Norma Jeane Baker had to work to become Marilyn Monroe, the reigning figment of male desire in the 1950s and a continuing obsession of contemporary culture. She resculpted her jaw line and abbreviated the tip of her nose. She practiced smiling with her upper lip drawn down. She learned to speak in a breathy voice and to make bedroom eyes. Reportedly, she added a little grind to her saunter by wearing shoes with heels of unequal height. She wrapped herself in the raiments of the blond goddess -- bathrobes, camisoles, fish-nets. "A very Stradivarius of sex," proclaimed Norman Mailer. Beauty was power. Marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Affairs with Frank Sinatra and Yves Montand. Trysts with Kennedys.

She lived on champagne and sleeping pills. A barbiturate overdose sealed her legend. Now the years compound her fame. The gimcrack industry churns out mugs, puzzles, china figurines of her in the halter dress on the subway grate. The "serious collector" can buy fragments of her bed sheets. She is, says Gloria Steinem, "the woman who will not die."

Part of the reason she won't die is that her life has been dissected, raked, mulled and exploited in more than 40 books -- biographies, memoirs, picture albums and expose's. Now to this excess Steinem has added yet another, a new collection of photographs -- the last session, by Los Angeles photographer George Barris -- and a 50,000-word feminist perspective of Monroe's short life and durable legend.

Billed as the first major book about her by a woman, "Marilyn: Norma Jeane" (Henry Holt and Co.) grew out of an essay Steinem published in Ms. Magazine in 1972.

"I hadn't thought of doing a book, but I knew there was a deep vein of continuing interest in Marilyn," Steinem said. "Look at Madonna. [Holt President] Dick Seaver called and said they had discovered photographs of Marilyn, and wondered would I be interested in writing the text. He remembered the essay I had written in Ms. I didn't want to be one more person using Marilyn Monroe, so I said, 'Give the payments to the Ms. Foundation.' The money will go for children's projects. I'm always raising money. Better I should be writing to raise money than standing up in some living room."

She was talking about the book on a recent afternoon at the offices of Ms., which she cofounded. Thanks in part to her writing, fund raising and crusading for women's rights, the war posters hanging on the wall of the conference room seem laughable anachronisms: "Do It Again Daddy -- Buy Me a War Bond" and "Gee I Wish I Were a Man."

"I tried to take away the fantasy of Marilyn and replace it with reality," Steinem said. "The book doesn't have a thesis so much as an emphasis -- an emphasis on Norma Jeane, on the private, real, internal person. I hadn't read a book about Marilyn that made me feel I knew her. My purpose was to try to get to know or to portray the real person inside the public image. I've never written about a person who was not living and about whom so much has been written. In the end I felt like I knew her."

Steinem met Monroe once, at the Actor's Studio in New York. Steinem had been invited by one of her Smith College professors to sit in on a teaching session. It seemed to her that the sophisticates of the New York theater were condescending to the Hollywood actress.

"Monroe was a huge star, but far from being embarrassed or alienated, I felt drawn to her, protective. I remember feeling angry at the way she was treated," Steinem recalled. "Growing up, Marilyn's image had always made me uncomfortable. For a teen-age girl who feels vulnerable enough, it was like an ethnic person seeing an ethnic stereotype -- a silly blond woman who allowed herself to be used. She was a victim. It was painful to see. She's up there on the screen -- in the comedies at least -- giggling and being dumb. People are making jokes about how dumb she is, about her body. She had a vulnerability and an innocence. Your first response is to blame the person instead of blaming the role the person is forced to play. It's the same as it would have been to blame Stepin Fetchit in pre-civil-rights days. When you think about it, that was the only role he was allowed to play.

"It wasn't until after Marilyn's death that we as women in the '60s and '70s got around to asking why this role existed. Instead of blaming the women who played the role, I began to wonder who the person was inside the faclade -- all the more so because I had seen her briefly."

Steinem's "Marilyn" is a sort of feminist rebuttal to Norman Mailer's conquer-and-transcend biography of the same name. His book is an extravagant concerto for the "Stradivarius of sex." Monroe is the supreme object, possessed of all the grandeur and darkness of America: "In her early career ... when the sexual immanence of her face came up on the screen like a sweet peach bursting before one's eyes, she looked like a new love ready and waiting between the sheets in the unexpected clean breath of a rare sexy morning, looked like she'd stepped fully clothed out of a chocolate box for Valentine's Day ... Sex was, yes, ice cream to her, 'Take me,' said her smile. 'I'm easy. I'm happy. I'm an angel of sex, you bet.' "

Steinem's approach is not so mystical, or operatic -- critic James Wolcott says she handles her subject "like a caseworker retrieving Marilyn's life from a manila folder." And while at times her writing is wheat germ to Mailer's caviar, she makes some sensible arguments.

