Marilyn Monroe
© AP

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, by Lois Banner, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 528pp

Lois Banner’s new biography, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, is a thorough if uneven work that takes us from Norma Jeane Baker’s birth in a charity hospital in June 1926 to the lustrous film star’s controversial death on August 5, 1962, leaving very few stones unturned.

Was she the ultimate victim of male sexuality? Was she actually a proto-feminist who had the willpower and defiance of a champ? Did her carefully constructed dumb-blonde persona both conform to and subvert Hollywood’s ideas about women? Was the suffering of her childhood insurmountable? Was she really a lesbian? Was she murdered? All the questions are here, and some of the answers too.

Monroe’s childhood, according to Banner – a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California – is the acme of show-business bad childhoods (not a competition you would want to win). By the time she was 16, the young Norma Jeane had lived in 11 foster families and an orphanage. Her mother Gladys had severe psychiatric problems (as did her grandmother) and was in and out of mental hospitals throughout her daughter’s life. Meanwhile, Monroe’s father never acknowledged her, although two men claimed (on their deathbeds) to have sired her.

From time to time Monroe’s mother emerged from psychiatric institutions, and stayed with her daughter, often dressing in white as a nurse and obsessing over Christian Science. All her life, Monroe feared the madness that often stole her mother from her.

At the age of eight an episode of sexual abuse had a profound effect on Norma Jeane/Marilyn and may have contributed to a further nervous breakdown in her mother. Banner firmly states that this incident should not be regarded as unusual, because then, as now, 20 per cent of girls are sexually abused. In foster homes? In California as a whole? In the world? Banner does not say. She does suggest, however, that the sexual abuse and the disrupted home life left a legacy of insomnia, nightmares, troubled sexuality and violent mood swings that affected Monroe throughout her life. This does not seem unlikely. Banner cites Patricia Cox, a member of the MGM contract talent pool who knew Monroe well, who maintained that the sense of compassion she stirred up in others was a direct result of the “sadness and fear over the terrible experiences she had undergone as a child and could never forget”.

The wealth of information Banner gives us in these early chapters, detailing all 11 foster families and so on, is quite overwhelming. No natural storyteller, Banner sometimes flexes her academic muscles unwisely: “I will then rework it [her childhood], excavating the layers that lie underneath, probing the texts and counter texts that, as so often in her life, defined it.” There are occasional asides that made me worry about Banner’s estimation of her readers’ powers, such as her assertion that “even in the 1920s having an illegitimate baby was ‘a disgrace’”.

The sections about Monroe breaking into Hollywood, however, are exciting to read; Banner’s admiration of, and belief in, her subject really animate the text. The quotations she chooses are particularly piquant. Emmeline Sniveley, head of the agency that found Monroe modelling work before she entered films, summed up her determination: “She started out with less than any girl I ever knew, but she worked the hardest …she wanted to learn, wanted to be somebody more than anybody I ever saw before in my life.” Margot Fonteyn wrote that Monroe’s gestures “were reflected throughout her body, producing a delicately undulating effect like the movement of an almost calm sea”.

Arthur Miller, Monroe’s third husband, wrote movingly of her tremendous energy, “which came out in Herculean bursts …She meant to live at the peak always, in the permanent rush of a crescendo.”

Almost like a proud mother, Banner stresses the sheer hard work and willpower that transformed the fledgling Marilyn into a superstar. Of her first forays into show business, Monroe herself said: “I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve.”

In her campaign to make good, Monroe mastered the art of the electric entrance and the sort of high-impact gowns no one ever forgot. She spent all her money on distinguished acting and voice coaches. She studied silent films, which was where she considered the most expressive acting took place, and she examined the work of clowns, whose comedy was poised on the edge of laughter and tragedy. From Mae West she learnt to give the impression she was laughing at, or mocking, her own sexuality. Later, she tracked down Jean Harlow’s colourist and had him attend to her hair. She discovered how to put across her personality in wonderful one-liners, such as “I like to be really dressed up or really undressed. I don’t bother with anything in between.” She learnt about art and antiques. She read widely, particularly poetry. When told she was born under the same sign as Judy Garland, she suggested she had more in common with Walt Whitman.

Some of the descriptions of Monroe’s physicality that Banner quotes are really bewitching. Ralph Roberts, an actor and masseur to Marilyn, described her skin as having the “blue whiteness one sees sometimes in the stars of a desert night”. Banner also refers winningly to the “lyricism of her courtship” with Arthur Miller: “It’s easy to mistake a wife for a god …you make her happy some night and you begin to think you settled something global,” Miller wrote.

Banner’s book could do with more analysis of Monroe’s enchantingly witty film roles but credit is due for her quiet discussions of her subject’s drug use, probably the least interesting thing about her.

Banner is very good on the casual misogyny of Hollywood. In an interview Billy Wilder, the director of Monroe’s greatest triumph, Some Like It Hot (1959) said that after working with Marilyn it had taken a good deal of time for him to be able to look at his wife without wanting “to hit her because she was a woman”.

The final pages concerning Monroe’s death at 36, with only the choices of suicide, overdose or murder to explain it, make very painful reading.

At the close, though, one image stood out for me above all the others. Banner gives us the Hollywood director Jean Negulesco’s description of Monroe at the premiere of How to Marry a Millionaire. The roars of the crowd at her imminent arrival were “like an approaching earthquake” and in a dress of white silk covered with white and platinum beads she was carried by four policemen over the heads of the crowd. Once inside the movie theatre there were people climbing on their seats, even Cecil B. DeMille himself, and Negulesco commented: “I witnessed beyond any expectation the luxury of her fame.”

Susie Boyt is an FT columnist. Her new novel, ‘The Small Hours’, will be published in November (Virago)

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