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Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox

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Like her art, Marilyn Monroe was rooted in paradox: She was a powerful star and a childlike waif; a joyful, irreverent party girl with a deeply spiritual side; a superb friend and a narcissist; a dumb blonde and an intellectual. No previous biographer has recognized—much less attempted to analyze—most of these aspects of her personality. Lois Banner has.

Since Marilyn’s death in August of 1962, the appetite for information about her has been insatiable. Biographies of Marilyn ...

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Like her art, Marilyn Monroe was rooted in paradox: She was a powerful star and a childlike waif; a joyful, irreverent party girl with a deeply spiritual side; a superb friend and a narcissist; a dumb blonde and an intellectual. No previous biographer has recognized—much less attempted to analyze—most of these aspects of her personality. Lois Banner has.

Since Marilyn’s death in August of 1962, the appetite for information about her has been insatiable. Biographies of Marilyn abound, and whether these books are sensational or flawed, Marilyn’s fans have always come out in bestselling numbers. This time, with Lois Banner’s Revelations, the fans won’t be disappointed. This is no retread of recycled material. As one of the founders of the field of women’s history, Banner will reveal Marilyn Monroe in the way that only a top-notch historian and biographer could.

In researching Revelations, Banner’s credentials opened doors. She gained access to Marilyn intimates who hadn’t spoken to other biographers, and to private material unseen, ignored, or misinterpreted by her predecessors. With new details about Marilyn’s childhood foster homes, her sexual abuse, her multiple marriages, her affairs, and her untimely death at the age of thirty-six, Revelations is, at last, the nuanced biography Marilyn fans have been waiting for.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fifty years after her mysterious death, Marilyn Monroe remains an enigma. Drawing on new interviews with friends of Monroe’s who have never talked to other biographers and on newly available archival material about Monroe’s childhood, her marriages, and her death, historian and gender theorist Banner elegantly and skillfully chronicles Monroe’s short life from her transient childhood in foster homes and her early, unhappy marriage to Jim Dougherty to her rise to screen star and sex symbol and her unfortunate early death. Banner paints a portrait of Monroe as a complicated, many-faceted woman who studied mystical texts, read widely and took courses at UCLA, pioneered the sexual revolution and challenged censorship codes, honored the working-class individuals whose adoration had made her a star through their fan mail, and strove for perfection even though she very often spiraled out of control. Like other Monroe biographers, Banner ranges over the best-known facts of Monroe’s life—the affair with Jack Kennedy, her tempestuous relationship with Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio’s love for her—but she offers a lengthy discussion of theories about the cause of Monroe’s death. Banner points to Gene Kelly’s recollection, among others, that Monroe was very happy and very excited about her future projects as evidence that perhaps the actress’s death was not suicide. In the end, Monroe’s life was so full of paradox, passion, magic, and mystery that it has made her into a symbol of the American imagination that transcends time and place. Agent: William Clark. (Aug.)
Library Journal
This study is especially interesting for its author, not your standard celeb biographer but a founder of the field of women's history, cofounder of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and the first woman president of the American Studies Association.
Kirkus Reviews
Fifty years after her death and hundreds of books later, are we any closer to understanding Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962)? Probably not, but this new biography brings the known facts up to date and offers a fresh, modern take on the tragic star's life and choices. For Banner (History and Gender Studies/Univ. of Southern California; MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe, 2011, etc.), the tangled roots of Monroe's contradictions--shy but lurid, innocent and calculating, user and used--originated in her childhood. The product of a family with a history of mental illness, she was passed around between foster homes (both good and bad) as well as an orphanage. She experienced sexual abuse, absorbed a variety of religious influences, and discovered that her lost-lamb look attracted every man she met. Although Banner occasionally plays psychoanalyst, it's only in an effort to see her subject from every conceivable angle. The author's film criticism is insightful, particularly in showing how Monroe helped build (and would deliberately mock) her own public image. She examines how Monroe's unique allure drew on popular tradition and looked forward to the Pop Art future. As for the big question--did Monroe commit suicide or was she murdered by Bobby Kennedy, or her psychoanalyst, or mobster Sam Giancana, or the FBI?--Banner offers no smoking guns. Instead, she gives reasons why all the scenarios, both official and otherwise, are as problematic as they are plausible. Though the author sometimes over explains the obvious, this flaw does not detract from the book's forward drive or Banner's sympathetic intelligence. Surely not the last word, but a complete and honest effort and a good starting place.
The New York Times Book Review
Nobody is one thing all the time. Yet Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner's new biography…which behaves a little like its subject. Weaving together exclusive interviews, material from previous books and, most significantly, the contents of Monroe's two long-lost personal filing cabinets…Banner presents a rich and often imaginative narrative of Marilyn's life. By the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being—an almost-friend—and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.
—Zoë Slutzky
From the Publisher
"A dazzling portrait of a fragile but remarkably ambitious and determined personality, as spiritual as she was corporeal, as canny as she was careless."—Carina Chocano, Elle

