6th Aug 2012
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner
As such, it’s not like there haven’t been several biographies of her before – and of course My Story, her autobiography, remains a classic – but Lois Banner has chosen this month to release her own contribution to the Monroe legend, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.
Why, then, yet another Marilyn biography? And why now? Banner makes a conclusive case. Monroe’s impact still reverberates around the world, and she remains a key figure in our culture.
There remain, too, so very many unanswered questions about her death – something which makes probing into her life an irresistible temptation.
A renowned historian (she is Professor of History at the University of Southern California, and author of one of the core textbooks of many Women’s Studies courses, Women in Modern America: A Brief History) Banner has gone further than any of her predecessors. She interviews people who have not spoken the press until now, travels the world exploring hidden archives and artefacts, and puts to bed some of the theories posited by previous biographers.
Marilyn is nothing if not thorough. The book gives a fascinating insight not only into Marilyn’s (or should we say Norma Jean’s) tumultuous childhood as she was passed from one foster family to another, but also delves into the lives of her parents and grandparents (and even further back) to give an idea of the forces that shaped her.
Once Marilyn/Norma reaches her teens, Banner shows how she began to sculpt an identity for herself, while, at the same time, her many and varied parent figures caused her to be conflicted and paradoxical about her identity throughout her adult life. Detailed analysis from her psychoanalysts gives us a continual sense of how these issues mutated, intertwined and eventually overwhelmed Marilyn.
Anyone can discover the public Marilyn through her documented interviews and appearances, but Banner’s book paints a vivid portrait of exactly how she was behind the scenes – both with her many friends (including Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando) and co-stars like Jane Russell and Clark Gable. It is fascinating to learn what books she read and why, what she did for fun, what her beliefs and philosophies were and who helped her to form them.
The descriptions of the large numbers of friends and acquaintances are so various they verge on the infuriating, but Banner gets around this snag by providing a handy glossary. The book’s other brilliant resource is a delightful selection of some of Marilyn’s most important photographs, most of which are explained and dissected in detail.
There is a sense of privacy being breached as we learn about her sexual behaviour and difficulties, her drug addictions, and most of all, her loves (in particular Arthur Miller and Joe Di Maggio).
The final account of Monroe’s death is lengthy and shot from all available angles, and what is a hugely illuminating books ends, ironically but fittingly, with an unsettling sense of uncertainty. This book paints as accurate a portrait as is possible of a many-faceted woman, a mystery even to herself, who continues to illuminate American culture as one of its brightest stars.
Recommended for: Anyone who has ever seen a Marilyn film and wanted to know more. There is plenty to tell.
Other recommended reading: My Story, of course, but perhaps also Timebends by Arthur Miller and Memo from Darryl F Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox.