The mere name "Marilyn" is instantly recognizable, and Marilyn Monroe's immortality shows no signs of fading. Only one of her movies has real staying power - Billy Wilder's brilliantly acerbic Some Like It Hot (1959) - yet her image, on film and in photographs, remains the American epitome of feminine beauty and sex appeal.
But the prose in J. Randy Taraborrelli's The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe is clumsy and breathless; the book's attempts at psychological analysis are obvious or inept; its exploration of her erotic life is a mixture of sensationalism and incompetence (at one point he tells us that she "was not interested in sex," a few hundred pages later that she was a creature of passion); its analysis of her films never tells us anything new, much less perceptive.
She was born Norma Jean Mortensonon June 1, 1926. Though her mother, Gladys Baker, had been married, the identity of her father was and remains unknown. Gladys was unstable (to put it charitably), and Norma Jean's peripatetic childhood left her insecure and desperate for love.
People realized early that she was uncommonly beautiful, and saw possibilities for her in the movies. Every pretty girl in Los Angeles had the same idea, but Norma Jean had the goods. A number of her subsequent films were box office hits, notably The Seven Year Itch (1955), but mostly she was cast in sexy blond roles. She was intelligent and ambitious for more serious work, though how suited for it will forever remain a mystery. She married three times, never happily, and slept with many men, though exactly how many and with how much or how little pleasure, we also never will know. She was hooked on a pharmacopoeia of drugs, and at times drank too much, which did nothing to improve her deepening insecurity and mental imbalance.
She was a decent, kind person who wanted to be loved but had execrable taste in men, too many of whom used and then abused her. Her story is inexpressibly sad, and even in the hands of one as inept as Taraborrelli it retains its power.
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
By J. Randy Taraborrelli
Grand Central, 560 pages, $26.99