If you’re going to read “The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe” thinking it’s a straight biography, you should know that is not quite accurate.
First-time author Sarah Churchwell has produced an unusual piece of work that uses academic prose (she is a professor at the University of East Anglia in England) to slam previous biographers’ sloppy research and rid the reader of preconceptions about Monroe.
Close your eyes and picture Marilyn Monroe. Do you see a laughing young woman in a white dress, standing over a subway grate? When you’re done reading this book, that image will expand into one of a businesswoman who went up against the biggest hotshots at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s and almost won.
Since her death in 1962, books about Monroe have come from some of America’s most famous writers: Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few. Some of these books claim to be “fictional” – though as Churchwell points out, they follow Monroe’s life closely enough to damage her legacy.
Monroe was once called a “screen that others project their own feelings onto,” and this is most true in the biographies Churchwell dissects. As she says, “Whichever biography of Marilyn Monroe we read, we are instantly confronted with an identity that seems confused, secret, lost. Biographers then promise to clear up these confusions, reveal the secrets and reclaim the lost soul. But these many lives help to create the confusion in the first place.”
Churchwell illustrates the discrepancies in many writers’ research, including their disagreements over basic questions: Was Monroe raped as a child? Did she have 14 abortions or none? How did she die?
In the hands of some biographers, Monroe is sexualized to the point where she almost evaporates, leaving the reader with only the mystical woman in the white dress. The most infamous example of this, Churchwell contends, is Oates’ “Blonde” – a so-called “novel biography” – which offers a several steamy scenes that further sexualize Monroe.
According to feminist biographers like Steinem, Monroe was dominated and pushed toward an early death by the powerful men in her life (Joe DiMaggio, Fox studio executives, Arthur Miller, etc.). Churchwell challenges this interpretation of Monroe’s life as well.
Monroe was not a victim in Churchwell’s account – and if she was, she was a victim of her own drug use and her infuriating habit of showing up hours late and requiring multiple takes to finish a scene.
When Tony Curtis was asked what it was like to kiss Monroe, he answered: “It was like kissing Hitler.”
Churchwell suggests that Monroe was using the only weapon she had: passive-aggressiveness. She didn’t like the flimsy roles she was given, and in this pre-feminist time she took a stand by attempting to disobey the studio.
While other biographies concentrate on Monroe’s difficult marriages and sexuality, Churchwell digs deeper and comes up with a woman who was all business. In the process, she sheds light on little-known facts, such as Monroe’s departure from Fox studios to form her own production company, and her desire at the end of her life to escape the comedy genre and take on smarter roles.
“The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe” falters only at the end with Churchwell’s afterword, “My Marilyn.” After successfully convincing the reader that previous biographers have projected their own desires onto Monroe, Churchwell succumbs and does the same.
She writes: “In this Afterword, then, is the Marilyn I have tried to keep to the margins of the book, the Marilyn I was looking for, ‘my Marilyn.’ “
With this chapter, Churchwell becomes what she has warned the reader against all along with her immaculate research and unbiased prologue: a writer who attempts to “claim” Monroe – who, like everyone else, wishes she could reach back in time and save her.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.