Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed by Michelle Morgan

26th Apr 2012


Morgan lives in Britain where, for twelve years, she headed the Marilyn Lives Society. She approaches Monroe’s life from a different time and place, with compassion. However, Morgan’s attention to detail is rigorous, allowing a broader view of the subject.

The girl baptised as Norma Jeane Baker spent her childhood in the care of distant relatives and friends. Her mother was judged insane and spent much of her life in hospital. Norma Jeane was left with a lifelong sense of abandonment, and may also have been molested in one of her foster homes.

At sixteen, Norma Jeane married the boy next door. ‘I never knew anyone more unselfish,’ her mother-in-law commented, ‘but she is so lost in her own world that she frightens me.’ Domesticity gave way to another dream when Norma was discovered by a photographer, and quickly became a magazine pin-up.

So how did this fragile young woman rise so far? Some biographers have pointed to alleged liaisons with agents and producers. But Morgan suggests that Monroe’s sensual image was far from the truth.

One incident where an intruder came into her bedroom at night left Marilyn traumatised. Her agent, Harry Lipton, ‘recalled that she was rather afraid to live alone and was forever looking over her shoulder,’ Morgan writes, adding that she was ‘haunted by the fact that several neighbours had refused to get involved…this brought back disturbing memories of her insecure childhood.’

On film sets, Marilyn was plagued by nerves. This often made for a fraught working atmosphere, and Morgan recounts how more experienced co-stars initially ridiculed her, though others were impressed by her sensitivity.

‘Lots of people didn’t cotton onto her,’ said actor Bob Cornthwaite. ‘She was persistent and that stood her in good stead, but people just had to go along with what she was because she wasn’t going to change – she was stubborn which was both her strength and her weakness.’

Marilyn seemed more comfortable outside the celebrity milieu. ‘I found her to be nothing of the glamour girl,’ said barman Joseph Jacob, ‘but more the down-to-earth girl we all wish superstars to be.’

She formed an independent production company and studied drama and literature. In her free time, Marilyn liked to write, draw and paint. Morgan captures Monroe’s private self through anecdotes from those who met her at all stages of life.

Back in Hollywood, Marilyn worked closely with an acting coach. Co-workers were exasperated by her lateness, while former allies could find themselves bluntly dismissed from her circle. However, few could hold a grudge for long – particularly if they sensed her sadness.

Morgan chronicles the making of Monroe’s films; her creative ambitions and triumphs; marriages and lovers; her agonising struggle to have children, and battles with addiction and depression. In each case, Morgan shares her findings and clarifies past mistakes, adding her nuanced perspective to a story so often retold.

The subtlety of Morgan’s portrayal comes to the fore in the chapters surrounding Marilyn’s untimely death. ‘Each question invites further answers,’ she admits, ‘on and on, like an endless hall of mirrors.’

She pinpoints errors made in the official investigation, and considers less-explored possibilities while allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

Some may find this grounded, scrupulous approach unsuited to an enigmatic figure like Monroe, who once admitted, ‘I always had too much fantasy to be a housewife. Maybe I am a fantasy.’

But with Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, Michelle Morgan has completed a biography as complex and appealing as Marilyn herself.

Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed is published next month by Constable & Robinson. You can pre-order the paperback for £6.79, or get the Kindle edition for £6.17.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended for: Fans of Old Hollywood, and anyone with an interest in iconic women, popular culture and modern American history.

Other recommended reading: The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell, Fragments by Marilyn Monroe, and also by Michelle Morgan, Marilyn’s Footsteps.

Tara Hanks


  • Sydney Lawrence says:

    Look with anticipation to the update Marilyn Monroe Private and Undisclosed. As the years pass and those who knew and had conversation with Marilyn leave this life the Marilyn saga becomes more interesting. I think that Marilyn was the encapsulation of every good human quality. Her abuse by those who were in control at the time exhibits the worst mongrelism of the human species.