Book Review by Heidi Simmons
Marilyn: The Passion And The Paradox
Amazon lists 622 search results under “Marilyn Monroe biography.” To say Marilyn Monroe is an American fascination is an understatement. She is a global phenomenon.
If you haven’t read anything about Marilyn Monroe because you think there is nothing new or significant about her life, this definitive biography will change your thinking. Lois Banner’s Marilyn: The Passion and The Paradox (Bloomsbury, 528 pages) is a captivating, intense and detailed account of Marilyn’s life in its historical setting. It is a serious, yet extremely absorbing — and entertaining — look at the woman and her place in our culture.
A recent guest of the Rancho Mirage Library Foundation, Lois Banner discussed her ten years of concentrated research. Banner interviewed hundreds of people, had access to Monroe’s personal files and examined confidential papers. Banner scoured the fan magazines of the era and read Monroe’s favorite books and poetry. She consulted with medical doctors and mental health experts. She found minutia other biographers didn’t think important, or failed to include and analyze.
It helps that Banner is a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California. She interprets Monroe in her historical context and in terms of her interactions with men and women in her life, what Banner calls the “geography of gender.” This gives the reader a fresh perspective of the events that impacted, influenced and ultimately shaped the woman and the persona Marilyn Monroe.
At times, Banner interjects her own opinion. What she refers to as “entr’acte,” where Banner briefly delves into Monroe’s psyche and Monroe’s “historical resonance.” Banner’s strong narrative voice still allows room for the reader’s personal impression and interpretation.
According to Banner, Monroe was an “illegitimate” child and lived in eleven foster homes before her guardian secretly arranged Monroe’s first marriage at 16 years-old just to avoid a twelfth foster family. Banner has names and the locations where Norma Jeane lived beginning at the age of eight. Banner documents each family and describes the treatment Monroe received.
It is at the age of eight when Norma Jeane is sexually molested the first time. Banner does all she can to verify the facts and the culprits of Norma Jeane’s abuse, naming names since Monroe herself was never specific.
One of Banner’s revelations is that Monroe’s mother, Gladys Baker, was not just crazy as is commonly believed but an interesting and complicated woman. Banner does a great job shedding light on all the women in Monroe’s life. Most are dealing with the challenges and the circumstances of being single, working women and coping in an era that lacked equality and held a double-standard towards women.
Monroe’s sexuality is a constant issue. Most surprising is Banner’s revelation that Monroe had lesbian affairs and that may have been her sexual preference.
Banner addresses the issue of homosexuality in mid-century America. She says: “The end of the war produced a backlash against homosexuality as strong as that against communism.” She continues: “The fear was that individuals might not give up their homosexual inclinations. Thus heterosexuality needed reinforcement. Federal and state governments passed laws identifying homosexuals and lesbians as dangerous perverts.”
Of the many Monroe paradoxes described by Banner, the “blond bombshell” that was Monroe was ironically one of the cultural tools used to reinforce heterosexuality of the post WW II era.
Marilyn: The Passion and The Paradox is a respectful and sympathetic depiction of Monroe. It reveals a gifted, multifaceted and passionate woman riddled with self-doubt. Although she was perceived as a “dumb blonde,” Monroe was a progressive thinker. She had a spiritual curiosity, held anti-racist attitudes and had an interest in radical politics.
There is nothing overlooked in Banner’s Monroe biography. The Kennedy’s, the mob and the circumstances around her death are all carefully considered.
While most biographers have credited others for crafting Monroe’s success, Banner proves that she did it mostly on her own. According to Banner, Monroe was a brilliant intellect with a willingness to take risks to create her lasting and beguiling iconic image. Monroe may have battled the Hollywood establishment and her demons, but she ultimately impacted our culture and history.