Speaking for Marilyn
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
Towards the end of her new biography Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, Lois Banner describes an interview with Cami Sebring, the ex-wife of Frank Sinatra’s hairdresser Jay Sebring. Sinatra was, of course, king rat of the fast and loose Hollywood pack to which Monroe was close in the final years of her life. Sebring tells Banner that the men in the Rat Pack—Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis Jr—”passed women around like candy”. Banner asked Sebring why she was giving her this story to tell, rather than telling it herself. Sebring replied: “You’re the feminist. You tell it.”
It is an easily missed remark from a peripheral figure in this long biography, but it is a key moment which crystallises both Banner’s ambition and the many complications which attend it. In her prologue, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Women”, Banner establishes a tone of rather condescending self-assertion which becomes characteristic of the book: “I was drawn to writing about Marilyn because no one like me—an academic scholar, feminist biographer, and historian of gender—had studied her.” So this, we are instructed, is to be the ‘serious’ Marilyn Monroe book. It comes from a serious publisher, Bloomsbury, which touts Banner as “a founder of the field of women’s history”. It is to do for Monroe what none of the other hundreds of biographies has done, and Banner pledges to understand Monroe as those hundreds of earlier biographers have neither sought nor cared nor wished to. It is a problematic and rather arrogant pledge, predicated on a set of unsteady assumptions about Monroe and it goes right to the heart of the way in which she has almost invariably been treated by those who have sought to narrate her life since her notoriously mysterious death in August 1962.
In writing this biography Banner confronts an enormous and difficult task. Several generations after her death, Monroe remains instantly recognisable: her face is a leitmotif of the twentieth century. Banner and her research assistants mined archives across America, conducted interviews with those who knew and remember Monroe, and combed through the hundreds of written lives already in existence to produce a book that runs to some 500 pages with hefty notes and acknowledgements. Like Gloria Steinem before her, Banner seeks to place special emphasis on the sexual abuse Monroe suffered before she was Marilyn, as the girl called Norma Jeane. Banner states that she wants to “salute Marilyn for a major—and unacknowledged—feminist act” in having “named” this abuse as an adult. She asserts herself as a writer in the school of “new biography”, analysing “Marilyn in her historical context and in terms of her interactions with the men and women in her life, what I call the “geography of gender””.
It is true that Banner sketches in contextual details and social observations, though too often she does this by stating the obvious. Noting the “sexually suggestive titles” of many of Monroe’s films—like Let’s Make It Legal or Some Like It Hot—Banner informs us parenthetically that “(“It” was then a euphemism for sex.)” At other times the glosses she offers are simply crass and they are not aided by her stubbornly inelegant prose style. The teenage Norma Jeane “necked” with Jim Dougherty, her first husband, on their evening drives around Los Angeles. “Thus,” Banner writes, “they engaged in the long kissing bouts that were standard for dating couples in the 1940s.” Did couples stop necking in 1950? Of Monroe’s second husband Joe DiMaggio, she writes: “Joe had friends in the Mafia. He was, after all, Sicilian in background”. That neat cultural stereotype takes care of that. And let’s not forget Elia Kazan, the director of On the Waterfront, with whom Monroe had an affair in the early 1950s and who developed a fixation with “beautiful blondes” in high school, “when they rejected him because he was scrawny and ethnic looking”.
Most problematic and in fact most disappointing in this book are Banner’s remarks about women. By declaring herself a feminist, she is inviting certain expectations. Some of her remarks about Monroe are at best expressive of an extremely conservative view of women and the social codes to which they might be expected to conform, even in the post-necking 1950s, and at worst they are roundly misogynist. She lays claim to some distinction for having used Arthur Miller’s memoir Timebends as a source, and notes that Miller characterised Hollywood and Monroe “[u]sing vaginal metaphors”. Vaginal is one word for them; tedious and puerile are a couple of others. Miller discerned in the atmosphere of Hollywood a “sexual damp [. . .] the moisture in the clean creases of a woman’s flesh”. Banner’s response to this reveals three things: one, that she’s no literary critic, two, that she’s a funny kind of feminist, and three, that her “geography of gender” is based on a very old map.
In her prologue, Banner offers an analysis of one of the most famous photographs of the century: the shot of Monroe standing on the subway vent with her full white skirt billowing above her knees. One cannot help but be reminded of Roland Barthes’s selection of the face of Greta Garbo as one of his Mythologies, mainly because Banner’s reading of the image lacks entirely the Barthesian nuance to which she seems to be aspiring: “the scene in the shoot is naughty, with the phallic subway train, its blast of air, and Marilyn’s erotic stance. Yet she is in control.” Okay, but Banner has undermined her own point in her earlier reference to Monroe’s body: “Every time Marilyn’s skirt blew up, the crowd roared, especially those up front, who could see a dark blotch of pubic hair through her underpants, even though she had put on two pairs of pants to conceal it.” Here “blotch” isn’t just a word, it’s a loaded word: it carries the trace of all those old feminine stains that won’t wash out. One would hope that a feminist wouldn’t point them out so uncritically.