"Banner…probe[s] Monroe’s fraught relationship to her sexuality with an uncommonly insightful eye. But fans of Hollywood Babylon, take heart: Studious as she is, Banner also rakes the muck like a pedigreed newshound."—Jan Stuart, More

"By dint of exhaustive research and uniquely informed analysis, distinguished and trailblazing feminist historian Banner has written a profoundly redefining bombshell biography of artist and icon Marilyn Monroe. Banner is the first to bring a scholar’s perspective to bear on the influence of postwar misogyny and sexual hypocrisy on Monroe’s life and work as she painstakingly chronicles Monroe’s shunting from one foster home to another, her sexual abuse and subsequent stutter, evangelical upbringing, daring foray into modeling, and epic battle for Hollywood success. Intellectual rigor and insight shape Banner’s coverage of Monroe’s debilitating endometriosis, chronic insomnia, prescription-drug addiction, numerous sexual relationships, reliance on psychoanalysis, and three troubled marriages. Banner breaks new ground with her sensitive disclosure of the star’s toxic fear of the exposure of her sexual attraction to women, an utter disgrace for a reigning sex symbol in a harshly homophobic time. And her revelations about the role of the Kennedys and the FBI in Monroe’s death are appalling. On the upside, Banner celebrates Monroe’s perfectionism, generosity, humanist political views, trickster humor, covert brilliance, daunting "process of self-creation," and immense cultural resonance. A passion for precision and truth fuels Banner’s electrifying portrait of an artist caught in a maze of paradoxes and betrayals. Here is Marilyn as we’ve never seen her before."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

"This new biography brings the known facts up to date and offers a fresh, modern take on the tragic star’s life and choices…. Surely not the last word, but a complete and honest effort and a good starting place."—Kirkus Reviews

"Banner elegantly and skillfully chronicles Monroe’s short life…. [she] paints a portrait of Monroe as a complicated, many-faceted woman."Publishers Weekly

The Barnes & Noble Review

The exasperating possibility that Marilyn Monroe was trivial is plainly an idea doomed to never get much traction in American culture. In the half century since her death after ingesting too much Nembutal at age thirty-six — her final pratfall, or was it suicide? Could it have been. . . murder? — she's probably put in more time getting pawed by theorists on posterity's casting couch than any actress in history.

For Monroe's interpreters, it's never enough to view her as touching, pitiable, gallant, an unprofessional pain in the keister (she was), or even just sexy, her cramping but vivid onscreen calling card. No matter who's doing the decoding, she has to be made to represent something. And that something has to reverberate, even though the cost to her humanity sometimes doesn't seem all that different from the way Hollywood used to treat her.

And so much for airing my prejudices. I just figure I'm better off acknowledging that I didn't approach Lois Banner's billowy, often irritatingly preening, but ultimately engrossing Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox with the mind vacuumed perfectly free of invidious prior assumptions that reviewers are supposed to aspire to. Still, when Marilyn's the topic, who can?

Banner's intent isn't as unprecedented as she affects to think. She wants to rescue Monroe the "trickster" — self-aware parodist of her own allure, overlooked pre- counterculture rebel, manipulator rather than prisoner of her image, and so on — from her old gig as a victimized sex object, thereby transforming her into the icon for women she once was to men. In vogue since Madonna turned "empowering" into the ultimate cliché in gender studies, this sort of reclamation job, as Banner herself notes, represents a 180-degree turn away from the attitudes of 1970s feminism's leading lights. With other priorities in mind — e.g., convincing the rest of us that sexism really existed — they were inclined, you could say, to throw out the interview along with the centerfold.

That Monroe was a parody of midcentury pulchritude isn't in much doubt. Banner's contention that it was a conscious and witty one isn't unilluminating, particularly when she traces its origins to Norma Jeane's — as she was then — 1946 attendance at a performance by female impersonator Ray Bourbon. "[She] liked Bourbon's humor; she saw how comedy could be created by exaggerating gender roles, playing with femininity as though it were a masquerade. It was a lesson she would never forget." Still, that last assertion begs for some kind of documentation, which — as is often the case when Banner makes this kind of claim — isn't forthcoming.

