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Archival View of a Screen Siren

Archival View of a Screen Siren
USC professor Lois Banner displays a cherished photo of legendary Marilyn Monroe.

The relationship between meticulous research and fascinating storytelling came together at a recent Friends of the USC Libraries Literary Luncheon as USC professor Lois Banner discussed her book MM – Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe.

Banner, professor of history and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, addressed the crowd of nearly 100 guests.

USC Libraries dean Catherine Quinlan, who introduced Banner, touched on the lengths that the professor went to research the private life of the Hollywood icon, as well as the importance of preserving primary sources.

“Professor Banner offers an inside look at Marilyn’s life through her private collection of artifacts, letters and documents,” Quinlan said. “These items were once thought to have been lost, and we’re glad they weren’t, as Banner was able to clarify, qualify or reverse many common misconceptions” about Monroe.

During the luncheon, Banner regaled the audience with tales of how the book came to be, revealing many unknown truths about the legendary star.

“This project happened by accident, when one day I got a phone call from someone named Millington Conroy telling me that he owned Marilyn Monroe’s file cabinets, and he knew I was working on Marilyn Monroe and did I want to see [them]?,” Banner explained. “They were stuffed full of file folders, and they were filed by letters, poems, receipts … and lots of other things.”

“What’s new in MM – Personal and what did I find out about Marilyn in writing that book? I am absolutely firm in what I am writing: Marilyn Monroe was made by Norma Jean Baker,” Banner said. “She was an agent of her success. She did much of her publicity herself. She created the various Marilyn Monroe characters herself. She was not a foolish or a stupid woman. She was very intelligent.

“She read constantly,” Banner added. “There was a pattern to her reading … very intellectual books. She read Dostoevsky … she liked Tolstoy.”

She also read Thomas Wolfe, [who] was one of her favorites,” Banner said.

Describing Monroe as “the best photographic model of her age,” “a fine singer” and a “protofeminist” who “outclassed” most of the other screen sirens of her era, Banner juxtaposed the ways in which the internationally known celebrity was similar to her legions of fans.

“I wanted to show her as a real human being. She had a life … she had a private life. And her private life was very much like many of our own private lives. She loved to cook – she was a good cook – she liked to clean house, and she vacuumed as a way of relaxation. She loved to garden. Her problem was that she was so busy, she didn’t have time to do all those things.”

Banner’s research uncovered something peculiar about Monroe’s financial status.

“She was never paid very well,” Banner revealed. “That’s one of the secrets you find out about Marilyn when you start working on her.”

Through her research, Banner also was able to refute the commonly cited idea that Monroe did not have close friendships.

“She had many, many friends – it is quite inaccurate all the while to say that she had no friends,” Banner insisted. “I can list 50 to 100 people that she was friendly with and that she saw on a regular basis whether in Hollywood or in New York. People were immediately drawn to her and mesmerized by her.”

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