Marilyn Monroe Books: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

1st Jun 2011

Marilyn Monroe reading by John Florea 1952

As a child in the 1970s, I was dimly aware of Marilyn Monroe: her lovely face, the movies, and her tragic death. When I was thirteen, my father gave me a copy of W.J. Weatherby’s Conversations With Marilyn, and a lifelong fascination was born.

The ‘dumb blonde’ image was a fantasy. Marilyn Monroe was self-educated, and owned a library of some 400 books. During her short career, at least one serious biography was attempted, by Maurice Zolotow. Fred Lawrence Guiles followed with Norma Jean a few years after she died. These books give an insight into Monroe during her lifetime that is no longer possible.

But it took a New York novelist to really get the ball rolling. Norman Mailer’s lavishly illustrated, ‘factoid’ biography, Marilyn (1973) deified her as a sex goddess and started the endless rumour mill about her alleged affairs with the Kennedy brothers.

The many conspiracy theories surrounding Monroe’s passing were explored in Anthony SummersGoddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1986.) Donald Spoto countered with Marilyn Monroe: The Biography in 1992.

Robert Slatzer, Lena Pepitone and Ted Jordan have all eulogised Monroe in print. More recently, June DiMaggio and Tony Curtis have joined this company. (A general rule here – if an author, or subject claims to a) have slept with MM, or b) to know how she died, or c) both, read with caution.)

Among the more credible memoirs are Marilyn – An Untold Story, by Marilyn’s poet friend, Norman Rosten; Susan Strasberg’s Marilyn and Me; and My Sister Marilyn, by Berniece and Mona Rae Miracle.

If ‘kiss-and-tells’ are often little more than fiction, it’s not surprising that Marilyn has also been the subject of novels and plays, notably After the Fall (1964), a thinly-disguised portrait by ex-husband Arthur Miller; and Joyce Carol OatesBlonde (2000.)

With all the controversy about her private life, it’s easy to forget that Marilyn was an iconic actress. In 1986, Gloria Steinem brought a feminist perspective to Marilyn: Norma Jeane.

Carl E. Rollyson studied Monroe’s screen presence in A Life of the Actress (1987.) Another cultural critic, Sarah Churchwell, examined the diverse, often contradictory mass of MM-related literature in her 2005 book, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe.

Some of the best recent works have been published by fans. Michelle Morgan, author and former president of a UK fan club, contributed one of the most intimate biographies, Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed (2007), while David Marshall wrote a definitive investigation into Marilyn’s death, The DD Group, in 2005.

Over the last decade, Marilyn’s possessions have become sought-after on the international auction circuit. At a time when most people who knew her are either very old or dead, these items represent a tangible link to a much-missed woman.

Monroe’s files and correspondence are revealed in Lois Banner’s MM – Personal (2011), while her private letters, journals and poetry are collected in the remarkable 2010 book, Fragments. Her own, incomplete memoir, My Story, was reissued in 2006 with photos by Milton Greene.

However, many fans prefer to remember Marilyn by the thousands of lush pictures she left behind. Her photographic collaborations – with Andre De Dienes, Sam Shaw, Ed Feingersh, Eve Arnold, and Bert Stern – have been widely celebrated. Collector James Haspiel, who befriended MM as a young fan, shared his memories and candid snapshots in Marilyn: The Ultimate Look at the Legend (1991.)

An even greater mass of paparazzi shots and film stills are regularly used in the pictorial biographies which continue to sell. One recent example, Cindy De La Hoz’s Marilyn Monroe: The Personal Archive, includes facsimile documents and a wide selection of photos.

With the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s death approaching in 2012, her fame shows no signs of slipping. Now I am older than Marilyn ever lived to be, and my second novel, The Mmm Girl, is an attempt to recapture that voice which has been lost to us.

Today marks what would have been Marilyn’s 85th birthday. So let’s raise a glass of champagne, and, to steal a ‘Monroeism’, say “Cheers – no tears…

Tara Hanks

Comments

  • Alex Herod says:

    Absolutely wonderful, thanks Tara! I’m going to have to check some of your recommendations out.

  • Michelle Morgan says:

    Thanks so much for mentioning my book Tara! That means the world to me! x