Marilyn Monroe’s biographers haven’t always been kind to her. Since her death on Aug. 5, 50 years ago, she’s been portrayed variously as bimbo and victim, dumb blonde bombshell and tempestuous manic-depressive.
Those stereotypes belie the kaleidoscopic identity that emerges in a new biography by Lois Banner, professor of history and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox brings a new level of academic credentials to the study of Monroe’s life, revealing a figure far more complicated than her previous biographers have given her credit for.
Banner, a pioneer in the field of women’s studies and women’s history, has unique insight into the star’s private life. In 2011, she published MM — Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, a collection of memoranda recovered from two personal filing cabinets owned by Monroe containing a trove of more than 10,000 personal documents.
Through 100 interviews with friends and associates of the actress and endless research, Banner has come to know Monroe as a complex and intellectual autodidact. She read voraciously, devouring Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov, with a fondness for the poetry of Walt Whitman. In her autobiography, she describes sitting at a restaurant with a playwright and a director — Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, Banner realized, both of whom had relationships with Monroe — listening to them discuss Renaissance art. She couldn’t follow the conversation.
The next day, she signed up for a course on Western art at a branch of the University of California, Los Angeles.
It’s one of many ways Monroe was “completely determined” to be the best at everything, Banner said.
“There’s a megalomania in her,” she said. “It’s an ambition to be perfect. It’s an ambition to conquer the world.”
Banner’s research revealed private sides of the actress never exposed before. She anguished over lesbian affairs and what they meant about her feminine identity. She labored to overcome dyslexia and a debilitating stutter. And she nurtured a deep spiritual life that has gone ignored in the past. While it’s known that she converted to Judaism after marrying Miller, she also explored Christian Science and Buddhism, and donated to The New York Theosophical Society.
“She hoped she could somehow find a way to conquer her very difficult self through meditation or spiritual order,” Banner said. “And it never really did happen.”
Monroe’s psyche and tragic childhood have been picked over by writers before, but Banner’s research confirmed the extent of her hardships. Some biographers doubted the number of foster homes Monroe claims to have lived in. She wasn’t exaggerating — Banner tracked down a dozen. She also confirmed the childhood sexual abuse that would sometimes manifest itself in aberrant behavior. Later in life, Monroe would speak publicly about that abuse — a bold act for any national celebrity, but particularly for a woman in the conservative 1950s.
Most fitting for an enigmatic personality, Monroe lived a hidden life as well, keeping secret apartments, wearing disguises and using pseudonyms. Partly, she did this to hide from the press and the public. And partly, she did it simply for the sake of a thrill, Banner said.
“She had put together this whole fantasy world for herself in addition to the regular world in which she lived. She liked to do daring and dangerous things,” Banner explained. She married and badly wanted to have children, but she also “lived her life in an unconventional way.”
Banner will attend a book signing on Aug. 5 at the Egyptian Theater from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., prior to a screening of the Monroe film River of No Return. Aug. 5 is the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.
More stories about: Cinema