It must take some nerve to publish another biography of Marilyn Monroe now, five decades – and scores of books – after her death in 1962. In the 1980s, Gloria Steinem described the dizzying “kaleidoscope” effect of all the Monroe stories; the Marilyn literature has only proliferated since then. Lois Banner promises both a new rigour and a new line on Monroe: “a new Marilyn”, no less, “different from any previous portrayal of her”. For Banner, as “an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender”, started work on Monroe with the feeling that “no one like me” had ever studied her.
As Banner’s subtitle attests, her Marilyn is a paradoxical figure in a paradoxical age of “exuberant” post-war boom and Cold War paranoia. She is in fact “many Marilyns”: “revealing and analysing her multiple personas is a major contribution of mine to Marilyn scholarship”. Monroe herself said she was “so many people”. My Story (1974), the unfinished autobiography based on interviews she gave to Ben Hecht, has its images of doubleness: her developing body seems separate from her, an apparition, a “magic friend”; on the beach in her swimsuit, she feels “as if I were two people”, the child “from the orphanage who belonged to nobody” and some new, nameless person who “belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world”. This autobiography has often been “dismissed . . . as a fraud”, but Banner is convinced it’s genuine – its elements of fantasy or fiction Monroe’s as much as they are Hecht’s – and she uses it to help evoke the details and feelings of Monroe’s infamously sad childhood.
Banner’s version of that childhood differs in some small respects from things Monroe said, but the story everybody knows seems substantially true: born Norma Jeane Mortensen in 1926, father absent, mother institutionalized on and off as a paranoid schizophrenic, multiple foster homes – Banner counts eleven – and a spell in a Los Angeles orphanage, before being married off at barely sixteen. Banner emphasizes the sexual abuse Monroe suffered as an eight-year-old, and identifies the most likely offender as one of her foster fathers, George Atkinson, an elderly Englishman with a monocle who worked as a movie actor’s stand-in. Norman Mailer, despite suggesting at one point that only “some awful secret in her past . . . some unquenchable horror” could explain Monroe, was keen to dismiss her claims of abuse as a publicity stunt; he and others chose to believe she couldn’t have been assaulted, based on her first husband Jim Dougherty’s word about the state of her hymen on their wedding night.
Banner, on the other hand, makes the event central to her understanding of Monroe: such abuse, she says, “can fragment a personality, producing, in Marilyn’s case, multiple alters”. It can also supposedly “produce lesbianism” – Banner claims credit for a new emphasis on Monroe’s possible bisexuality – “sex addiction, exhibitionism”. The catalogue of diagnoses here is a long one, including dyslexia and a stammer (Monroe linked its appearance to being assaulted and then disbelieved), bipolar and dissociative disorders, and endometriosis that required multiple operations over the years. It seems a little strange to add sex addiction to the list: Banner’s phrasing – “she covered untoward behaviour with a mask of good intentions, justifying her promiscuity through advocating a free-love philosophy” – makes it unclear whether she thinks promiscuity automatically counts as a disorder, and also somewhat undermines the portrait she wants to draw later on of Monroe as a genuine sexual radical.
These sorts of confusion sometimes arise when Banner is trying to debunk one standard Monroe story and risks falling into another. She wants to make clear that Monroe was not the helpless invention of others, but her account of Monroe’s shrewd ambition inevitably conjures the equally tricky image of the cunning sex kitten whose success is built on men, not merit. And soon the victim theme reappears in any case – Banner partly explains Monroe’s time on the casting couch, and as a so-called “party girl” entertaining studio executives and their guests, by saying that her abuse in childhood “had programmed her to please men”.
Still, it’s clear that Monroe worked hard to distinguish herself as a model and then an actress. She started modelling after a photographer spotted her spraying fuselages on an assembly line and asked to take her picture for a magazine. By the summer of 1946 she was divorcing Dougherty and signing a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. Banner’s account of her “party girl” phase is matter-of-fact, but without the vivid concision of My Story, in which Hollywood emerges as “an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses”. She had done well as a pin-up, but her first years in the movies were rocky: Fox dropped her after a year, and Columbia after six months. But Johnny Hyde, a powerful agent thirty years her senior, was smitten with her, and called in favours to get her cast in The Asphalt Jungle, one of the few early films in which she made a real impression, then in All About Eve, which got her back on contract at Fox. It’s not clear what Banner thinks of Hyde – she takes a surprisingly chirpy view of his buying Monroe a new nose and chin in 1950: “Johnny wanted her to be perfect”.
Cosmetic surgery and favours aside, Hyde wasn’t her Svengali. If she had one, it was Natasha Lytess, whom she’d met during her brief stint at Columbia in 1948. Lytess was the head acting coach there, but she became Monroe’s: she took her to museums, gave her a long reading list, and worked with her on twenty-two movies, often standing behind the director on set, signalling instructions. Lytess is rather a shadowy figure here: she may or may not have been Bruno Frank’s widow, as she claimed, and may or may not have been Monroe’s lover – in 1962, for a considerable sum, she told a British tabloid that they’d lived together, in Banner’s words, “as husband and wife”, and that she’d taught Marilyn everything she knew about sex. But Banner does not go into much concrete detail about what difference Lytess made to Monroe’s performances. There are tantalizing flashes of insight about how Monroe developed her screen persona: Lytess encouraged her to imitate Mae West’s walk; Hyde told her to study Chaplin movies. In his 1969 biography, Fred Lawrence Guiles mentioned a conversation Monroe had with Lee Strasberg before starting work on Some Like it Hot, in which she objected to her character’s stupidity in not seeing through Jack Lemmon’s and Tony Curtis’s drag act. Strasberg thought for a moment, and gave her an off-the-cuff solution: she doesn’t see through them because she doesn’t want to; Sugar Kane is the kind of woman other women steer clear of, and for the first time, “here suddenly are two women, and they want to be your friend”. Monroe saw how this could work, and there is an ingenious simplicity to it. Despite the script’s brilliance, Sugar as written could easily come off as half dimwit, half doormat, but Monroe makes her much more than that, and it helps that she doesn’t focus her loneliness and eagerness for affection solely on saxophone-playing men. The anecdote offers a refreshing glimpse of Strasberg’s practical usefulness to her, a reminder that her dependence on such mentors was not necessarily a sign of neediness or pretension.
