By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 30, 2009
THE SECRET LIFE OF MARILYN MONROE
By J. Randy Taraborrelli
Grand Central. 560 pp. $26.99
A quarter-century ago, reviewing "Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe," by Anthony Summers, in this newspaper, I wondered whether, with the publication of what was the 39th book about her, "enough has at last been said about this sad story." Obviously my wonderings were very much in error. How many other books about her have been published between then and now I do not know, but here comes J. Randy Taraborrelli with what his publisher calls "the definitive biography . . . explosive, revelatory, and surprisingly moving."
You will not be surprised to learn that in fact "The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe" is none of the above. Taraborrelli, a freelance journalist who specializes in gossipy fan bios of supermarket tabloid favorites -- his subjects have included Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross and (of course) Jackie Kennedy -- stakes his shaky claim to originality on two aspects of Monroe's life: the three women who were central to her troubled childhood and adolescence, and the strong current of mental instability that ran through her mother's side of the family. But these matters are well known to anyone who has followed Monroe's life and career, and there is nothing "explosive" or even "revelatory" in Taraborrelli's discussion of them.
Doubtless it will come as a surprise to younger readers that Monroe continues to be the subject of books, articles, documentaries, songs and heaven knows what else four and a half decades after her death -- she committed suicide in 1962 -- but even today she remains what she was in the final decade of her life, an enduring presence in American popular mythology. I cannot cite statistical chapter and verse, but it seems a safe bet that if you say the name "Marilyn," at least four out of five adult Americans will know immediately whom you mean. Of how many others can that be said? Elvis, Jackie, Di . . . the list is remarkably short.
This instant first-name recognition confers a kind of immortality, and Monroe's shows no signs of fading. Only one of the 31 movies in which she appeared has real staying power -- Billy Wilder's brilliantly acerbic "Some Like It Hot" (1959) -- yet her image, on film and in still photographs, remains to this day the American epitome of feminine beauty and sex appeal. The nude pinup for which she posed in 1949 seems positively tame today, yet it has lost none of its allure. The famous images of her face done by Andy Warhol may not be art, but they most certainly are iconography. Her marital and/or sexual connections to some of the most famous men of her day -- Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy -- are still gossiped about, puzzled over, romanticized and vilified. In short, she endures.
I'm certainly not alone among Americans of a certain age in remembering exactly where I was on the day of her death. In the late afternoon of Aug. 5, 1962, I was leaving the Polo Grounds after watching the New York Mets split a doubleheader with the Cincinnati Reds when I saw, at the entrance to the 155th St. subway station, newsboys hawking tabloid extras with the news announced in big, black type. I was stunned, as obviously were all the others who crowded around to buy copies. After all she was only 36 years old -- a mere 13 years older than I was -- and recent photographs had suggested that she was at the height of her beauty. That she was dead was unbelievable and insupportable.
All of which explains why I continue to read, and occasionally to review, books about her. To the best of my recollection there isn't a single good one. "Goddess" comes closest, though the prose is almost as indigestible as Taraborrelli's, which is clumsy and breathless (he has a penchant for dropping in the occasional exclamation point, almost always inappropriately). Taraborrelli's attempts at psychological analysis are either obvious or inept; his exploration of her erotic life is a mixture of sensationalism and incompetence (at one point he tells us that she "was not interested in sex," a few hundred pages later that she was a creature of passion); and his analysis of her movies never tells us anything new, much less perceptive.
One reads doggedly through more than 500 pages of text and appendices hoping for some flash of insight, something to justify all the hours Taraborrelli spent cobbling this together, but not once does such a moment arrive. Someone who knows nothing about Monroe's life and legend will find the essential facts here, but no pleasure is to be derived from Taraborrelli's recital of them.
She was born Norma Jeane Mortensen on June 1, 1926, in the Los Angeles General Hospital. Though her mother, Gladys Baker, had been married previously, the identity of her father was and remains unknown. Gladys was unstable (to put it charitably) and turned the child over to a woman named Ida Bolender, who loved her and wanted to adopt her, but Gladys eventually reappeared and took the child back. It was Norma Jeane's good fortune that her mother had a friend, Grace Atkinson McKee, who provided affection and guidance, but the child was made insecure and desperate for love, as she would remain for the rest of her life.
People realized early on that she was uncommonly beautiful, and Grace saw possibilities for her in the movies. Of course every pretty girl in Los Angeles had the same idea, but Norma Jeane had the goods. After becoming a widely published photographer's model, she signed a contract with MGM soon after her 20th birthday, changed her name to Marilyn Monroe at the studio's insistence, and began the rather uncertain progress toward the éclat she achieved thanks to the nude photo and the success of her first starring role, opposite Joseph Cotton in "Niagara" (1953).
A number of her subsequent films were box-office hits, notably "The Seven Year Itch" (1955), with its celebrated raised-skirt scene, but mostly she was cast in sexy blond roles, which she resented; she was intelligent and ambitious for more serious work, though how suited for it will forever remain a mystery. She married three times, never happily, and slept with many men, though exactly how many and with how much or how little pleasure, we also never will know. She was hooked on a pharmacopoeia of drugs, and at times drank too much, a dangerous combination that did nothing to improve her deepening insecurity and mental imbalance. Taraborrelli doubtless is right (though scarcely the first) to say that the institutionalization of her mother and grandmother haunted her, just as the children and grandchildren of suicides often are haunted by the fear that the same fate awaits them.
She was a decent, kind person who wanted to be loved but had execrable taste in men, too many of whom used and then abused her. Her story is inexpressibly sad, and even in the hands of one as inept as Taraborrelli it retains its power.