The same goes for the aspect of The Passion and the Paradox that's snared the most advance attention — that is, Banner's revelation of Marilyn's lesbian tendencies. Somewhat surprisingly for the time, Monroe did acknowledge having them, and yet — the usual Hollywood rumor mill aside — there's no real evidence she ever acted on them. (Her intimate and somewhat murky dependence on acting coach Natasha Lytess is the best card Banner has to play, but it's far from conclusive.) Yet that doesn't stop our biographer from increasingly treating her own guesswork as fact, culminating in the flat statement near the book's end that Monroe "preferred [my italics] women as sexual partners." Restraint isn't her specialty.

Monroe's sex life with men, which was voluminous, leaves Banner's analysis riding madly off in all directions. At times, she pushes the argument that Marilyn's promiscuity came out of a "free love" philosophy that serenely blended sex with friendship, making her a suitably valiant avatar for sexual revolutions to come. Yet at other times, her sexuality is variously — and somewhat more convincingly — depicted as neurotic, compulsive, and either helpless or calculating. All these behaviors, as Banner notes, fit the pattern for victims of early sexual abuse, which Marilyn was. All this exemplifies the conflict between propagandizing for Monroe as a symbol and trying to understand her as a human being.

Banner also doesn't seem to know all that much about movies, aside from Marilyn's own. I'm not sure where she got the idea that film noir "was an outgrowth of post-World War Two anxiety over the Cold War," a description that much more soundly fits 1950s sci-fi. It's silly to say that Cinemascope spectacles like The Robe were made "for conservatives," as if that were a category separable from the huge audience for biblical epics at the time. Elsewhere, she tries to make Monroe out as a pioneer in taking control of her career by forming her own production company, but that was hardly uncommon as the studio system's iron grip turned more butterfingered. Even Jayne Mansfield had one.

Banner's most annoying tic is that she can't stop boasting. "I am the first to describe. . . Significant among my discoveries. . . Revealing and analyzing [Monroe's] multiple personas is a major contribution of mine to Marilyn scholarship. . . I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me — an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender — had studied her. . . Throughout my book I present a new Marilyn, different from any previous portrayal of her." This kind of rodomontade clutters her book's prologue to the point that you wonder how you'll stand spending 515 pages in this woman's company, and the self-congratulatory tone keeps recurring later on. By way of a bonus, she fills us in on another reason for her affinity with Marilyn: "Blonde and blue-eyed, I had her body dimensions and won beauty contests." Oh.

Throughout the book, her theorizing about Monroe's significance can feel like all chalk and no blackboard. But the good news is that Banner is hardly the first writer to misjudge her own gifts. Whenever she gives her various agendas a rest and just tries to absorb us in Marilyn's never uninteresting life, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox gets a lot better. The research has depth, and the choices about how to use it often have bite. The portraits are vivid. Best of all, Banner's ample use of fresh and often piquant detail brightens up even the most familiar parts of the story.

Actually, nearly all of it is familiar, thanks in large part to Marilyn herself. Few stars before her had been so ready to treat fame as an ongoing psychiatry session about a traumatic childhood. Brought into this world minus a known-for-sure dad by a Christian Scientist mother whose mental instability (and, possibly, resentments) plunked Norma Jeane into no less than eleven foster homes, she was married off at sixteen to a dumb but kind lug named Jim Dougherty — the equivalent, in the sexual history of the twentieth century, of early Beatles drummer Pete Best. That their wedding was attended by half a dozen of her foster mothers evokes her topsy-turvy upbringing in a nutshell.

Then Jim went off to war in the Merchant Marine, and photographers with an eye for cheesecake began flocking around. (Banner's brisk explanation of the difference between fashion and pin-up models — and why Marilyn, ill suited for one, was ideal for the other — is a nice piece of quickie cultural sociology.) In 1949, one of them shot the famous nude calendar pics that marked the dawn of Marilyn-the-icon and threatened her future at 20th Century Fox once it became known, some years later, she'd posed for them. Incidentally, it's kind of a bummer to learn that one of the funniest things she said at the press conference that salvaged her budding career — asked what she had on during the shoot, she answered, "The radio" — was a canned line thought up by columnist Sidney Skolsky. But with the nudie calendar safely turned to her advantage, 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire cemented her box-office appeal while defining the blonde-ditz persona she came to lament.

