Rewriting the Marilyn Monroe Story
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 inThe 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.