That difficult word “feminist” comes back in Banner’s afterword, when she returns to what has, for her, been the central, motivating question behind her biography: “Was Marilyn a feminist?” As she reflects on the possible answers, she notes that: “Marilyn had no gender framework to support her stance, no way of conceptualizing her situation beyond her individual self, to encompass all women, whose rights were limited in the 1950s”. This is the fundamental problem with Banner’s book: she is taking the wrong approach to the wrong material and looking for the answer to a question that, frankly, is not relevant. Of course it is valid and important and often very profitable to try and read Monroe as a cultural figure through a feminist framework, or to seek to understand how she became, after her death, the Marilyn Monroe who still exerts such an extraordinary hold on so many imaginations. But a traditional “life” of Monroe is not the way to achieve this.
This is why Sarah Churchwell’s approach in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe was so original and generative: in her meta-biography Churchwell gathered and interrogated the stories that have been told about Monroe, rather than seeking simply to tell another one. Jacqueline Rose has offered extraordinary psychoanalytically inflected readings of a number of extraordinary women, Ruth Ellis, Margaret Thatcher, and Sylvia Plath among them. More recently, she has turned to Monroe, in an analysis which hones in on both Monroe’s often radical left-wing politics (which Banner, to her credit, examines) and on her reception and representation in post-war, Cold War America. In a lecture last term at Mansfield College, Oxford, Rose set Monroe alongside the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. However, as engaging, original, and highly theoretical as her own interpretations of Monroe are, the discussion which followed Rose’s lecture still forced her to respond to some of those difficult biographical questions: one member of the not huge audience stood up and asked her how Monroe really died. She recommended he read Banner’s book.
Banner, as a historian, is clearly interested in establishing a sound account of events, but you can see her struggling on a far larger scale with similar problems to that which Rose encountered in Oxford. Many of the events Banner wants to historicise began life—and live on—as Hollywood gossip, or as stories told and allegations made by people who wanted to lay some claim on Monroe. As Lee says, every Monroe biography has to talk about certain things, so Banner rallies the usual suspects and the old stories. There is DiMaggio, the baseball hero who couldn’t control his violent jealousy when he was married to Monroe, but following their divorce he learned to control everything except his devotion; it is believed they had planned to remarry just days after her death. Miller emerges as peevish and cowardly and tiresomely self-analysing, spinning Monroe into his dramas even as they tried and failed to sustain their marriage. There are John and Robert Kennedy, living with careless hedonism on the West Coast of America as they created a new hope and idealism in politics on the East. Notably Banner only ever refers to them as “Jack” and “Bobby”, presumably because they do not appear here in their official capacities. President Kennedy, Banner states, was so angered by Monroe’s breathless rendition of “Happy Birthday” at his televised birthday celebration in May 1962 that he ended their affair. In the background there are glimpses of Jacqueline Kennedy maintaining a dignified distance, sometimes answering the phone to Monroe when she called the President’s private number in the White House family residence, more in concern than in anger. And all the way through there are the sometimes strange, sometimes demeaning, often hazy and always very sad details: Monroe’s shunned and institutionalised mother; her longed-for but unknown father; her fatally low self-esteem; her abortions; her struggles to bear a child; and her frightening dependence on the pills which ultimately killed her.
We can never read Monroe without mediation. The small but charmingly nostalgic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair gathers photographs and press cuttings relating to her visits to Britain and her reception among the cinema-going public. A feature in Pageant magazine in 1952 described her as “probably the world’s most photographed object after the Eiffel Tower”. It is an eloquent reminder that there is no way of seeing Monroe that is invulnerable to becoming, or to being charged with becoming, exploitation, misinterpretation, or objectification. But it is in her poses and her performances that we can find a certain refuge for this most talked about of women. It is true that there was always someone—usually a man—behind every camera, but there are moments when Monroe escapes direction on film, when she retains that self-enclosed agency which Barthes attributed to the photographic subject, and these moments resist all the things that are said about her. Watch her playing “chopsticks” in The Seven Year Itch. It is a brief, silly scene in Billy Wilder’s comedy. Monroe’s character, simply called The Girl, sits at a piano alongside the lascivious Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell). Richard has fantasised about seducing her while playing Rachmaninoff, but when the time comes all he can manage is “Chopsticks”. The Girl, delighted, joins in: Monroe drums her fingers on the piano keys, glances over to watch Ewell’s playing, and sings nonsense words to the children’s tune until she is out of breath, while her blonde hair bobs, unruly above her famous face. In the next moment, Richard will try to kiss The Girl and they will fall to the floor as she protests. The “Chopsticks” moment itself cannot have been entirely scripted and rehearsed. Within it, even through the filters of screen and story, Monroe escapes and endures beyond what was written for her: brilliant, exuberant, and happy.
Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.