"Marilyn's 'sexual immanence' depended on her childlike quality," Steinem said. "If you happen to find children sexy, as many men who can't deal with a woman do, then I suppose she had sexual immanence. I talk about Marilyn's work, and her acting. Mailer is really talking about himself. I was amazed how poorly written his book is. It wasn't as good as Norman is. It seemed he was putting the most conventional, traditional interpretation on the facts. Mailer assumed there was no childhood rape, as Marilyn claimed, because there was no evidence. But rape can be much more than the physical act of intercourse. It can be a mode of humiliation. Mailer's fantasy is stronger than his curiosity about reality.

"Marilyn wouldn't see him," she added. "She had the chance and turned it down. He doesn't say that. Why not be honest and say she wouldn't see him?"

Steinem read or skimmed most of the books about Monroe, finding answers in one to questions raised in another. She realized that the emerald earrings found in the toe of a slipper by Monroe's last housekeeper must have been the ones given to Monroe by Sinatra. Photographer Barris had more than four hours of notes from an interview with Monroe two months before her death in August 1962, and Steinem supplemented these with a dozen interviews with people who knew Monroe. She turned up a new source, a woman friend of Monroe's who had never been quoted or interviewed, but who agreed to give "guidance" by reading the chapters of the book in draft.

For Steinem the key to Marilyn lay in a 1963 book, "Your Inner Child of the Past," by child psychologist W. Hugh Missildine. "Missildine's very smart on the impact of neglect on children," she said. "He uses the everyday language of childhood." She draws Monroe as a prisoner of childhood, compulsively using sex to get "childlike warmth and nurturing." Monroe would often call her lovers "Daddy," she points out.

"Marilyn's last psychiatrist made an effort to be protective, but I question whether any of them could have done her any good," Steinem said. "If you agree with Freud that women are biologically passive and naturally seek their fathers, then how can you help a woman who is struggling to overcome her passivity? It would be like sending a person who is an anti-Semite to a psychiatrist who says, 'There is nothing wrong with you. Jews really are inferior.' "

Steinem stresses the limited choices women had then -- and underscores Monroe's struggle for independence, her desire to be taken seriously.

"Marilyn did a pretty good job of not being a victim with the slender arsenal at her disposal," Steinem said. "She became a model, she became an actress, she supported her mother, she went to acting school, she was always trying to better herself. Respect isn't something you can ask for, but she did her best to earn it. Big Hollywood movie stars didn't read Rilke and Dostoevski. But society teaches if you're a woman you can't be serious, if you're serious you can't be a woman. It's an unacceptable choice to be made, to choose between sex and seriousness. 'Flashdance' was one of the first movies where the heroine didn't have to choose. You don't know how desperate women are to see movies where heroines don't have to make the choice ...

"If as a baby nobody pays attention to you, you come to think you're invisible. To become visible, what a woman needs to do is become a sex object. But she could have taken acting lessons first and had some of the tools. If she had a little money she wouldn't have had to pose in those endless starlet photos, which reinforced the role. She could have protected herself better, the way Shelley Winters did. She was street-smart -- Marilyn wasn't."

Even the aura of sex for which she's celebrated was affected. That Monroe took little pleasure in it is a fact many men find hard to accept, Steinem said.

"It's hard for men to admit that a sex goddess didn't enjoy sex. It's as if posthumously they're saying, 'It was great for you, too, Marilyn, wasn't it?' I wasn't there, but those lovers who talked have said she didn't get pleasure herself. If you only get a sense of yourself through others, you aren't centered on yourself enough to get pleasure. You can't feel if you exist only in the eyes of other people. It's part of the desire to believe she was murdered -- the same cultural impulse that says if she's a sex goddess she had to have enjoyed sex doesn't want to believe she killed herself, doesn't want to accept her unhappiness."

Gloria Steinem is a worldly woman. What might be true seems to interest her less than what is true -- or what seems so to her, moving on a certain plane of reality as a journalist, a crusader. By the simple fact of composing a text, she has synthesized another image of Marilyn Monroe, one with some remarkable qualities but in many ways just another woman, a waif with an unhappy childhood and few paths to power. Like millions of others. Not a metaphor for America. Not the angel of sex. An ordinary woman whose life was circumscribed by reality. A Marilyn Monroe who has almost nothing to do with images, or with the nature of imagination.

"I agree you have to imagine some alternative before you can escape," Steinem said. "But you can't imagine yourself out of sexual abuse. You can't imagine food you don't have. You can't imagine parents you don't have. This country is media-sick. People who are seen in the media are considered to be more real, or different, or special or magic. That's impossible. We are all ordinary human beings. We are not stars. I tried to make Marilyn real."