Banner is often at her best when she's assessing the men in Monroe's life — all substitute father figures, to be sure, but also likely to end up tormented if not emasculated when they got recast in her mind as oppressive ones, something they inevitably did. Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees legend who married Monroe in 1954, eludes Banner to some extent, not least because to say that verbalization wasn't his thing is an understatement. But she's shrewd anyway about how marrying DiMaggio immunized Marilyn from her mottled past: "Whatever sins Marilyn had committed, Joe's reputation for virtue cancelled them."

On the other hand, Monroe's third and final hubby — playwright Arthur Miller — rates a full-scale, fascinating, frequently unpleasant portrait. Among other acts of caddishness, he had a habit of leaving nasty things he'd written about her lying around where she couldn't fail to read them: an early version of his play After the Fall, a journal entry reading, "I've done it again. I thought I was marrying an angel, and find I've married a whore." (That he was capable of thinking in such categories may remind some of us of our preference for Tennessee Williams as a dramatist.) Yet since he prized his dignity above all else, it's hard to stay completely unsympathetic to his distress at being reduced to a glorified gofer even as he strove to turn his wayward wife into St. Marilyn in his screenplay for The Misfits, her last completed film. Both of them, as Banner puts it, were "idealists trying to discipline and refine their emotions as well as narcissists promoting careers that could easily go sour."

Unsurprisingly, the Kennedys — with whom Marilyn's legend will be entwined until doomsday — do not come off well. After decades of obfuscation, it's now widely accepted that she had liaisons with both Jack and brother Bobby. It's considered possible, at least, that the latter if not the former played some role in precipitating her death. Forty years ago, Norman Mailer's speculations in his huff- puffing Marilyn that she'd been knocked off to hush her up were universally derided, but clearly times have changed.

Banner's version of what might have happened on or just before August 4, 1962, is an orgy of hypothetical conspiracies mixed up with some intriguing circumstantial evidence and too many cooks to keep straight, not to mention an ill-mannered digression that takes swipes at a fellow gumshoe on the trail. It's not quite clear whether she actually believes Monroe's death was murder or Bobby was involved. But it's interesting to learn that DiMaggio did think the Kennedys were culpable in some way.

Was Monroe a good actress? Might she have become a great one if the studio had cast her in the dramatic roles she craved instead of pigeonholing her as a comic sexpot? Depending on your point of view, those questions are either vital or gloriously irrelevant. Whatever she had — and it may come down to the simple fact that, faults and all, she was a magical camera subject — I'm reasonably sure we got most of it.

Discounting those heartless enough to suspect it would have been the funniest movie of her career, nobody sane can feel much regret that she never got to play the part she lobbied hardest for: Grushenka, in The Brothers Karamazov. Those lumbering adaptations of classic novels were the bane of Hollywood at midcentury, and Some Like It Hot — the greatest movie Monroe ever appeared in — is for good reason more remembered.

Even granting that defense lawyers have lots of leeway in making their case, Banner's idea that Marilyn's troubles on the set of more than one movie were due to her "perfectionism" — pitched too high for even Billy Wilder or Otto Preminger to appreciate, apparently — is risible. Making movies with her was hell, for the simple reasons that she kept showing up late, disrespecting her co-stars and directors, and flubbing even her simplest lines. Her Brobdingnagian drug intake didn't help. Why insist that she was somehow in control when every anecdote suggests that she'd have been flummoxed by the difficulties of running a Wendy's franchise in Sheboygan? Far more intriguing is Banner's notion that she might have been a better actress in private life than she was on the screen.

It would make better sense to argue that Monroe's faltering style ended up adding a provocatively human, troublingly vulnerable — and, yes, proto-feminist — dimension to otherwise coarse and sexist one-joke roles. But that Kim Novak gambit has nothing to do with the kind of conscious innovation that lit-crits call agency. In her review of Mailer's Marilyn, Pauline Kael suggested that Monroe — far from being the last of the classic movie stars — prefigured Andy Warhol's amateurish zombies. Translation: even her modernity was involuntary.

