As I mentioned last month, I bought a biography of Marilyn Monroe by Lois Banner. I went through the usual fascination with Marilyn that a lot of teenage girls have and so devoured tons of biographies on her. I reckon the best are Anthony Summers’ Goddess and the Norman Mailer authored biography (which I borrowed from a friend, gave back and have always wanted for my own library!). Also worth a read is Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates which is a fictional retelling of Marilyn’s life and a truly brilliant book.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is a biography of Marilyn with a feminist slant as befits the author. Lois Banner is a feminist writer and a history professor at the University of Southern California teaching courses on topics such as gender and sexuality, and women’s studies. She is something of a Marilyn scholar as this is her second Monroe related book, the first being MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, and she also collects Monroe memorabilia.
Marilyn’s chaotic childhood has been well documented in previous biographies; eleven foster homes and an orphanage, a paranoid schizophrenic mother and a psychiatrically ill grandmother, no father figure, and sexual abuse all feature. While writing about all of this, Banner focusses on Marilyn’s relationships with the women in her life and how they shaped her viewpoint and almost ambivalent sexuality in later years.
Most of Monroe’s career happened in the 1950s, a time when women had very narrow opportunities and very clearly defined roles. Marilyn kicked against much of this. She championed African American entertainers (in one example getting Ella Fitzgerald a gig at a whites only club and promising the promoter that she would take a front row table for each of Ella’s gigs, thereby bringing Ella’s career into bigger clubs); she espoused leftist causes; she believed in free love a decade before the hippies made it a mainstream concept. In many ways she was a woman ahead of her time and had she not died in 1962 it is easy to see how she would have been influenced by second wave feminism and the counterculture of the late 1960s.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox is well researched and well written and certainly provides a different view of Marilyn, a woman so multifaceted, so mysterious and so glamorous that she’s still an object of fascination fifty years after her death.