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refreshing on the facts ...
on 13 September 2012
The first good thing is, this is not an exploitative biography of Marilyn, which so many books about her are. That in itself is something valuable. You often wonder if anything new and interesting can be said about Marilyn: the answer here is a definite yes. Michelle Morgan includes some fresh information, for example about a significant early friendship between Marilyn and Bill Pursell (and the book has some of his photos).
I always hope that a new biography will bring Marilyn's inner nature into sharper focus. Reading this book, my picture of the woman who was Marilyn did sometimes become a little clearer, and I gained some insights especially in the earlier part of the book. But then at times her elusive and complicated nature became less visible, and she vanished again behind the star-image, particularly in the final part of the book.
I wanted the author to provide more insights, from her own intuition, about Marilyn as a personality. For example Marilyn's disrupted childhood probably had a very negative effect on her sense of self-worth. The circumstances of her early years are reported authoritatively by Michelle Morgan (and this is possibly the strongest section of her book) but she offers no interpretation of the effects on Marilyn of this painful time.
Similarly, the author makes clear that the predatory interest of ruthless studio bosses like Harry Cohn, must have been difficult for an ambitious young actress to manage. Morgan describes Marilyn's relationship with agent Johnny Hyde, and also the times when she cleverly escaped the clutches of 'wolves'. But Morgan chooses not to analyse the possible effects of this emotionally risky set-up on a vulnerable individual like Marilyn. (Norman Mailer said that Marilyn's combination of ambition and vulnerability was "dangerous" for her.) On this significant area the author simply states that Marilyn spent "a lot of time" with characters like Cohn, and leaves it at that.
This biography has to be admired for the author's refusal to engage (like some writers) in provocative speculation for its own sake. On the fraught question of the Kennedy-connection, Morgan correctly lets the subject go as over-inflated rumour, which is probably all it is. Clarification of facts is the best aspect of this book, even though the selection of facts can be uneven: e.g. the author includes numerous stories about the public's enthusiasm when Marilyn visited England to film with Olivier -but little background information about husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller; significant figures like Natasha Lytess and Lee Strasberg remain too shadowy.
When she mentions Sir Laurence Olivier's famously insensitive direction, "be sexy, Marilyn!", the author makes a surprising statement. She says that "Marilyn had no idea what Olivier meant by this comment". Come on Michelle - Marilyn cannot fail to have known what Olivier meant! There is abundant evidence that Norma Jeane was astutely aware of what the public expected from "Marilyn" and how to supply it for the cameras -she had, after all, been a successful glamour-model. Allure was an instinctive and vibrant aspect of her real identity. If Marilyn had "no idea" what it meant to be "sexy", then the Pope has never heard of a mass.
An ideal biography has to reconstruct somehow the true essence of its subject, to make her come alive again in the reader's imagination, and this is probably any biographer's most difficult challenge. Marilyn's fascinating nature is more complex and therefore more challenging than most. A biography must temporarily put aside her 'star-image'. Michelle Morgan's book is partly a success. It has integrity, it is not hagiography, and the author is not afraid of Marilyn's shortcomings. However, though clear on many of the facts, it is not the last word. The definitive biography of Marilyn -as a human being not a star- has yet to be written.