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Book Review: Murder Orthodoxies: Sex, Lies and Marilyn by Donald McGovern

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Murder Orthodoxies: Sex, Lies and Marilyn

Among the thousand or more books about Marilyn Monroe, there are certain strands – from coffee-table monographs to cultural criticism. One theme is so persistent, however, that it has become a sub-genre in its own right. Armed with dubious confessions and conspiracy theories, their authors argue that Marilyn’s untimely death was the result of foul play in high (and low) places, and these allegations have been seized upon by readers, as well as journalists and documentarians.

A handful of writers have directly challenged these assumptions. In 2005, David Marshall collected the findings of some dogged fans in The DD Group: An Online Investigation Into the Death of Marilyn Monroe. More recently, the internet radio show Goodnight Marilyn has featured input from psychotherapist and Monroe fan-turned-biographer, Gary Vitacco-Robles, and forensic pathologist Dr Cyril Wecht.

First-time author Donald McGovern follows in their footsteps with Murder Orthodoxies: A Non-Conspiracist’s View of Marilyn Monroe’s Death, a rigorous excavation of the myths and legends, meticulously structured and packed with intricate detail over 566 pages.

It all began at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, when Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday, Mister President’ to John F. Kennedy as hundreds of well-wishers looked on. Among them was gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who described this sensuous performance as a literal seduction. Less than three months later, Marilyn took a fatal overdose of barbiturates, and died alone in her bed.

That September – as noted by Monroe biographer Donald Spoto – three men met in Los Angeles to discuss Hollywood’s communist problem. Those men were Frank Capell, editor of a right-wing newsletter, Herald of Freedom; Maurice Ries, head of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; and Jack Clemmons, a Los Angeles police sergeant who had been the first to arrive at Marilyn Monroe’s house after her death was reported. All three were vehemently opposed to the Kennedy administration; and according to Ries, the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had been Monroe’s lover.  

Capell relayed this story to columnist Walter Winchell, who was close to Marilyn’s ex-husband, Joe DiMaggio. Winchell had been a staunch Monroe fan until 1955, when she divorced Joe and met her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, who would be soon investigated by the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Even after the couple separated, Marilyn’s liberal associations were followed with some interest by the Bureau’s long-time head, J. Edgar Hoover.     

Over the next year or so, Winchell published snippets of innuendo about Marilyn in his column, fed to him by Capell. After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the red-baiters’ attentions turned to Bobby, who was contemplating a Senate run. Several months later, Capell produced a short pamphlet implicating the younger Kennedy in The Strange Death of Marilyn Monroe. It drew little interest, and by 1968 Bobby was also dead, while Capell and Clemmons had been disgraced for their part in a plot to defame another politician.

The rumours should have ended there, but in 1973, the novelist Norman Mailer dropped some of Capell’s insinuations into his ‘factoid’ biography, Marilyn. A year later, hack reporter and small-time film producer Robert Slatzer took up where Mailer left off with The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe. And in the age of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the scandal that began as a political smear suddenly became a media goldmine.

In 1982, the allegations that Marilyn had been murdered (at the behest of the Kennedys, by the Mafia, or CIA) were reviewed in a threshold investigation by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. No credible evidence of homicide was found, but this only served to fuel the fire. In 1985, Anthony Summers published his blockbuster, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, relying heavily on the testimony of Slatzer, Jeanne Carmen (Marilyn’s self-professed ‘best friend’); and Senator George Smathers (a former friend of the late president.)

Summers’ bestseller spawned several other conspiracy volumes, including Crypt 33 by the private investigator and self-publicist, Milo Speriglio; Double Cross by Chuck Giancana, putting his mobster brother Sam in the frame; and a salacious memoir by would-be actor Ted Jordan, who declared himself Marilyn’s lifelong lover and claimed to be in possession of her ‘red diary’, previously mentioned by his rival for the spotlight, Bob Slatzer. Another celebrity P.I., Fred Otash, claimed he had wiretapped Marilyn’s house and helped to ‘sweep’ the property of incriminating evidence after her death.

In Victim (2004), Matthew Smith featured extracts from alleged tapes made by Marilyn before her death to psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson. Rather like the red diary, those recordings have never been located; but John Miner, an attorney who had attended Monroe’s autopsy, claimed to have heard them. His mooted transcript was published in full a year later in the Los Angeles Times. Lionel Grandison, another peripheral figure, reimagined the ‘red diary’ in Memoir of a Deputy Coroner (2013), arguing that Marilyn was a secret government agent.

Other popular conspiracy books, such as Donald Wolfe’s The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe (1998) and Jay Margolis and Richard Buskin’s The Murder of Marilyn Monroe: Case Closed (2014), have fused various murder theories, including the rumour that Dr. Greenson was yet another of Marilyn’s lovers – and also her killer. A common thread, first proposed by Slatzer, was that she had threatened to hold a press conference disclosing her affairs with the Kennedys, and matters of national security (including, according to some ufologists, her knowledge of the alien landings at Roswell.)

During the final months of her life, Marilyn was embroiled in a bitter legal battle with her studio; she was having daily sessions with Greenson, and relying on large doses of sleeping pills from her physician, Dr. Hyman Engelberg. She had suffered from depression for most of her life, and had a history of overdoses and suicide attempts. She may have met John and Robert Kennedy on just four occasions; their daily itineraries are in the public domain, and her routine is also well-documented. Only one sexual encounter with the president can be reasonably ascertained. Whatever her private demons, Monroe would surely have realised that such an indiscretion would end her career. Her own sporadic journal entries (collected in the 2010 book, Fragments) contain no references to either Kennedy.  

McGovern looks finally to her autopsy report, compiled by renowned pathologist Dr. Thomas Noguchi, for the true cause of her death. As a long-time drug user, Marilyn had a high tolerance which enabled her to ingest multiple pills in succession. Conspiracists have pointed to the disposal of some organs as proof of a cover-up, but as Noguchi pointed out, the toxicologist’s analysis of her liver and blood samples made further tests unnecessary.

