning to take the full measure of in Lois Banner’s brilliant biography.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.