Banner credits Monroe with a deep historical imagination
Amid the mass of information about what happened when, Banner doesn’t always draw out these telling details. Nonetheless, she gives serious consideration to what Monroe achieved on-screen. The familiar ingredients of her story are all there – the marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller; the bid for independence with Marilyn Monroe Productions; the Actors’ Studio; the psychoanalysis, the miscarriages, the pills – but Banner also abandons strict chronology for an “Entr’acte” in which she traces the roots of Monroe’s “blonde clown” figure, its connections to high and low cultural forms, to Shakespearean fools, commedia dell’arte, burlesque, striptease. Banner credits Monroe with a “deep historical imagination”. Crucially, she refutes the implication that Monroe merely radiated some animal, instinctive quality. She parodied the sexy cartoon even as she embodied it, and she could map the complex pleasures and pains of a sentient being half trapped inside it. Banner notes that Joshua Logan, who directed Bus Stop, admired her Chaplinesque feel for “the edge between laughter and sadness”. He respected her for being constantly surprising, as, grudgingly, did Billy Wilder, no matter how many takes it took her to say “It’s me, Sugar”.
Examining the circumstances of Monroe’s death seems an ever more thankless task for any biographer, and it is here that the conflicting hints, claims and counter-claims threaten to overwhelm any convincing narrative. Evidently, the official story told to the press was false, and there were several cover-ups. Banner does a good job of discrediting some of the more lurid murder theories of the past few years, but a lot of the evidence she presents makes it seem very possible that the Kennedys – both the President and his brother Robert – were involved, and that Monroe was threatening a tell-all press conference. Banner clearly thinks neither suicide nor accidental overdose is the most likely explanation, although she does cover all bases by saying that Monroe’s life “is so filled with paradox, tricksterism, and passion achieved and thwarted that it is impossible to say what she would do”.
With such a palimpsest for a subject, Banner’s book seems tinged with anxiety, as she emphasizes any small detail “never before revealed”, each interpretive tweak “no previous biographer” has managed. In wading through the profusion of sources, trying to trace a reliable version of events in Monroe’s life, Banner sometimes encounters a difficulty in determining what a reader needs to be told. Readers able and willing to follow the twists and turns of what earlier accounts assumed or established about Monroe could surely also be expected to know roughly what film noir is, or daily rushes, or typecasting (“common in Hollywood, because producers felt safe repeating successful formulas”), or indeed that “it” – as in “let’s do it” – “was then a euphemism for sex”.
Banner’s idea that Monroe’s life “contains texts and counter-texts” makes a certain sense (though it’s truer of her afterlife, where it seems she won’t ever stop being rewritten). But a lot of the contradictions she identifies are less surprising than she suggests, especially for someone in Monroe’s position. It isn’t so hard to understand how a person could be sensitive and insecure but also determined and assertive at times, could be driven to succeed but disturbed to see herself packaged and sold, could want to be looked at and desired while also hating and resenting it. Nor, ideally, should it seem such a stretch to imagine that a world-famous sex symbol from a difficult background could also be witty, intelligent and politically radical – and the wit, at least, is clearly visible in her best performances.
Banner was born in the 1930s, only a decade or so after Monroe, and she may well have grown up with the same “teenage discomfort” Gloria Steinem described about the sometimes “embarrassing . . . sad and revealing” spectacle of Monroe “mincing and whispering and simply hoping her way into love and approval . . . holding a mirror to the exaggerated ways in which female human beings are trained to act”. Elsewhere Banner has written that as “one of the founders of ‘second wave’ feminism in the 1960s, I was drawn to Marilyn as the major historical exemplar of the sexual objectification of women that we challenged”. She has had to circle back in order to view Monroe differently: now, for instance, she presents her decision to speak publicly about being sexually abused as “a major – and unacknowledged – feminist act”. As Banner implies, there is still a prevailing tendency to see Monroe as either “irreparably damaged”, or “quintessentially feminine and not very smart”, or both. Context is all: if you are picking your way through the small library of books presenting Monroe as a mere victim, a symbol or a sexy mess, through the overheated Norman Mailers and the excitable conspiracists, it might come to seem groundbreaking to start instead from the premiss that she was a real person – yet that is surely a basic requirement for a biography. The “paradox” of the subtitle, then – the very human complexity Banner finds in Monroe – resembles not so much a hard-won conclusion as a useful place to begin. Still, as starting points go, it does seem like the right one, and much more unusual in “Marilyn scholarship” than it should be.
Lois Banner - MARILYN The passion and the paradox - 528pp. Bloomsbury. £20. 978 1 60819 531 2