With dry wit and exhaustive scrutiny, McGovern exposes the insupportable and absurd aspects of what has nonetheless become an urban myth. McGovern’s book will not, of course, be the last word on the subject; but it offers a timely redress to decades of shallow sensationalism. And in an era when ‘fake news’ is poisoning the fabric of public life, McGovern’s systematic unravelling of the calculated distortions that have so clouded Monroe’s legacy provides us with a very modern cautionary tale.  

The Death of Marilyn Monroe: It’s Time to Speak Her Truth

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We have done a disservice to the memory of Marilyn Monroe, and by that disservice, to all of those who followed her.

This statement is true of many things in her life, from her career to her private life, but it is never truer than when it comes to the subject of her death.

Marilyn Monroe died on August 5th, 1962 by her own hand.

It has taken me a long time to say those words and accept their truth.  They were never easy to accept, even when they were first published in the very first news reports of her death.  Because they were so hard to accept, it was so much easier to believe the conspiracy theories when they surfaced.  So much easier to look for another explanation and try very hard to find evidence that would back it up.

Let me be clear – that evidence does not exist.

Marilyn Monroe died by her own hand.

It’s a fact.  A cold, hard fact that is 100% backed by all of the scientific evidence and verifiable facts regarding what happened in her final hours.  For many years I didn’t want to believe it, but the more time I spent studying it, researching it, and putting aside the rumours and lies, the clearer it became.  And as I finally accepted that she did, in fact, purposefully swallow those pills, the clearer it also became that we have done her a terrible disservice by our search for an alternate truth to her death.

And we have done a disservice to those who followed her, most recent in the litany of names being Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.  And to those whose names we do not know, because they did not live and die on a public stage.

Because we could not let it be true that Marilyn Monroe suffered from mental illness that resulted in the ending of her own life in 1962, we buried her truth and denied the lesson of her life and death.

Because we could not believe that someone so beautiful, so famous, so loved could feel so lost and hopeless as to take her own life, we forced many after her to continue to smile over their pain.

Because we could not acknowledge that she was, in fact, seriously mentally ill, and that it was an illness that should be treated like any other, we left the stigma intact.  And that stigma continued to affect all who followed her.

Because we refused to acknowledge that a smiling face and apparent hope for the future can hide a life and death struggle, we were not able to see that struggle in others.  And they fell to that struggle.  And still we wondered, why?

Because we didn’t see that there isn’t always an obvious, predictable path to that moment of ending your own life, we looked instead for all of the other possibilities, and we denied Marilyn the real impact her death could have had.

And it could have had a different impact.  It’s possible that the deaths of people like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain – among so many others – may eventually have that impact.  Slowly, piece by piece, these deaths will deal the blows that chip away at the misconceptions surrounding mental illness and suicide.

Marilyn’s death could have – should have – been one of the biggest blows to that stigma.  But instead, by choosing to look for conspiracies and murder, we took away her impact.  An impact that may have helped the people named above and so, so many others, had we let the blow fall.  Who were we protecting?  Not Marilyn. She is already beyond protection.

We have done her a terrible disservice, and all who followed her.  But we can turn it around.  Let her death be a part of the lesson we all must learn about the people around us struggling in hidden pain.

Marilyn Monroe died because she succumbed to mental illness.

If that sentence was “Marilyn Monroe died because she succumbed to cancer.”, we would not hesitate to say it.  There should be absolutely no difference between those two sentences, but there is.  And we are all to blame.

Marilyn Monroe took her own life.  She died because she succumbed to mental illness.

Say it, and say it without shame.  Because there is no shame for Marilyn and there never was, there is only shame on all of us who continue to think that it’s better to find an imagined murder conspiracy than to let the truth of her death help others.


-Leslie Kasperowicz, IM President




Author Q&A With Michelle Morgan Sunday May 6th!

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JOIN US this Sunday (May 6), on the Immortal Marilyn Facebook page, for a Q&A session with author Michelle Morgan, whose newest book The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist hits US shelves May 8th!

Michelle Morgan is the prolific author of many carefully researched old Hollywood bios, including her Marilyn books Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed and Becoming Marilyn. She’ll join us here at IM to answer any questions you may have about her new book, any of her books, or Marilyn herself.

Our Michelle Morgan author Q&A will take place on Sunday, May 6th at 1 pm Central Time (US), 7 pm UK time.

COME BY AND WIN: Everyone who pops by to say hi will be entered to win one of 4 Seven Year Itch posters AND a copy of Michelle’s new book!!

Check out Michelle’s new book on Amazon, available for pre-order now:…/…/0762490594

Visit Michelle’s Official Author Page here on FB:

Book Review: The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist

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Would Marilyn Monroe have called herself a feminist?

The answer is probably no; in Marilyn’s day and age the word was basically unheard of.  It didn’t come into popular use until a few years after her death.  Even if it was in use, it seems unlikely she would have seen herself that way given the times in which she lived.

Was Marilyn Monroe a feminist?

That’s an entirely different question.  Marilyn Monroe came into adulthood in the era when women went to work to step up for the war effort.  And she didn’t wait around for her husband to return; a taste of independence and freedom sent her instead into her first divorce and the long, hard fight for a career in Hollywood.

But it isn’t young Norma Jeane’s strength in the face of incredible adversity that is the focus of Michelle Morgan’s newest book on our girl – it’s The Girl.  Named for Marilyn’s character in The Seven Year Itch, Morgan’s book focuses on the events surrounding the making of that film, and those that followed.  Without a doubt, it was an absolutely life-changing era in Marilyn’s life, and while those watching it happen may not have recognized its import, hindsight shows it for what it really was.  Marilyn Monroe stood up to Hollywood, took control of her life and career, and emerged victorious.