However — and even though I don't think it was Banner's intent — I do owe her for crystallizing an unease I've always felt about Monroe's appeal. The way Shirley Temple's name keeps cropping up as a point of comparison had me recalling the legendary trouble Graham Greene got into in the 1930s for remarking on the erotic side of Temple's cutesy posturing. Twenty years later, Marilyn wasn't Temple grown up so much as a far more infantile and helpless — but permissibly desirable - - caricature of childhood. The effect is sharpened by how often her screen persona seems one step removed from abject panic, if not terror. Far be it from me to wonder if American males at midcentury were harboring some secret mass fantasy of sublimated pedophilia. All the same, making the ultimate sex goddess out of someone whose consent wasn't informed on the best day of her life may be enough to give us the retrospective creeps.

A two-time National Magazine Award winner during his stint as Esquire's "Screen" columnist, Tom Carson is currently a columnist at GQ. He is the author of Gilligan's Wake ( 2003), a novel.

Reviewer: Tom Carson

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608195312
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 7/17/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 689,342
  • Product dimensions: 14.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lois Banner is a founder of the field of women's history and cofounder of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, the major academic event in the field. She was the first woman president of the American Studies Association, and in 2006 she won the ASA's Bode-Pearson Prize for Outstanding Contributions to American Studies. She is the author of ten books, including her acclaimed American Beauty and most recently MM — Personal, which reproduces and discusses items from Marilyn Monroe's personal archive. In addition to her books on Monroe, Banner is a major collector of her artifacts. Banner is a professor of history and gender studies at USC and lives in Southern California.

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Read an Excerpt


The Passion and the Paradox
By Lois Banner


Copyright © 2012 Lois Banner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60819-531-2

Chapter One

Mothers, 1926–1933

Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in the charity ward of Los Angeles County General Hospital on June 1, 1926. Her mother, Gladys Monroe Baker, was a poorly paid film cutter in a Hollywood editing studio. Her father never recognized her, and Gladys placed her in a foster home when she was three months old. In 1933, when Norma Jeane was seven, her mother brought her to live with her in Hollywood. Soon after, Gladys broke down emotionally, leaving Norma Jeane with her best friend, Grace Atchison McKee. When Gladys was declared paranoid schizophrenic and admitted to a state mental hospital, Grace became Norma Jeane's guardian. During the next eight years, until Norma Jeane married in 1942 at the age of sixteen, Grace placed her in eleven foster homes and an orphanage. Why Gladys broke down and why Grace kept moving Norma Jeane are central issues in examining her childhood.

Five women dominated Norma Jeane's childhood. They included Gladys and Grace, plus Della Monroe, Gladys's mother; and two of Norma Jeane's foster mothers, Ida Bolender and Ana Atchinson Lower, Grace McKee's aunt. All five women were working class or lower middle class, with little money or education. All moved to Los Angeles with their families from the Upper South and the Midwest between 1900 and 1920, during the great migration to the city. That movement turned a small provincial city into a major metropolis, with suburbs and cities radiating out from a downtown core.

Della Monroe, Marilyn's grandmother, came from Missouri by way of Mexico in 1902, with her husband, Otis Monroe, and her daughter, Gladys, then two years old; they settled near downtown Los Angeles. Grace came from Montana in the 1910s in her late teens, looking for a film career; she settled in Hollywood. Ida, an Iowa farm girl, arrived with her husband, Wayne, in the early 1920s and settled in Hawthorne, in the South Bay area southwest of downtown. Ana, considerably older than the other four, was born in 1880 in Washington State. She came to Los Angeles by way of Sacramento, eventually settling in the Sawtelle area on Los Angeles's West Side.

Like most participants in the great migration to Los Angeles, these five hoped for better lives in the Southern California paradise of beaches, mountains, exotic vegetation, and a Mediterranean climate. The Hollywood film industry was there, with its ethic of leisure and plea sure. So was a major evangelical movement, among the largest in the nation, with imposing churches and a doctrine that promised individual rebirth through renouncing sin and uniting with Christ. The pulpit and the screen—an uneasy pair—would profoundly influence Norma Jeane.

The story of Marilyn's childhood, like much of her life, contains texts and counter-texts, with hidden episodes beneath surface narratives. Most families have secrets; alcoholism, marital discord, and mental issues are possibilities. The Monroe family had all these, and more. Della and Gladys had up-and-down moods. Both were divorced several times; in divorce petitions both accused husbands of alcoholism and physical abuse. Ida, Norma Jeane's first foster mother, between 1926 and 1933, disciplined her for childhood sexual experimentation, and Grace couldn't prevent her from being sexually abused in several foster homes. Della, Grace, Gladys, Ana, and Ida clashed over religion. Ida was an evangelical Christian; Della was a follower of evangelist maverick Aimee Semple McPherson. Ana, who provided foster care for Norma Jeane between 1938 and 1942, was a Christian Science healer, while Gladys and Grace were flappers who lived sexually free lives and didn't faithfully attend any church during Norma Jeane's early childhood. She got caught in the middle, a pawn for a while in a rivalry among the five of them.

