BOOK REVIEW: Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe by Fred Lawrence Guiles

By 30th August 2009Book Reviews


“The best reappraisals are born in the worst crisis,” Marlon Brando wrote poignantly to Marilyn Monroe the year before her death. As a shocked world gasped at Marilyn’s untimely death in 1962, it was hard to understand why someone with so apparent beauty, fame & wealth would want to end their life.

That may have been it for some lesser mortals and for a time, Marilyn was nothing more than a beautiful memory from a bygone era seeped in tragedy and the dark side of the American Dream. Writers and artists would pay homage to her. The Cold War world was changing rapidly and Marilyn’s image was set firmly in the decade she came to represent, the 50’s.By 1969, as that decade moved to it’s end it seemed it was time to take stock and reflect on the old and what the future would bring.

The war was raging in Vietnam, we’d lost two Kennedy’s and a civil rights leader and the second wave of feminism was about to reach its peak.The first print of Fred Lawrence Guiles’ Norma Jean would hit the book-stands in the spring of that year. It was the first Marilyn biography of notable literary accomplishment.

With five years in the making, Guiles had devoted much of his time to researching her story from lengthy detailed interviews with those who had been closest to her including Pat Newcomb, Arthur Miller, James Dougherty, Lee Strasberg, John Huston and Billy Wilder among others.This was the first book I ever had on Marilyn, it is like a Bible to me. I always have it at hand.

I think because of the time it was written, it’s style and wording really reflect the era and Marilyn’s story comes to life in context of her times. You empathise with this driven young woman who seemed to “have it all” and tragically had nothing. The lonely childhood and increasingly isolated adult years of her life are presented against the backdrop of a world that idolised her without sympathising with her.

The book is a great read for feminist, film buffs, Marilyn fans and anyone interested in Twentieth century American culture.The book became a massive world wide best seller & translated into 14 languages and gradually Marilyn grew into this huge cultural icon. The book became the centre of a dispute in 1973 when its publisher accused Norman Mailer of having plagiarised portions of it and of another Monroe biography in writing ”Marilyn,” his own book about the actress. Mr. Mailer and Mr. Guiles jointly refuted the charge.The book was revised in1984 and 1993. It’s quite an easy one to source and essential for all Marilyn Monroe readers.

By Fraser Penney