Experienced Marilyn biographer Michelle Morgan traces that era in great detail; following Marilyn through the end of her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, her flight to New York, the founding of Marilyn Monroe Productions, and the incredible success of The Seven Year Itch that cemented her position as a box office draw without compare.  It was the success of the film that was a major part of the power Marilyn was able to wield over the Fox powers that be, eventually winning her the contract changes she had been fighting for since before she and DiMaggio said “I do” and more creative control over her films.

This book takes a more detailed look than any before at the years that changed the trajectory of Marilyn Monroe’s career.  Morgan approaches it with her usual solid research and attention to detail, digging up nuggets of information that will leave even the most seasoned fan saying “I didn’t know that!”  The book explores the creation  of Marilyn’s production company with photographer Milton Greene – and the factors surrounding the end of that partnership –  as well as her conversion from a Hollywood sex symbol to a New Yorker running in the highest intellectual circles.  It also looks in depth at the film that was at the center of all of it; Marilyn’s last film on her “slave” contract with Fox.  In retrospect, it’s hard to believe the amount of change that took place in Marilyn’s life in the span of about two years.

Some may say that Marilyn Monroe wasn’t a feminist, and by much of today’s definition, she may not have been.  For her era, however, her stalwart refusal to bend to the pressure of men who could have destroyed her career is nothing short of remarkable.  Morgan sheds light on a side of Marilyn that is rarely discussed, the actress and the woman whose life and career were truly remarkable aside from all of the sensational tabloid trash that has dominated the narrative about Marilyn for so long.

The Girl falls into the rare category of Marilyn Monroe books that show her as a real person who worked hard and took her career and her legacy very seriously.  It should take its place proudly on the shelf of any Marilyn fan.

The Girl is set for release on May 8, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon now.

-Leslie Kasperowicz for IM

Book Review – Of Women and Their Elegance

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Of Women and Their Elegance

Norman Mailer

With photographs by Milton H. Greene

Simon and Schuster 1980


The thing with Mailer is like the thing with Hemingway—you either love him or you can’t stand him. It’s hard to be ambivalent about a larger than life figure, be it Mailer, Hemingway or, yes, Marilyn Monroe. Mailer is full of himself, pretentious at times, an icon and touchstone of his times, one of those guys who try so hard at being the ultimate macho man that you can’t help but be put off while wondering at the same time why he is so preoccupied with making sure his image is one of Primal Man. And he was talented. Very.

Marilyn was one of the ones who couldn’t stand him, primarily due to his forever heavy handed attempts to meet and be a part of her life. What comes through in the accounts of her response to Mailer is the idea that she thought him a macho ass who was far too full of himself. Personally I get a kick out of him and think some of his work brilliant, (The Naked and the Dead, The Executioners Song, The Idol and the Octopus), while some of it is incomprehensible, (Harlot’s Ghost), or just flat out bad, (The Deer Park). And, as most of you know, Mailer was somewhat obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. The only difference between him and any man of his generation was that he published two books about the object of his obsession while all the others merely dreamed. Let me make on more point about Mailer: He was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, the movie star, the sexual fantasy. He never met, let alone knew or had any insight into the actual woman behind the Hollywood veneer.

The best known of Mailer’s attempts to get Marilyn down on paper was his first, Marilyn, and to be honest, it is primarily remembered due to its lush illustrations capturing Monroe the still photograph model non-parallel. Seven years later, feeling he hadn’t quite captured her, Mailer brought out Of Women and Their Elegance. And, like everything else he ever produced, it is a work that you either love or really pisses you off. The later opinion is the result of the unique angle Mailer attempted—the text is written as if it were Marilyn’s actual thoughts and for most fans, knowing how little she actually thought of him, the idea of his penning her inner most thoughts is slightly galling.

Does he carry it off? I don’t think so but then maybe you will. Should you try and find a copy or leave this one out of your collection? I say find it and treasure it—not so much for the oddity of a man who styled himself as one of his generation’s macho icons but as the attempts of a lovelorn fan trying hard to understand the woman he never met. And the photographs. Ah yes, the photos. The book is chock full of Milton Greene’s work, THE Monroe photographer in my opinion and that of many MM fans. What may sound strange coming from me is that what is truly wonderful here is that not all of the photos are of Marilyn but a good sample of Greene’s non-MM work. By including his work with such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich, Anna Magnani, Judy Garland, Sophia Loren, and Jane Fonda, you can see that Milton’s genius could and did expand from his legendary work with Marilyn.

The text, the reader is told, “while based on episodes in Marilyn Monroe’s life, and on the reminiscences of Amy and Milton Greene, does not pretend that these are the actual thoughts of Miss Monroe…” And while the Marilyn depicted here is the Marilyn of Norman Mailer’s imagination and likely a far cry from the actual human who was Marilyn Monroe, it is an interesting concept especially when you keep reminding yourself that this is work of a man infatuated with an image, who longed to meet and possibly know the real woman yet never had the opportunity. That is the true reason for my own fascination with this book, knowing how much he wanted to meet her and couldn’t help but realize that she in no way felt the same. It is the work of a man saddled with an unrequited love/lust infatuation trying to understand the woman who held herself forever out of his reach or understanding.


-David Marshall for IM

Book Review: Making Sense of Marilyn

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How do you solve a problem like Norma Jeane, when even her name is in doubt? More than a thousand books to date have been devoted to this question. As Ezra Goodman, at the height of her fame, wrote so prophetically: “The riddle that is Marilyn Monroe has not been solved.” Andrew Norman’s Making Sense of Marilyn is the latest attempt. With a background in medicine, Dr Norman is now a prolific biographer. Marilyn would surely be proud, if rather surprised, to find herself among a litany of subjects as lofty and diverse as Jane Austen and Winston Churchill.

