Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox, By Lois Banner.
Marilyn,’ by Lois Banner
By ZOË SLUTZKY in The New York Times
Published: August 3, 2012
In 1972, on the 10th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, Gloria Steinem wrote an essay for Ms. magazine titled “The Woman Who Died Too Soon.” As a teenager, Steinem had relished the celluloid darkness of the matinee: the sci-fi flicks, the serials, the stubborn charm of Doris Day. She loved them all, however improbable the plots or poor the acting. But she walked out of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The sight of Marilyn as the diamond-obsessed showgirl Lorelei Lee, “huge as a colossus doll, mincing and whispering and simply hoping her way into total vulnerability,” enraged her.
Lorelei’s doe-eyed desire for approval felt dangerous to Steinem — an affirmation of the power of the male gaze. But she would come to see, in the star’s own sadness, in her winking innocence and complex sexuality, a woman straddling the puritanism of postwar America and its dissolution in the ’60s. Marilyn died, at 36, on the eve of the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” and the rise of second-wave feminism. What if she had lived? Who would she — who could she — have become? “When the past dies there is mourning,” Steinem later wrote, “but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”
It has been 50 years to the day since Marilyn died. There have been countless biographies, novels, plays (including Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall,” with its grotesque caricature), conspiracy-oriented chronicles of her final days, and her own ghostwritten autobiography, published posthumously. There have been almost as many versions of Marilyn: she was brazenly sexual, shy and insecure, a dumb blonde and a bookworm who read Dostoyevsky; she was gentle and free-spirited, spiteful and cannily controlling; she could barely act, vamping for the camera, or she was a brilliant comedian, playing a pinup version of Shakespeare’s fool.
Nobody is one thing all the time. Yet Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner’s new biography, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” which behaves a little like its subject. Weaving together exclusive interviews, material from previous books and, most significantly, the contents of Monroe’s two long-lost personal filing cabinets (made available to the public only last year, when Banner published a selection from them in “MM — Personal”), Banner presents a rich and often imaginative narrative of Marilyn’s life. By the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being — an almost-friend — and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.
Banner is less interested in definitively collapsing the poles than in teasing out the contradictions and underlying motives of a complex character. She takes us through Marilyn’s nomadic childhood to her breakthrough in Hollywood and her storybook marriage to Joe DiMaggio, to her escape to Miller and acting classes in New York, to her brief and ultimately tragic return to Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, sex suffuses it all. Banner traces an endless stream of affairs — Marilyn justified promiscuity with the conviction that sex was “an act that brought friends closer together” — including several with women and those with Bobby and Jack Kennedy, her most dangerous liaisons. The Kennedys reappear in the final chapters, probably if murkily involved in a cover-up of the events surrounding her death, from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills.
Banner seldom takes sides, concentrating instead on the “geography of gender” that shaped Marilyn’s early development, her subsequent relationships and the ambivalent bombshell she would become. Tellingly, the first section of the book is the longest, detailing her childhood in 11 foster homes. Her mother, Gladys, was a film cutter for a Hollywood studio and living alone when she gave birth to Marilyn, who never knew her father. Gladys drifted in and out of her life and eventually developed serious psychological problems, a fate Marilyn feared she would repeat. Meanwhile, she was sexually abused by men in several of her foster families. Banner credits her with revealing the abuse later in life, and she sees it as a formative precursor of Marilyn’s erratic sexuality as an adult: “We now know that such abuse can produce lesbianism, sex addiction, exhibitionism and an angry, frightened adult.” If this is a strange formulation, it is still not too far off. Marilyn had dreams of Boschian witches and demons from childhood onward, and a recurring vision of striding — like Steinem’s colossus — over a supine row of church congregants who peered up her skirt. The “passion” of the book’s subtitle is a double entendre, another paradox: as much a nod to early episodes of religious repression, and later suffering, as it is an expression of joy.
Like Steinem, Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, dismissed Marilyn as a sex object at first. But she found herself drawn to her over the years, struck by their similar upbringings. They both grew up near Los Angeles, both in fundamentalist Christian families, both blond and blue-eyed and curvaceous. Banner began to wonder if Marilyn was not a harbinger of ’60s feminism, as strong as she was weak, empowered by her sexuality if little else. In an afterword, she envisions an alternate trajectory in the career of another sexpot, who played Marilyn in “After the Fall.” The actress, Barbara Loden, left Hollywood to write feminist screenplays, dressing like her male counterparts in “trousers, leather jackets and boots.” Marilyn, wearying of her sex-symbol status, might have done the same. Or she might not have: “In the case of Marilyn, people believe what they want to believe.” And paradox, it seems, makes for a very long afterlife.
Zoë Slutzky has written for Bookforum, The Los Angeles Times and Mother Jones.
Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox, By Lois Banner
This investigation tells us more than ever about Monroe's childhood - but do we need to know?
