Is there anything we still don’t know about Marilyn Monroe? (Besides what really happened the night she died.) A fleet of authors seems to think so. Fifty years after the icon’s death, the articles and books keep coming, from People magazine cover stories and New York Times op-eds, to feminist historian Lois Banner’s biography, “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,’’ and Adam Braver’s novel, “Misfit.’’ The question is: What do they have to tell us?
Banner is not the first feminist to write about Marilyn — Gloria Steinem beat her by a quarter-century — but she is probably the first who also belongs to a Marilyn fan club and collects Marilyn memorabilia. Banner’s research is prodigious: She consulted dozens of manuscript collections and hundreds of books, talked to numerous sources, and even visited Peter Lawford’s house, where she ascertained that the elevator was too small for Marilyn and Jack Kennedy to have had sex therein. However, it sometimes seems as if feminist and fan are at odds, the one making an argument for Marilyn as proto-feminist, the other sharing every single bit of information and rumor she has ever collected on anything having to do with her beloved subject.
The feminist approach is most visible — and most convincing — in discussions of Marilyn’s traumatic childhood and professional acumen. The illegitimate daughter of a Hollywood film-cutter, Marilyn (then Norma Jeane) lived in a series of foster homes as her mother went in and out of mental institutions. She was almost certainly sexually abused. While her mother and her mother’s best friend (who helped raise her) were part of Hollywood’s free-love circles, her grandmother and first foster mother were evangelicals, and the girl was torn between the two. Banner carefully documents these experiences and shows how they left Marilyn with nightmares, a stutter, and a deep fear of abandonment, as well as a tendency toward dissociation, a pathologically over-active sexuality, and a powerful sense of guilt.
But if Marilyn was the victim of her childhood, when it came to her career, Banner argues, she was firmly in charge. First as a model, then as an actress, she was purposeful about her professional progress, from controlling her photo shoots to orchestrating her publicity. No matter how well she played the dumb blonde, she certainly wasn’t one, even if her drug abuse, psychological issues, and conflicts with tyrannical directors and studio bosses eventually turned her hard-won career into chaos.
By the middle of the book, however, the feminist lens disappears. From the mid-1950s on, Marilyn’s life became more and more complicated. In exhaustive detail, Banner chronicles her marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her move to New York, her tortured behavior on movie sets, and, eventually, her return to Los Angeles, possible relationships with the Kennedys, and controversial death. There are long lists of people she saw, places she shopped, and books she read, as well as multiple competing accounts of events. When Marilyn starts dating Frank Sinatra, we get a history of the Rat Pack and a plot summary of “Ocean’s Eleven.’’ A midbook “entr’acte” titled “The Meaning of Marilyn” tries to elucidate that meaning in the context of architecture and design, clowns, striptease and burlesque, makeup, hair, clothes, sex, politics, literature, and nudity.
Besides overreaching, Banner is often sloppy. She repeats herself, presents theory as fact — Bobby Kennedy “didn’t seem to know . . . that the mob had swung the 1960 presidential election to Kennedy through voter fraud’’ — and cites “The sources I have consulted,” “Multiple sources,” and “Some Hollywood people, I’m told” without providing names. None of these habits bolster her credibility.
“Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox‘’ does articulate the complexity its subtitle heralds: Marilyn as child/woman, lost soul/Hollywood professional, victim/agent. Still, it can be hard to see its subject amid the profusion of information, speculation, and sources. In the end, Banner returns to feminism, suggesting that “[h]ad she lived a few years longer . . . the feminist movement could have offered the concept of sexism as a way to understand her oppression and the idea of sisterhood as a support.” But this seems like the wishful thinking of a feminist fan.
If biographers face an expectation of comprehensiveness, novelists can choose their scope. In “Misfit,’’ Braver, the author of historical novels about Sarah Bernhardt, Abraham Lincoln, and Kennedy’s assassination, stays narrow. Though he moves back and forth between a detailed narrative of Marilyn’s last weekend at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva Lodge, a week before her death, and a chronological account of significant moments in her childhood and career, he is most interested in her emotional state and its relation to her identity.
Most often, this manifests as a desire for escape. “She’s going to Lake Tahoe to get away for the weekend,” the book begins; its first chapter ends, “She knows how to disappear for a while. She’s been doing it her whole life,” extending fact into singularly dominant metaphor. When young Norma Jeane’s cousin Buddy molests her, “[she tries] to inch [herself] away, just bit by bit.” When she tells her great-aunt about the molestation and is beaten in response, “all [she] can think of is crawling away . . . stowing away into another life where this one will become nothing more than a pitiable story.” This theme echoes Banner’s emphasis on the dissociative effects of molestation (though Banner offers other candidates as perpetrator), but Braver never counters it with a sense of Marilyn’s agency in other realms; rather, he makes it the backbone of his novel.
A photographer who spots the teenage Norma Jeane at the Radioplane factory instantaneously liberates her from a painful childhood into the adult glamor of Marilyn, “a totally different person.” Joe DiMaggio tries to protect her; Arthur Miller tries to transform her; and Lee Strasberg wants to turn her pain into the foundation of an acting career, but eventually she flees them all, seeking even “an escape from Marilyn Monroe.” Though Marilyn is self-aware, she remains an object for others; the only action she assays is trying to get away, in large part through pills.
There is more to “Misfit,’’ in particular its powerfully imaginative re-creations of the traumatic filming of “The Misfits,’’ Marilyn’s final completed movie, and the weekend at Cal Neva. In the context, however, of all we know — and don’t know — about the complexities of Marilyn’s life, the book feels limited. If Banner over-indulges in speculation, Braver eschews it altogether: His novel has no Kennedys, no disputed miscarriages or abortions, no death conspiracies. Where Banner passes on the rumor that Marilyn was raped and beaten by mobster Sam Giancana and his henchmen at the Cal Neva, Braver presents the weekend only as the epitome of Marilyn’s desire to “get away.” This is, of course, his prerogative as a novelist, yet it limits the scope and effect of his novel.
Ultimately, neither “Marilyn’’ nor “Misfit’’ gives us the definitive Marilyn nor changes the Marilyn game. The icon of blonde remains ever just out of our reach, which is perhaps why we keep writing about her.
MARILYN: The Passion and the Paradox
By Lois Banner
Bloomsbury, 515 pp., illustrated, $30
By Adam Braver
Tin House, 303 pp., paperback, $15.95
Rebecca Steinitz, a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.