The difficulty of understanding who Marilyn really was, Norman believes, is compounded by unreliable sources. Her 1954 memoir, My Story, was ghost-written with Marilyn’s co-operation before being shelved at her request, and later revised for posthumous publication. But the confusion had begun when she was a child, and her troubled mother Gladys, whether deliberately or by mistake, told her that her estranged father had died in a car accident. “In her early years [Marilyn] was insecure and introspective,” Norman observes, “and unable even to make sense of herself.” As a starlet, she followed the studio’s Cinderella narrative and claimed she was an orphan. This was done partly for publicity, but also to protect living relatives. Unfortunately, these fabrications also hurt others close to her, like foster carer Ida Bolender, with whom she had lived until she was seven years old.

Norman relies mainly on primary sources, including accounts from Marilyn’s first husband, Jim Dougherty; her half-sister, Bernice Miracle; actress Susan Strasberg; and photographer George Barris, described as her ‘confidante.’ In the months before she died, Marilyn worked on a magazine shoot with Barris. He also interviewed her extensively for a book project, which was finally published many years later. However, the details of Barris’ arrangement with Marilyn are even hazier than the origins of My Story. And while she does seem to have put her trust in Barris, he had only met her once before their collaboration.

“When a little girl feels lonely and that no one cares or wants her,” Marilyn told Barris, “it’s just something that she can never forget as long as she lives.” In 1935, she went to live with her mother for the first time. Gladys worked as a film cutter in Hollywood and had put down a deposit on a new home. But after a few happy months, her mental health rapidly declined. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. A family friend, Grace Goddard, took over Marilyn’s care but this did not prevent her from being shunted between foster homes and an orphanage. As no one was willing to tell the truth about her mother’s illness, for several years the young girl was unsure whether Gladys was still living.

Compounding her sense of abandonment was the spectre of sexual abuse. Returning to My Story, Norman considers her experience of being molested by a boarder in a foster home. The account is deliberately vague, with some details probably altered. Jim Dougherty dismissed the claim that she had been raped, on the grounds that she was still a virgin when they married. But this does not preclude other forms of abuse.

Her first marriage, at sixteen, was arranged when Grace, her legal guardian, moved to another state. Marilyn had been dating Jim, a neighbour and five years her senior, for several months. “It wasn’t fair to push me into marriage,” she told Barris, admitting she was “scared to death about what a husband would do to me.” According to Jim, the marriage was happy at first, but his decision to enlist in the Merchant Marine triggered his wife’s fears of rejection. While he was serving overseas she began working as a model, and the marriage collapsed.

While her early film career was arduous, she surrounded herself with creative mentors who encouraged her ambitions. Her perceptive analysis of the characters she played belied their essential shallowness. She would describe Angela in The Asphalt Jungle as a “rich man’s darling”; All About Eve’s Miss Caswell as an “untalented showgirl”; in Monkey Business she was Miss Laurel, a “slightly dumb secretary”; and as Rose in Niagara, an “amoral type.” Her fragile identity was often at odds with her public image as a sex symbol, and fame only intensified this conflict.

Even with lesser material, Marilyn gave her all to each role: and when stardom was hers, she shone like no other. None of her inner turmoil is evident in The Seven Year Itch, made while her brief marriage to Joe DiMaggio was falling apart. “Marilyn enters into the spirit of the film,” Norman remarks, “proving once again that comedy was her forte.” In 1955 she moved to New York, and committed herself to method acting and psychoanalysis – a dual process that could be, as Norman comments, “equally painful and distasteful.” Bernice Miracle felt that Marilyn had lost confidence in herself, but her career continued to soar.

Her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, found her next performance, in Bus Stop (1956), “deeply moving.” But filming of The Prince and the Showgirl led to clashes with her co-star and director, Sir Laurence Olivier. Norman believes that “the film is made bearable only by Marilyn’s gaiety.” The Miller marriage was overshadowed by Arthur’s legal battle with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which he finally won with Marilyn’s loyal support. “Instead of showing anger at the way her husband had been treated,” Norman remarks on her public demeanour, “she was the epitome of dignity and charm.”

Behind the scenes, Miller was alarmed by her psychological dependence on acting coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg, and her growing addiction to sleeping pills. Watching Marilyn perform ‘I’m Through With Love’ in Some Like It Hot, Norman observes that she looked “genuinely sad.” Curtice Taylor, whose father Frank produced The Misfits, considered her a “natural actress,” but this deeply personal project (written for her by Miller) would mark the end of her longest relationship.

Miller’s controversial 1964 play, After the Fall, depicts the doomed marriage of a suicidal star and her guilt-ridden husband, and Norman believes it holds the key to Marilyn’s troubled psyche (and why Miller was unable to save her.) Following their divorce, she moved back to Los Angeles and grew close again to DiMaggio, whom Bernice described as “full of common sense and concern.”

Norman briefly mentions George Barris’ claim that she was in a “serious romance” with John F. Kennedy, but seems reluctant to pursue it further. It is doubtful that Barris had any direct knowledge of the alleged affair. Nonetheless, Norman argues that she looked “pinched and drawn” during her iconic performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ at Madison Square Garden in May 1962. By June, she had been fired from her unfinished comedy, Something’s Got to Give, due to repeated absences from the set.

In the weeks before her fatal overdose in August, Marilyn was seeing her psychiatrist Dr Ralph Greenson almost daily. Her physician, Dr Hyman Engleberg, was trying to wean her off barbiturates, but also prescribing Chloral Hydrate. At times Marilyn’s speech was slurred, and she became drowsy and uncoordinated – a side-effect of the drugs she was taking. Miller had noted during their marriage how she seemed oblivious to the physical ravages of her habit, while Norman argues that barbiturate abuse may have exacerbated her recurrent depression.

There was a documented history of mental illness in Marilyn’s family, and her mother Gladys was diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. While some biographers now speculate that Marilyn may have suffered from Bipolar Disorder, Norman explores the alternate possibility of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD.) This condition generally manifests in early adulthood, and is so-named because it sits on the borderline between neurosis and psychosis. Its defining features include unstable self-image; feelings of emptiness; fear of abandonment; bouts of anxiety, and impulsivity; instability in relationships; severe dissociative feelings; and recurrent suicidal behaviour.     

