Rewriting the Marilyn Monroe story, by Lidija Haas | TLS

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.

Lidija Haas is a freelance writer.

Lois Banner
MARILYN
The passion and the paradox
528pp. Bloomsbury. £20.
978 1 60819 531 2

Article originally taken from here.

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