Marilyn's paternal ancestry is obscure because of uncertainty over the identity of her father. The best candidate is Stanley (Stan) Gifford, a su pervisor at the Hollywood editing firm where Gladys worked. Stan was Gladys's boyfriend and bed partner, although she had a husband from whom she was separated, not divorced—Edward Mortensen, a meter reader for the gas company. Stan was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of a wealthy shipbuilding family whose ancestry went back to the found ers of Providence and beyond them to Pilgrims on the Mayflower. If Stan was Marilyn's father, she came from revered American roots.

Gladys Monroe, Marilyn's mother, also claimed distinguished descent. Her heritage came through her father, Otis Monroe, who traced his roots to James Monroe of Virginia, fifth president of the United States. But Otis can't be trusted. Born in Indiana in 1866, he spent much of his adult life as an itinerant painter, traveling through the Midwest and the Upper South, painting buildings to make money and occasionally selling his landscapes and portraits. Wearing fancy clothes, he passed himself off as a gentleman and spun fantasies of moving to Paris and living on the Left Bank. His death certificate lists his mother and father as unknown. Something of an eccentric, he was not the last unusual character in Marilyn's ancestry.

On a swing through Missouri in 1898, Otis met Della Hogan. Born in 1878, she was twenty-two, still living with her mother and siblings. Her childhood had been difficult. Her father, Tilford Hogan, was an itinerant farm laborer who worked long hours for low wages, following the harvests and doing odd jobs. He married Jennie Nance, a Missouri farm girl, in 1870. Living in tenant cabins and farm shacks, they nonetheless had three children in eight years.

Yet Tilford's financial woes weren't unusual in post- Reconstruction Missouri. The building of railroads as well as a dramatic population growth through immigration caused a rise in prosperity in the state—for those able to exploit it. Most Missourians remained tenant farmers or landless laborers employed part-time to harvest crops or do odd jobs. Pro-slavery and secessionist during the Civil War, Missourians remained loyal to the South for de cades. Jennie Nance, Marilyn's maternal great-grandmother, was raised in Chariton County, settled by migrants from the Upper South who owned slaves. It was called "Little Dixie." As Tilford's wife, Jennie moved with him as he sought employment, often in Ozark hillbilly country, moving her children from school to school. When Marilyn played Cherie, the hillbilly singer in Bus Stop, she could draw on her family's past to create the character.

Tilford had a quirky independence and a love of learning. He taught himself to read and write so that he could read the classics of Western literature. In an era when ordinary people memorized Shakespeare and distinctions between high and low culture weren't rigid, such learning wasn't that unusual. He suffered from chronic arthritis but remained pleasant and well liked. But it wasn't enough for Jennie. In 1890, after twenty years of a difficult marriage, Jennie and Tilford divorced, violating the strictures against divorce in a region dominated by conservative Baptists. Each moved in with a relative; the children went with Jennie, who showed an in de pen dent streak in divorcing Tilford—a streak that would run through the Monroe women.

Nearly nine years after the divorce, in 1898, Otis Monroe appeared in Della's town and swept her off her feet with his rakish, upper-class air, fashionable clothing, and fantasies about moving to Paris. He was ten years older than she. He offered her a way out of Missouri, where she seemed stuck as an old maid at the age of twenty-two. Captivated by him, disregarding the objections of her parents, she overlooked the reality that he was, like her father, an itinerant laborer.

The marriage was disappointing. Instead of moving to Paris, they moved to Mexico, to the town of Porfirio Díaz, now Piedras Negras, on the border with Texas. Otis found a job there painting railroad cars for the Mexican National Railway. The town was dirty, with poor sanitation, and Della didn't like it. Family lore held that, despite her discontent, she served as a midwife for impoverished Mexican women. Once her daughter, Gladys, was born in 1902, she and Otis moved to Los Angeles, where he found a job as a painter with the Pacific Electric Railway. That company operated the "red line" trolleys that ran throughout the Los Angeles region, linking its far-flung, expanding communities. Otis and Della's son, Marion, was born in 1905. Shortly thereafter, Otis was promoted, and they bought a small house near downtown—or Otis built it himself. They seemed to be achieving the American Dream.