“Marilyn was a gifted, caring and intelligent person, with deep sensitivity and a poetic soul,” Norman writes, noting that “creativity is so often forged in the crucible of pain.” No matter how high she climbed on the ladder of success, insecurities constantly dragged her down and she needed close supervision to keep her from self-harm. In Making Sense of Marilyn, Andrew Norman refers frequently to Monroe’s own words, recorded in interviews and her own journals and poetry.

Over a concise 160 pages, and with a selection of photographs, the author cites his sources fully. Setting aside a few minor factual errors, this is a finely drawn portrait of a remarkable woman who wanted most of all to be loved. And as Dr. Norman concludes, “this yearning, and her vulnerability, captivated the world.”

– Tara Hanks for IM

Book Review: Marilyn Norma Jeane by Gloria Steinem

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Marilyn: Norma Jeane

By Gloria Steinem

Photographs by George Barris

1986 Henry Holt and Company

ISBN 0805000607


By this time you realize that there are literally countless books focused on the life, career, and physical beauty of Marilyn Monroe. There have been novels, coffee table picture books, memoirs with chapters devoted to the legendary movie star, conspiracy tomes, silly books, scholarly studies, scandal books and gossipy books, books written by friends, pseudo friends, maids, even one by her dog. So this month, looking back on all these choices, I wanted to talk about one that really stands out for me, now and when it was first published.

Not your average Marilyn biographer: Gloria Steinem receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

You have to be of a certain age to fully grasp the impact Gloria Steinem’s book had when it first came out, but then one of the perks of growing older is filling in those younger on things that happened in the past when you too were young. In 1986 Gloria Steinem was in her early fifties, the icon of the feminist movement, a women of considerable intelligence who had stood at the head of a movement that had literally been changing America’s perception of women for well over twenty years. For her to have written a book about Marilyn Monroe was nearly as surprising as say, Elizabeth Warren writing a book on Taylor Swift. The author and subject just didn’t seem to mesh, the differences between them so vast that one wasn’t sure if it was a joke, a put on or a put down. The bigger surprise was that with one book Gloria Steinem presented Marilyn Monroe with the respect she’d ached for all of her life. What’s more the book forced people to stop and consider that there might be more to Marilyn than anyone had ceded her during her lifetime let alone over the twenty-four years since her death. If Gloria Steinem, THE feminist intellectual of the day, was telling us to take another look at the wiggle-giggle gal of the 1950s, maybe we’d misjudged Monroe; maybe there really was something there of depth that had escaped all the countless newspaper reporters, movie critics, gossip columnists, and moviegoers.

Mailer’s Marilyn  was the first to try to explain this. But his book, filled with incredibly gorgeous photos one after another, was, after all, written by Norman Mailer, a great intellectual, granted, but whose prose, especially when writing about Marilyn, tended to be even a bit more purple than his usual output. Mailer, love him or not, made it clear that he was infatuated with Monroe and in between his drooling wolf observations of her life, made it even more clear that he’d wanted her as badly as every male of his generation and to heck with her mind or any other qualities. That he ended his book with a contrived conspiracy theory that he’d later admitted he’d made up only because scandal sells almost as well as sex and he’d needed the money, did him and his subject a disservice.

But Steinem doesn’t share Mailer’s testosterone infused perspective. Ms. Steinem, in 1986, stated flat out that Marilyn Monroe not only deserved our respect, she deserved a second look by all those who had pooh-poohed her impact not only on American film but American culture and history. Before Steinem’s book, it was a given that the majority of women both during Marilyn’s lifetime and after held a sort of resentment against her, considered her more of a joke than an actress. Marilyn Monroe was a male fantasy, a buxom blonde with a child’s innocence, someone men joked about and elbowed their pals over while women found her somewhat vulgar and rather embarrassing.

Steinem addresses this perception directly. She admits that as a young women she did find Marilyn Monroe, in her tight dresses and cooing voice an embarrassment. But when she admitted that there was something there, something that wasn’t allowed to come through in those early 50s films, she began to view Marilyn Monroe as an incredibly strong figure who had risen to the very top of her field in a heavily male dominated industry. Most readers in 1986 tended to forget what a powerful figure Marilyn Monroe truly has been. Sure Bette Davis and others had fought their studios and helped actors break out of the studio restraints, but when Marilyn risked everything to follow her own path by deserting Hollywood and heading off to New York, she proved that a woman could be a one hell of a powerful force to reckon with.

We, in 2017, know this but it took someone of Steinem’s stature to point the fact out to Middle America. If the online groups had been around in the 1980s, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a surprise that the majority of her fans are women, that it took a feminine perspective to see beyond the moistened and parted lips, the bleached hair and perfect proportions. And that is what Steinem brought to the table. There are drawbacks to the work; like most authors covering the Monroe story in the 1980s, she too sources a lot of her research to Robert Slatzer and there’s a lot of Kennedy finger pointing, a connection that was still a major shock even ten years after it had first reached the popular press. But beyond that, Steinem brought a near lyrical sense of Marilyn, aided greatly by illustrating the majority of the book with the wonderful George Barris sessions from the summer of 1962.

Steinem could have, like Mailer, used any of the hundreds of talented photographers who had worked with Marilyn, each with their own unique perception of the ultimate star. But by using the Barris photos taken shortly before Marilyn’s passing, Steinem was able to illustrate that there was a stronger connection with the everyday woman than anyone had noticed before. Sure, Marilyn looks beautiful and desirable but she also looks like a woman in her thirties with windblown hair on a cold day at the beach. And when she and Barris got together for a second session in the Hollywood Hills, Marilyn doesn’t come across so much as the va-va-voom sex symbol of the day as an easily accessible woman of her era in her Jax slacks and Pucci jerseys.

Steinem presents a Marilyn most often overlooked– the Marilyn of 1962 rather than say 1954 or 1957. Even in 1986 the Barris photos show a woman who could easily be contemporary and that brings Steinem’s point across even stronger; there is very little difference between the hurdles and obstacles a woman alone in Hollywood faced in Marilyn’s day and the untold crap a woman has to put up with in the workplace of 1986, let alone 2017.