JOAN SMITH SATURDAY 04 AUGUST 2012 in The Independent
In the 50 years since Marilyn Monroe's death, an industry has grown up around her. She is one of the most instantly recognisable celebrities of the 20th century, endlessly reproduced on posters, t-shirts and even handbags. Monroe means something to a great number of people, but what that might be isn't so easy to define.
The anniversary of the night in August 1962 when she was found dead in bed offers an irresistible opportunity for fresh readings, informed by the pre-occupations of our time. One is the meaning of celebrity. In her weighty volume, historian Lois Banner remarks that Monroe was happier with still photographs of herself than her films. It speaks to an aspect of her character which feels incredibly modern. When narcissism no longer carries a stigma, she is the precursor of a stream of celebrities whose most obvious talent is self-promotion. Working with just a photographer she was in control, unlike a film studio where she clashed with directors.
Banner is conscious of Monroe's skill in projecting herself, a "rare genius". It isn't so rare these days, but Banner's purpose lies elsewhere, offering a new interpretation of the star's life which draws on feminism and the history of gender . It's certainly the case that Monroe's story has been handled in the past by biographers and critics who don't share that perspective, including the novelist Norman Mailer and her ex-husband Arthur Miller. Mailer's book on Monroe is a drooling rehearsal of a particular species of male fantasy, while Miller's play After The Fall presents her as a monster.
Mailer's book is a warning to any woman who aspires to be "the new Monroe". The problem with Mailer's interpretation is not that it's wrong but that it cuts off feminist re-readings at the knees. Monroe was almost certainly sexually abused as a child, and her vulnerability and eagerness to please were central to her success. For Mailer, she was the embodiment of easy sex, the woman who promised that it "might be... dangerous with others, but ice-cream with her".
Banner's book provides the most detailed account yet of Monroe's fractured childhood, identifying 11 families who provided homes for her. Born in 1926 – she would be the same age as the Queen if she were alive today – Marilyn grew up as Norma Jeane Mortensen. Her mother Gladys gave her the name of her second husband, a meter reader called Edward Mortensen, but Monroe always believed her father was Stanley Gifford, a supervisor at the Hollywood film studio where Gladys worked.
Neither man played a role in her upbringing, and Norma Jeane moved from one step-family to another as her mother suffered a series of breakdowns. Gladys spent time in mental institutions, leaving Norma Jeane with a lifelong fear that she had inherited her instability.
She spent seven years in California with Ida and Wayne Bolender, evangelical Christians who took in foster children. Banner thinks that the significance of religion has been overlooked in Monroe's formative years. The Bolenders believed in sin and redemption, organised nightly Bible readings and took Norma Jeane, aged six, to a dawn service at the Hollywood Bowl.
A later foster mother, Ana Lower, introduced her to Christian Science, a mystical religion founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy. Monroe would later convert to Judaism when she married Miller, but the religious fervour she encountered as a child infused her nightmares with witches and demons. Nor did it help with the guilt she was made to feel when Ida caught her in childish sex experimentation, possibly masturbation, and whipped her for touching the "bad part" of her body.
The sexual abuse happened when she was eight years old, after she left the Bolenders, and was carried out by an elderly man who has never been firmly identified. Banner sees this episode as a key moment in Norma Jeane's life, producing "dissociation" and her "major alter ego" Marilyn Monroe: an alternative self, "sexual and self-confident". Obviously, "Marilyn Monroe" was an invention, but Banner's own account of Monroe's relationships with men reads like a catalogue of exploitation and abuse. Early in her film career, after she was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946, she became a "party girl" – one of the aspiring actresses expected to entertain visiting executives. Banner says that one of the things Monroe learned in this period was to be adept at sex, including fellatio. She would later call Hollywood "an overcrowded brothel".
Her film career was chequered, turning into a constant struggle with studio bosses who wanted to keep her in the "dumb blonde" role. Her marriages suggest a powerful need for male affirmation; her first husband was a high-school athlete, her second the sporting hero Joe DiMaggio, and her third (Miller) the country's pre-eminent intellectual. It's hard to imagine anyone as damaged as Monroe forming stable relationships but there's also a hint of something which has become common in the 21st century, namely short-lived alliances between very famous people who look good together in public.
Banner isn't the first feminist to write about Monroe; she was beaten to it by Gloria Steinem, whose 1986 biography is a lovingly-crafted rescue fantasy. But Banner's purpose seems two-fold: to claim Monroe as a kind of pre-feminist icon, and to establish herself as the foremost scholar in a crowded field. Her Marilyn is difficult, ironic, insecure, bisexual; she's also clever - far from an original claim.
Banner's biography dispels some myths about Monroe's childhood but the sheer quantity of detail is daunting, and her prose is sometimes excruciating. I'm not convinced that Monroe's life has a positive message for women. As I once observed in another context, her enduring appeal suggests that (some) gentlemen prefer dead blondes.
Joan Smith is Political Blonde www.politicalblonde.com