Then it fell apart. Otis began to suffer from memory loss, migraines, and bouts of mania. Seizures and paralysis followed. Della thought he was going insane. He was admitted to Patton State Mental Hospital in San Bernardino, a sprawling structure that housed several thousand patients. It was one of seven such hospitals in the state built in the late nineteenth century to house the insane, chronic alcoholics, aging people with dementia, and individuals with syphilitic paresis, the final stage of syphilis, in which the infection destroys the connective tissues in the brain. Overcrowded, with insufficient doctors or trained staff, the hospitals provided minimal treatment.

Otis was diagnosed with syphilitic paresis, probably of the endemic variety, caused by a bacteria spread by mosquitoes, not through sexual intercourse. He probably picked up the bacteria in Piedras Negras, with its poor sanitation. He died in 1909. To hide two shameful diagnoses—syphilis and psychosis—Della claimed that he had died from breathingpaint fumes.

With two children to support, Della cleaned houses and rented rooms in her house to male boarders, while she looked for another husband. In 1913 she married Lyle Graves, one of Otis's co-workers at the trolley company. A year later she divorced him on the grounds of "habitual intemperance" (alcoholism) and failure to provide financial support. The charge may have been true or trumped up to obtain the divorce. Adultery, physical abuse, and alcoholism—these were the only legal grounds for divorce in this era. Spouses wanting a divorce often colluded in making up tales of bad behavior, and wives brought most of the actions because of the belief that men were more likely to be abusers and alcoholics than women. Della won by default, since Graves skipped town. He may have had a nasty streak. According to Gladys he killed her cat by throwing it against a wall. Della then married a man named Chitwood, and she and her children moved with him to a farm in Oregon. Gladys liked Chitwood and the farm. She had happy memories of picking blueberries in Oregon as a child. But Della soon divorced her third husband. The charge was alcoholism, which again may have been true or trumped up, as was the custom, to provide a legal grounds for divorce.

Della, not yet forty, was adventurous. Moving back to Los Angeles, she settled in Venice, a town on the Pacific Ocean twelve miles west of downtown. A fantasy place dreamed up by developer Abbot Kinney, Venice combined the look of Coney Island in New York with Venice in Italy. Neo-Renaissance buildings bordered canals where gondoliers plyed gondolas. There was a St. Mark's Square with jugglers and mimes, a promenade along the beach, and a pier jutting into the ocean, containing a large dance hall as well as concessions: rifle shoots, ring tosses, pretty-girl dunks, and penny arcades. Until the late 1920s, Venice had the largest amusement zone on the West Coast.

It wasn't entirely honky-tonk. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford had second homes on the canals, and film scenes were shot there. Elite groups held dances in the dance hall on the pier, and film stars mingled with ordinary people on the streets. Colored eggs were handed out on Easter and flowers to mothers on Mother's Day. There were bathing-beauty contests, boxing matches, bicycle races, and a Mardi Gras festival each year.

Once in Venice, Della got a job managing a small apartment building. She sent her son, Marion, to live with a relative in San Diego; as a single mother she found raising a son difficult. Such arrangements weren't uncommon in that era. Child-care experts of that time didn't regard bonding with parents as necessary for a child's healthy development; living in an intact family was their only requirement. Della, like her daughter, Gladys, and her granddaughter, Marilyn, was prone to emotional highs and lows. Marion was also moody. What ever mental issues Gladys and Marion inherited, their tumultuous childhoods didn't help them to cope with emotional ups and downs.

On New Year's Eve 1917, Della met her fourth husband, Charles Grainger, at the dance hall on the pier. Marilyn claimed that Della was the real beauty in the family, and she did, indeed, attract men. Grainger was an oil driller for Shell Oil. A smooth talker, well dressed, he had just returned from drilling jobs in India and Burma. Like Otis Monroe he was adventurous, with a similar air of distinction. Some Marilyn biographers contend that Della and Charles never married, but on a 1925 passport application Della gave the date of their marriage as November 20, 1920.

Angry over her father's death, the two stepfathers, and the moving, Gladys became difficult. Fifteen years old in 1917, she was a full-fledged adolescent. Like her mother, Gladys was small—five feet tall—and she was beautiful, with a voluptuous body, green eyes, and reddish-brown hair. She also had a ladylike quality attractive to men, a quality that Marilyn internalized. Della had been raised in Missouri, a border state influenced by the Southern tradition of tough women with genteel veneers. She passed this gentility to Gladys. In 1946, Emmeline Snively, the head of Marilyn's first modeling agency, described Gladys as the most ladylike woman she had ever met.