There’s another reason why I want to point this book out and encourage anyone who hasn’t found it yet to make an effort to do so: Steinem is a great writer. The talent she has shown in her essays for Ms. Magazine, the periodic pieces that appear in the New Yorker, or in the several collections of her work and her recent autobiography, is possibly even more evident here. The book has the feeling that Steinem  has allowed herself the sheer space to fully explore her own feelings rather than restrict herself to a single column. Let me give just one example:

“In the 1930s, when English critic Cyril Connolly proposed a definition of posterity to measure whether a writer’s work had stood the test of time, he suggested that posterity should be limited to ten years. The form and content of popular culture were changing too fast, he explained, to make any artist accountable for more than a decade.

“Since then , the pace of change had been accelerated even more. Everything from the communications revolution to multinational entertainment has altered the form of culture. Its content has been transformed by civil rights, feminism, an end to film censorship, and much more. Nonetheless, Monroe’s personal and intimate ability to inhabit our fantasies has gone right on. As I write this, she is still better known than most living movie stars, most world leaders, and most television personalities. The surprise is that she rarely has been taken seriously enough to ask why that is so.”


– David Marshall

Review: Artists in Love: Marilyn and Arthur Miller

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Artists in Love is a ten-part documentary series, produced in Italy for the satellite channel Sky Arts, and first broadcast in 2016. Among the famous couples profiled are the Mexican artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; opera singer Maria Callas’s tortured relationship with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis; plus singers Johnny Cash and June Carter, and filmmaker Federico Fellini and his actress wife, Giulietta Masina.

The eighth episode features Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Like the rest of the series, it is presented by the English actress Samantha Morton, who played a Monroe impersonator in the 2009 film, Mister Lonely. “Marilyn, like me, was brought up in foster care,” she said at the time, “so I knew what it was like not to feel safe and secure.” The eloquent guest speakers include two of Monroe’s biographers, Carl Rollyson and Michelle Morgan, and Stephen Marino, founder of the Arthur Miller Society.

Happy times early in the Monroe-Miller marriage.

When Arthur and Marilyn married in 1956, they were dubbed ‘the egghead and the hourglass’ by the press. However, a closer examination of their backgrounds shows they were not as different as it might appear. Both grew up during the Great Depression, and were late developers. Neither was an exceptional student: Arthur was athletic but showed no literary ability until he studied Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for a high-school book report. He would recommend this novel to Marilyn, then on the cusp of stardom, when they first met in 1951.

Although there was an instant attraction, Arthur was already married with two young children. They corresponded for a while after he returned to New York. “I didn’t see him for about four years,” Marilyn recalled. “I used to think he might see me in a movie and I wanted to do my best because he had said he thought I ought to act on the stage. People who were around and who heard him, laughed, but he said, ‘No, I’m very sincere.’”

Arthur’s respect for Marilyn, and his refusal to exploit her sexually, were a contrast to the rampant misogyny in Hollywood and a mainstay of her regard for him. After she moved to New York in 1955, their romance began in earnest. Arthur, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and the toast of Broadway, was nonetheless unprepared for Marilyn’s immense fame. When he impulsively announced their engagement to the press, it came as a surprise even to her.

Over the next few years, Marilyn came closer to enjoying a settled domestic life than she had ever known. But there were tensions from the beginning, with Arthur facing creative stasis while Marilyn supported him financially. Only weeks after the wedding, Arthur is said to have expressed his frustration in a journal, which Marilyn found laid open on his desk. The gulf between his idealised love for Marilyn and the complicated reality of her struggles within the star system was difficult to bear.

On the set of The Misfits

For her part, Marilyn was desperate to have children – a lack she felt deeply – and still scarred by her own past trauma. Arthur tried to cope with his wife’s emotional distress but was disturbed by her growing addictions. By the time they worked together on one of her finest films, The Misfits, their marriage was nearly over. There is a lingering sense that both were ultimately disenchanted with each other.

Miller has been criticised for not attending Marilyn’s funeral in 1962, but he can hardly be blamed for wanting to put this unhappy experience behind him. Perhaps a more interesting quandary is how Marilyn might have responded to his portrait of the doomed Maggie in his 1964 play, After the Fall, which he had conceived during their marriage. The ghost of Marilyn would loom over his later plays, and he wrote searingly about her in his autobiography, Timebends. Public interest in this bittersweet love story shows no sign of abating, and his daughter Rebecca Miller (born after Marilyn died, to his third wife, Inge Morath) has recently completed a feature-length documentary, Arthur Miller: Writer.

Artists in Love is certainly one of the better documentaries about Marilyn’s life, although there are a few misunderstandings along the way. Some Like It Hot (1959)  is chronologically misplaced before The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), for example. A famous quote from Rita Hayworth (‘Every man I have ever known has fallen in love with Gilda, and awakened with me’) is wrongly attributed to Marilyn. More seriously, her drinking problem is exaggerated, and it is even suggested that this may have caused her to lose a baby. In fact, the primary cause of her miscarriages was endometriosis. The dangers of drinking in pregnancy were not widely known at the time, and while Marilyn did sometimes drink to excess, her greatest dependency was on the drugs prescribed by her trusted doctors.

Nonetheless, Samantha Morton’s parting words are affecting. “Did Marilyn give up on herself before age could make her wiser?” she asks. “Did Miller give up on her without giving her a chance to change? Or did they both fear the inevitable ruin of the glimmering and enchanting image she presented to the world?”

Review: Dead Blondes: You Must Remember Marilyn

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“Marilyn, that icon of über-femininity, is most often compared to other dead women. Or rather, other dead women are compared to her … Whenever a glamorous young woman dies, she is compared to Marilyn Monroe, whether she was a blonde – or dumb – or not.” – Sarah Churchwell

“Like many women, I’ve been studying Marilyn Monroe my entire life,” Karina Longworth writes in the notes for her podcast, You Must Remember This. After making her name in the blogosphere, Longworth has published studies of contemporary movie icons including Meryl Streep.

