Sarah Churchwell
The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

Find out if Marilyn Monroe was 'truly schizoid'.

By Robin Norton-Hale

This isn't yet another version of the 'naked truth' about the favourite film star of biographers. Sarah Churchwell's namechecking of heavyweight critical theorists makes it clear from the outset that if it's sordid affairs and conspiracy theories you're after, you've picked up the wrong book. She's more interested in why we are so endlessly fascinated by the combined volume of these stories, anecdotes and rumours that make up what she calls the Marilyn 'apocrypha', and why despite all the attention, no-one has managed a 'definitive' Monroe biography.

Conflicting accounts of just about every aspect of Monroe's life mean there is no such thing as a 'canon' (‘the apocrypha is the canon'), and her status as a modern goddess lends her myth-makers an almost religious fervour. Churchwell doesn't have much time for most of these writers, especially those who promise to reveal the 'real Marilyn' and end up revealing more about their own fantasies (norman mailer, please stand up). Though she is less acidic about the various feminist attempts to reclaim Monroe, she points out some striking similarities between these accounts and the openly misogynistic versions, including their presumptuous tendency to create a fictional voice for monroe and present it as fact.

Both camps frequently confuse Monroe with the characters she played: she is naive, (too) generous with her affections and unthreateningly sexy. This persona suits both those who desire her for her femininity and those who want to mourn her as a victim of patriarchy, but overlooks the fact that, by the accounts of those who knew her, Marilyn was foul-mouthed and smart. When Monroe's behaviour off-screen inconveniently differs from a particular role, her biographers attribute this to anything but acting ability. A famous story from the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, during which Monroe clearly felt patronised by her co-star and director Laurence Olivier, has her telling the assistant director to go fuck himself. This incident causes one of her major biographers to wonder whether Monroe was 'as Olivier believed, truly schizoid?' – and Sarah Churchwell to wonder: 'would a biographer ask the same question about a male actor who told a director to go fuck himself? Frank Sinatra evidently said it all the time, and no one calls him schizoid, just arrogant.'

Churchwell sensibly allows a lot of the nonsense that has been written about Monroe to undermine itself with its own absurdity, but when she does comment she is unpretentious and often witty. She follows one biographer's quotation about Monroe's (disputed) 14 abortions (‘Marilyn no doubt thought of herself as a murderer, as most women did after an abortion. In society, at this time, Marilyn would thus be considered a murderer fourteen times over') with the dry observation, 'It's a wonder they didn't give her the chair.'

The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is as much about why she has been presented in the way she has as it is about Monroe herself. When Churchwell affectionately talks about 'her Marilyn' in the afterword, she doesn't claim to give us any more than a partial impression – 'the least I can grant her is the grace of being unaccountable'. And after everything Monroe has been subjected to, this is an impressive achievement.
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