According to Anthony Summers' bibliography, Marilyn Monroe, who died only 23 years ago, has already been the subject of 38 books. "Goddess" makes 39, and perhaps it will keep the competition quiet for a year or two. Though much of what Summers has to say about Monroe's celebrated life and mysterious death is based on circumstantial evidence and couched in cautious (not to mention graceless) prose, his speculations are sufficiently plausible to make one wonder if enough has at last been said about this sad story.

"Goddess" is technically a biography, but Summers has deliberately passed quickly over certain aspects of Monroe's life in order to concentrate on others. He has little to say about her unhappy childhood, the details of which have been reported exhaustively by other writers; he spends only a few pages on her teen-age marriage to Jim Dougherty, another familiar story; and though he accepts at face value her rather pathetic pretensions to serious acting, he does not have much to say about any of the movies in which she appeared -- perhaps because he agrees, though he does not say, that of all of them only "Some Like It Hot" is still worth watching.

Instead he concerns himself with matters about which there is still much for us to be curious. Sex obviously is one of these, since the private sex life of our most publicly sexual creature remains a subject of discussion and rumor. Though sparing us the clinical details, Summers makes plain that her sex life was exceedingly active but not especially joyous; she seems to have had no particular hang-ups about sex on the one hand, but it seems to have given her little pleasure on the other. One former lover told him: "Marilyn must have been frustrated almost all of the time. I think she regarded it as her function, being this great attractive female, that she was supposed to have sex with a man, because that was something she could do, that she could give. She wasn't very successful at it, in terms of her own fulfillment." Everything Summers reports suggests that this is the truth.

She wasn't very successful at marriage, either. Her most famous attempts at it, with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, ended as unhappily as did her many attempts to have a child -- pregnancies she herself inexplicably terminated, Summers says, with at least a dozen abortions. Summers has not much more to say about these marriages than anyone else has, primarily because DiMaggio and Miller have kept their own counsel. Suffice it to say that each marriage probably was doomed from the start; poor Marilyn, who so desperately wanted conjugal and familial love, was simply incapable of the commitment and constancy out of which it grows.

Perhaps she believed that if she slept with famous and powerful men, she somehow would become what they were. If Summers is right that toward the end of her life she had affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy, this would seem the most likely explanation. In considering these relationships, if indeed they ever existed, Summers ventures into slippery and dangerous ground; not merely is it territory where most of those who are in the know are either silent or dead, but it involves the reputations of two political figures whose iconographies have remained remarkably unchanged notwithstanding continued, and sometimes devastating, attack.

That she slept with John Kennedy no longer seems to be a matter of much doubt; apparently she was just one among many. But Robert, "never the womanizer his brother was," is a more complicated case. Summers, for whatever it is worth, believes he "fell for the flickering light of Marilyn's fragile spirit," and that there was in fact an affair. He also believes that Robert was the recipient of a distress call, either direct or indirect, on the night she died, and that he was involved in an unsuccessful effort to save her life -- an effort that could have ended his political career had it been reported at the time.

Who knows? Summers is as entitled to his theories as anyone else, and the case he makes for them is, if nothing else, advanced without frivolity; unlike some who have written about Monroe and the Kennedys, he has no political axes to grind, and unlike others he is engaged in no literary posturing. And whether he is right about all the details, about the essential truth he is absolutely correct. He quotes Sir Laurence Olivier: "Popular opinion is a horribly unsteady conveyance for life, and she was exploited beyond anyone's means." Whether the exploitation was by a studio executive, a political figure or merely a lover now unknown to us, it did not stop until she died. Though some may feel that "Goddess" merely continues that practice, it is too dispassionate and sympathetic to be thus dismissed.