No less than three classic Monroe films (Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and The Misfits) are featured in Hollywood Frame by Frame, a book of contact sheets for which Longworth supplied the text. Since 2014, she has been exploring Hollywood history in her popular and influential podcast. A trilogy of episodes about Marilyn’s life and death is the centrepiece of a dedicated series, ‘Dead Blondes’, and her marriage to Arthur Miller was profiled in an earlier season, ‘The Blacklist.’

In this pantheon of dead blondes, Marilyn is preceded by Peg Entwhistle, Thelma Todd, Jean Harlow, Veronica Lake and Carole Landis; and her successors include Jayne Mansfield, Barbara Payton, Grace Kelly, Barbara Loden and Dorothy Stratten. “The title is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also incredibly literal,” Longworth told Entertainment Weekly. “There does seem to be this fascination in the wider culture with these quote-unquote ‘perfect victims,’ the beautiful woman who is taken too soon.”

The first episode, ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Beginning’, is also a repeat, from the ‘Star Wars’ season. Longworth retells the story of Norma Jeane’s unhappy childhood and rise to fame. While she certainly grew up in the shadows of Hollywood, Longworth’s deterministic view is probably overstated. Reframing old gossip from a postmodern perspective, she takes Marilyn’s rumoured promiscuity at face value, as a symptom of endemic sexual harassment. Her early films are barely mentioned, as Longworth believes that cheesecake photos (which suggested to men that Marilyn was “easily pleased,” although she actually found the whole process rather amusing), plus her deft handling of the nude calendar scandal, and a headline-grabbing romance with Joe DiMaggio played a greater part in her ascent to stardom. Mastering her own publicity, she became a “sex goddess for the people,” and by openly discussing her experiences of abuse, she projected a type of “female damage” that women understood all too well. But the guileless vulnerability which solidified her image soon became a prison.

In a decade characterised by material pleasures and sexual repression, curvaceous Marilyn represented ‘a feminine icon of plenty’, but in private, she was plagued by miscarriages and endometriosis. Ezra Goodman, in his The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, described her, and the blonde bombshells who followed in her wake, as ‘lost souls’ whose malleable personae mirrored post-war America’s identity crisis. In ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Persona’, Longworth focuses on her initial starring roles. She gave an affecting performance in Don’t Bother to Knock, an overlooked drama which Longworth judges “both terrifying and sympathetic in its sexualised portrait of female hysteria.”

This was followed by “a trilogy of parodies of consumerism”, starting with Niagara (1953), in which she plays the libidinous Rose, her only character to die onscreen. Although Rose is herself an accessory to murder, Longworth finds her death “legitimately sad – but sadness doesn’t sell.” After Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn would be more often  identified with comedic parts. Lorelei Lee, Longworth argues, was “the smartest of [Monroe’s] dumb blondes”, justifying her lust for diamonds and manipulation of men as essential self-protection. Blondes was also her first major musical, in which, alongside co-star Jane Russell, she mastered “acting in song.” How to Marry a Millionaire took a more critical view of the selfish society, but is also less cynical as the gold-diggers finally choose love.

Media coverage of her career was often blatantly sexist, such as the 1953 Confidential article, ‘Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out With Marilyn Monroe’, which alleged that movie mogul Joe Schenck was her ‘sugar daddy’. Some of her movies were also regressive in their gender politics, such as River of No Return (1954), in which her character falls for Robert Mitchum after an attempted rape. Even Bus Stop (1956), her first film under a new contract – in which, influenced by the Method, she gave one of her best performances – veers between “garish comedy” and a more sensitive exploration “a woman trying to direct her own life.”

Longworth believes that incidents like the broken strap at Marilyn’s 1956 press conference with Sir Laurence Olivier were “highly calculated”, and by the time she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England, Olivier apparently shared that view. Newly married to Arthur Miller, and under the spell of the Strasbergs and psychoanalysis, Marilyn was also dependent on sleeping pills, and the doctors who prescribed them.

After their relationship went public, Arthur Miller was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC.) He had attended a few Communist Party meetings in the 1930s, but by 1956, he was no longer interested in party politics. He later claimed that the chairman of HUAC had offered to drop the charges if Marilyn would pose for a photograph with him. She was also being monitored by the FBI at this time, and during filming of Bus Stop, they believed she was living at the Chateau Marmont. This was incorrect – her drama coach, Paula Strasberg, was staying at the hotel, although Marilyn may have used the suite for ‘trysts’ with Miller. As Longworth notes in ‘The Blacklist: After the Fall’, Paula had previously been named by Miller’s former associate, Elia Kazan, in his testimony before HUAC.

Miller famously did not ‘name names’, and was estranged from Kazan. By the time of his acquittal in 1958, Marilyn was filming Some Like It Hot. Her problems on the set are well-documented, but it would become her most enduringly popular movie. Playing the “dumbest of blondes”, Longworth remarks that she “had nothing ‘mental’ to work with.” Her next film, Let’s Make Love, was notable mainly for her affair with co-star Yves Montand. After hearing the gossip, Kazan approached Miller and they began working on After the Fall, a play which draw heavily on his troubled marriage, and would open at the Lincoln Center, which the two men co-founded, in 1964.

The Misfits, which Miller wrote for Marilyn, is one of Longworth’s favourite movies – although she criticises him for “lazily and cruelly” incorporating scenes from their marriage into the script. Nonetheless, Marilyn’s training in the Method suited the introspective material. From Some Like It Hot onwards, Longworth argues, Marilyn’s screen persona was becoming more natural and poignant. After divorcing Miller, she depended increasingly on her psychiatrist, Dr Ralph Greenson. Longworth sees this as a controlling relationship, and observes in ‘Marilyn Monroe: The End’ that he failed in weaning her off prescribed drugs. Concluding that there is little agreement between scholars and investigators on Marilyn’s rumoured affairs with the Kennedy Brothers, Longworth believes that her “sad, but not dramatic” demise was probably accidental, and to those who knew the scale of her addiction, even inevitable.