The Venice pier, with its temptations, was not far from their apartment, and Gladys often went there. In the 1910s urban adolescents, especially working-class girls, rebelled against Victorian conventions by going to dance halls and amusement zones to meet men. The 1920s flapper, in de pen dent and free, already existed before World War One, and female screen stars shaped her behavior. Gladys was passionate about films, and she avidly read movie fan magazines. Like many girls of her era, she patterned her behavior after the stars.

Then Gladys became pregnant. The father, John Newton Baker, called Jasper, was twenty-six years old and the owner of the apartment building Della managed. They married on May 17, 1917. Why a fifteen-year-old girl would marry a twenty-six-year-old man is puzzling, although Jasper had been an officer in the army cavalry and a trick horse back rider; he had dash. In addition, bearing an illegitimate child was a disgrace in that era. Even in the 1920s, when young people "parked" in cars with their dates and "petted," which could mean more than simply kissing, mainstream society scorned unmarried women who became pregnant. They were considered outside the bounds of respectability.

Della swore in an affidavit attached to the marriage license that Gladys was eighteen. But she lied; Gladys was fifteen. The lie was necessary to get around the law requiring girls to be sixteen to engage in consensual sex. Before then intercourse was classified as rape, and the man involved could be brought to trial and sent to prison. Gladys and Jasper's son, Jackie, was born seven months after their wedding. A daughter, Berniece, was born in 1920.

With Della and Gladys married, the Monroe women seemed stable. But the stability didn't last. Both of them were difficult and moody, hard to live with. Della and Charles began arguing, and Della moved to a house they bought in the newly developed city of Hawthorne, southwest of downtown, not far from the beach and on the trolley line. It was a good investment, although Charles wasn't there that much. Still, the 1925 Hawthorne City Directory lists him as living there with Della.

In 1922 Gladys experienced a mother's worst nightmare. She threw the pieces of a broken drinking class into a trash can, and Jackie rummaged through the trash and embedded a shard of glass in an eye, damaging it. Several months later, Jasper and Gladys drove to Flat Lick, Kentucky, his hometown, for a visit. On the way there they quarreled ferociously, failing to notice that a back door to their car had opened and Jackie had fallen out, injuring his leg. Jasper and Gladys didn't have a good marriage, and they struggled with alcohol, violence, and appropriate parenting.


Excerpted from Marilyn by Lois Banner Copyright © 2012 by Lois Banner. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Let Us Now Praise Famous Women 1

Part I The Matrix, 1926-1946 11

Chapter 1 Mothers, 1926-1933 13

Chapter 2 Trauma, 1933-1938 44

Chapter 3 Transcendence: Ana and Jim, 1938-1944 71

Chapter 4 Photographers and Producers, 1944-1946 98

Part II Hollywood, 1946-1955 127

Chapter 5 Storming the Citadel, 1946-1951 129

Chapter 6 Marilyn Ascending, 1951-1954 163

Chapter 7 Breakaway, 1954-1955 199

Part III Entr'acte: A Woman for All Seasons 235

Chapter 8 The Meaning of Marilyn 237

Part IV New York, 1955-1960 271

Chapter 9 New York, 1955-1956 273

Chapter 10 Arthur, 1956-1959 304

Chapter 11 The Misfits, 1959-1960 334

Part V Return to Hollywood, 1961-1962 365

Chapter 11 Denouement, 1961-1962 367

Chapter 13 Defiance and Death 396

Afterword 427

Acknowledgments 433

Manuscript Collections Consulted and List of Abbreviations 437

List of Interviewees 443

Notes 445

Index 497

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2012

    Good But Nothing New Revealed

    I bought this Nook book after reading a review discussing how the author brought a different perspective than other Marilyn biographers, including some discussion of how feminism and the sexual revolution affected Marilyn, etc. This book was a rehash of countless Marilyn biographies with no new ideas or perspectives I could see. I rated this book at three stars only because I'm a Marilyn Monroe fan and have read most of what's been published about her live and death and I didn't mind seeing it written again---just wish it had been a Free Friday selection.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 8, 2012



    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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    G fjcfhyin,ctucvyugj

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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    0 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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