Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Review of Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, by Donald Spoto

Such was the staggering fame and notoriety of Marilyn Monroe, that even my Sunday School teacher mentioned her as a sort of cautionary tale the Sunday after she died.

I was only 5 and a half years old, but I clearly remember my teacher pointing out that riches and fame had not brought Marilyn Monroe happiness...that she had killed herself despite all that.

I must admit, I've been curious about this legendary sex symbol/icon for some time. I've only watched a couple of her movies, but if you grew up a latter-fringe baby boomer as I did, Marilyn Monroe--even dead--was just there.

Even now, there are myriads of blogs, many of them by young people, devoted to iconic images of the movie star.

As Elton John famously sang about her in "Candle in the Wind," her "candle burned out long before her legend ever did."

I picked up Donald Spoto's Marilyn Monroe: The Biography somewhat at random at my public library. Turns out, I probably picked the least sensationalized, earnestly-endeavoring-to-be-accurate Marilyn bio out there.

Spoto presents a detailed, factual account of Marilyn's life. Apparently, to gain sympathetic publicity, she exaggerated the poverty and pitifulness of her early life--but the truth is bad enough.

Norma Jeane Baker (her real name, as most people know), never knew who her father was--it could have been any number of her mother's boyfriends. That mother, Gladys, was an unreliable and infrequent visitor in Marilyn's childhood, showing up occasionally to whisk her away from her foster family and then disappear again.

As Spoto relates, her entire early life was characterized by being regularly abandoned by the people who mattered most to her and who she most wanted to please.

As a teen-aged Norma Jeane Baker, Marilyn married 21-year-old Jimmy Dougherty to escape the orphanage where she'd been living. The marriage was short-lived as she became popular as a model and hungered for stardom

Spoto seems to almost minimize two disturbing childhood incidents of sexual molestation--one by a trusted surrogate father, the other by a boy around her own age. But there's no doubt that the magnitude of these incidents can't be ignored when it comes to their lifelong impact on her.

There's a sadness in her eyes here

As far as conspiracy theories about her death--that the FBI killed her, the mob killed her, Kennedy cronies killed her to hush her up--Spoto convinced me that these were all pretty much rubbish.

Far from carrying on any liasons with the Kennedy brothers (Spoto does admit to at least one physical encounter between Marilyn and JFK; none with Bobby)--at the time of Marilyn's death, she was happily planning remarriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio--the one man in her life who really seemed to love her. (That despite the fact that during their marriage years earlier, his extreme jealousy and hair-trigger temper caused him to physically abuse her.)

Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio. He never talked about her after her death, but for 20 years afterward, he had flowers placed on her grave every week

Spoto also convinces me that Marilyn did NOT commit suicide...but that a lethal cocktail of accumulated drugs, administered by her controlling and unethical psychiatrist, actually did the deed unintentionally.

Despite my disapproval of Marilyn Monroe's lifestyle, choices, exhibitionism, whatever--this book left me with a profound sympathy for her. Here was a beautiful girl, actually smart and talented beyond what her dumb-blonde image often portrayed, who was completely unable to find joy in her short life.

Dying at 36, still in the prime of her beauty, she will remain forever young in the many iconic images of her that still circulate perpetually.

I don't think Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, but my Sunday School teacher was right about one thing.

Riches and fame didn't bring her happiness.

I'm participating in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books!



Sherry said...

I'm not sure I could read a biography of Marilyn Monroe. The story of her life just seems so sad. I am surprised to read that the author of your book doesn't believe that she committed suicide. I had always heard that she did.

Corey P. said...

"For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away..." (1 Pet. 1:24)

Awesome review, though this is probably not a book I'd choose to read. :-)


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