Karina Longworth is an accomplished storyteller and perceptive critic, but her research is not impeccable. Her main sources are biographies by Donald Spoto, Gloria Steinem and Lois Banner.  Although she takes a mostly sympathetic, even feminist view, she is not immune to sensationalism and once posted – but later deleted – Marilyn’s autopsy photo on Twitter to promote the show (it was first published, amid much disquiet, in Anthony Summers’ Goddess.) She occasionally misattributes quotations, or conflates different events, which can give a misleading impression. For example, while the young Norma Jeane may have fantasised that her father was Clark Gable, there is no evidence that she actually believed this, or told it to others. And the 113-ft ‘longest walk in history’ in Niagara was not Marilyn’s death scene. If Longworth’s aim is to demythologise the Monroe legend, she doesn’t fully succeed. Although You Must Remember This offers a lively analysis of the star system, it shouldn’t be taken too literally but rather as a starting point for further exploration.


Tara Hanks for Immortal Marilyn

Book Review: Music For Chameleons

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Music for Chameleons

By Truman Capote

1980 Random House


Is it a “Marilyn book”? Not really, but there is a short piece on her. Is that any good? Depends whether you like Truman Capote or not. A lot of folks do. But an equal number can’t stand the guy.

If there were a list created that named one hundred of the most memorable characters of the 20th century, Truman Capote would likely be in the top ten. If you are not old enough to remember his appearances on the Tonight Show or his famous/infamous masked ball, then you missed out on quite a lot. Without Capote the character, the man who either grated on people’s nerves, (and made them plenty nervous), or could boast of fans as devoted as Marilyn’s, all that is left are his words. And that perhaps is not a bad thing. I have a friend who to this day refuses to read Capote simply because he can’t stand the guy who used to show up on Johnny Carson fully equipped with all of the stereotypical mincing moves and that high pitched voice that sounded like a homophobic comic trying to imitate a gay man.

But the thing with Capote was he was SO outlandish, that voice so falsetto and his attitude one big “I don’t give a sh**”, that you couldn’t help but love him. He wasn’t PC, but he thrived on being a celebrity and when his words dried up and all that was left was the celebrity, he played it for all it was worth and more power to him. Maybe now that he is dead and the memory of that voice, (seriously– you think Evelyn Moriarty has a funny way of talking?), has faded away, more people will turn to the work he left behind and realize what an incredible artist the guy was. The funny thing about Capote is that he is remembered primarily for “In Cold Blood”, the one book of his that was a huge bestseller. I say funny because that book, which I admit is phenomenal, is so different than anything else the man wrote. “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, “The Gras Harp”, even “A Christmas Memory” are works that are closer to poetry than standard fiction.

But what does this have to do with Marilyn? Simple. A collection of his essays issued in 1980 includes a piece called “A Beautiful Child”, a small memory work that focuses on the afternoon he and Marilyn spent together following Constance Collier’s funeral in April 1955. April 28, 1955 to be exact, as he informs the reader in the very first line.

Capote might be a great writer but you really wouldn’t know it from this short piece. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable but after the first few pages, the rest is written up as if it were dialog from a play–

TC: You want to go home?

MARILYN: Everything’s ruined.

TC: I’ll take you home.


And for the diehard MM fan, Capote proves he hasn’t done his research when in the third paragraph he states that Asphalt Jungle was Marilyn’s “first speaking part”. But who cares, right? What I want in a MM memory, (and I assume you too), is that it provide me with a glimpse into Marilyn’s life and I’d like to learn something new. On those counts, “A Beautiful Child” does not disappoint. I had never heard of Marilyn having studied with Constance Collier, let alone that she had attended her funeral.

So then there’s the question– as Capote presents everything as dialog– does this “sound” like Marilyn? Up to you. As much as I like to think I know Marilyn, reading her words here, (or at least her words as Capote recalls them), it doesn’t sound like the Marilyn I thought I knew. Capote, when asked by Marilyn what Elizabeth Taylor is like, answers “Well, a little like you, she wears her heart on her sleeve and talks salty.” So maybe Marilyn did have a mouth on her. I never met the woman and have only heard her speak words written for her or talking with Richard Meryman. But be forewarned– if you don’t like your Marilyn “salty”, don’t read “Music for Chameleons“.

What is worth the price of the book is the one page where Capote has Constance Collier speaking about Marilyn. That’s where the description “a beautiful child” comes in. She likens Marilyn to Greta Garbo and makes a very convincing case. The admiration of the aging Shakespearean actress for Monroe is evident, especially when you read that she had been working with Marilyn on doing Ophelia. The things we missed being born when we were and not traveling in the right circles, eh?.

As for the book and as for “A Beautiful Child”, I think this is one that is going to be up to you if you want to seek it out or not. Me, I love Capote, so the question was a no-brainer. But if you want to read only about Marilyn, I don’t know if you’d like it or not. Capote was a character. But the character he presents here as Marilyn, I’m not sure it is one we would recognize.

If you would prefer another Capote work to get a true feel for Marilyn as well as Capote’s thoughts about her, find a copy of the short novel, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, written with Marilyn in mind. It’s odd but Holy Golightly feels much more like the Marilyn I think I know than the Marilyn Monroe of “A Beautiful Child”.

One last thought–  If ever there was ever a doubt Marilyn’s popularity, (and ability to sell), “Music for Chameleons” provided proof a few years back when I was in Italy. The book had been reissued and the new paperback caught my eye immediately when I saw it in a bookshop window– not because it was Capote but because the entire cover of the book was a black and white photo of Marilyn. “A Beautiful Child” is only 19 pages long, yet the publisher was relying on MM to sell the whole book.


David Marshall for Immortal Marilyn