Marilyn Monroe – A Definitive New Biography by Vitacco-Robles
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Marilyn Monroe is an enigmatic figure in the history of the entertainment industry. Half a century has passed since her death, yet she is remembered today as if she were yet alive. Her story has evolved into legend. Breathtakingly beautiful, talented and charismatic, she begins her career in the heyday advent of the movie industry. The widescreen CinemaScope technology and stereophonic sound present her on the wide screen as sensual, alluring and innocent – the undeniably seductive child-woman somehow untainted by the world. She was so compelling in her portrayals that two of her more successful films (Some Like It Hot and The Misfits) were produced in black-and-white. Other glamorous stars preceded her, but none secured the same lasting impact.
Marilyn Monroe is both the product and the victim of twentieth century America as the country moves into new-found affluence after World War II. The age is witness to the rise of materialism, the redefinition of sexual values, the questioning of the place of women in society and the leaderless rebellion of youth against the established order. Monroe’s name is associated with some of the elite of the era, Carl Sandberg, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy Frank Sinatra and Clark Gable among others. It would only follow that many would try to exploit her memory for personal advantage. Over 600 books have been published about her. Many accounts distort the collective memory to such an extent the task of untangling and clarifying Ms. Monroe’s story takes on monumental dimensions.
Unassailable Credibility . . .
Gary Vitacco-Robles was not one to be deterred from the challenge of making certain truth would prevail. His two volumes, Icon: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes I and II constitute the definitive biography of the great actress. (See the earlier review of Volume I click here on this web site.) That Vitacco-Robles cares, and cares deeply, for his subject is clear. His compassion and sensitivity are never more obvious than when he addresses the less-than-glamorous episodes in her life. Readers can expect to be impressed with the depth of his research. Every scene is filled with poignant detail. His credibility is unassailable and thus the power behind his narrative flows from genuine empathy for his subject.
Volume II covers the turbulent years from 1956 to 1962, the year the star died of a tragic, accidental overdose. By 1956, Ms. Monroe has gained star status. The Seven Year established her securely as a box office draw. Successes followed including The Prince and the Showgirl, Bus Stop, and arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. The world comes to know the screen persona of the actress. What becomes central to the spiritual and psychological plight for Ms. Monroe is that the world does not know her for who she truly is. “Do you want me to be Marilyn?” she teases one guest. In private the actress finds the adulation, addressed as it is to a characterization, void of the affirmation she desperately seeks. She struggles with depression, the anguish of bipolar emotional swings and the unfulfilled yearnings with their roots in a deprived and abusive childhood. Vitacco-Robles has the professional credentials to state his own analysis, but he remains objective and quotes other authorities who knew Ms. Monroe whenever he wants to write about her tormented mental state. Throughout, the author is even-handed and balanced in presentation; neither apologist nor critic. He treats the actor’s professional growth in the same manner. Monroe’s contemporaries observe that she is at the height of her talent and growing as an actress at the time of her death.
Several persons emerge from the author’s narrative as major influences in the star’s life. Arthur Miller’s emotional withdrawal from her while they are married leaves readers questioning the depth of artistic sensitivity. Joe DiMaggio’s devotion to her throughout her life is moving. Lee and Paul Strasberg seem to thrive on keeping Marilyn dependent rather than helping her move toward a more autonomous self-sufficiency. Readers may also conclude that Psychiatrist Ralph Greenson is guilty of cultivating a dependency. Monroe was on the verge of firing him at several points.
Approaching Ridicule . . .
Surprises await also. Ms. Monroe’s performance of Happy Birthday at JFK’s party can be seen on You Tube today. It may appear to be spontaneous. Not so, however. It was rehearsed and she was very nervous before the performance. It was suggested that she appear in a more modest formal gown, but she decided to surprise the President and those attending with something of her own choosing. The dress she selected was sewn on her. She wore no under garments. Emcee Peter Lawford, who was instrumental in bringing Ms. Monroe and JFK together in his home, built his introduction of the actress on a belittling patter that approached ridicule. The “audience roared,” the author reports, when she crossed the stage.. Her seductive presentation borders on travesty, especially in the face of the rumors that were flying about her and the President. Public values were very much in transition at the time, but even today, many would see her act as an affront to the decorum expected in the presence of a head-of-state. “That was poor form on her part,” Mort Viner, Dean Martin’s manager said. Many would agree. The President, in acknowledging her performance, observes with humorous sarcasm that he enjoyed being serenaded in such a “wholesome” manner and the line drew a laugh from the crowd. Sarcasm is always a mixed message. Audience members may have roared at her appearance but for the most part it was at her expense. One wonders whether she realized at some level that she may have discredited herself. At the very least, she was not well served by those who rehearsed her. Nothing highlights the dichotomy between the performing Marilyn and the private Marilyn as much as this short historic appearance. The author does not report that private Marilyn drew any satisfaction over how her performance was received. “I liked it,” she said in response to a direct question about the party by reporters afterward.
Her Own Glittering Mist . . .
Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., JFK’s biographer, made a journal entry that speaks for most when he wrote, “I do not think I have seen anyone as beautiful. I was enchanted by her manner and wit, at once so masked, so ingenuous and so penetrating. But one felt a terrible unreality about her-as if talking to someone under water. . . . One never felt her to be wholly engaged. She receded into her own glittering mist.”
Vitacco-Robles, as an author, refrains from moralizing and passing judgement. Readers, however, will find the story he has presented as moving and tragic, so much so that one may feel Marilyn Monroe’s legacy looms much larger than her artistic achievements. Her performances will attest through the ages to the depths of her enormous talent. Given her kindness to others, her generosity and her forgiving nature, she stands, however, for so much more. It is not too difficult to imagine that she would have done everything within her power to make certain no child would ever again experience the horrors that she endured during her early years. Her memory needs to be invoked in every effort to assure a better world awaits the birth of every child than the dreadful circumstances she was born into. The psychological damage and painful disorientation of her early years remained with her throughout her life. It crippled her, locked her in “her own glittering mist” as she searched for fulfillment and true happiness. Her life is proof that no amount of fame or fortune can compensate for the loss of the nurturance, love and affirmation every child needs to establish a thriving, healthy sense of self and a belief in his or her essential worthiness.
Turning to conditions under which Ms. Monroe worked, the author provides insight into the workings of the major Hollywood studios. Marilyn Monroe was a money maker for them but she was never treated with the respect she deserved. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were driving the studio into bankruptcy with their self-indulgent behavior and shoddy performances on the set for Cleopatra. Yet they were coddled and catered to. Ms. Monroe may have had problems with punctuality and keeping her commitments to appear but her performances were always exceeded expectations. Yet she was ostracized and threatened with termination. The harsh uncharitable treatment kept her mindful of her the painful abandonment and abuse she experienced as a child.
Vitacco-Robles’s writing style is sturdy and straightforward. There are moments when the author could have moved his story along more efficiently had he used footnotes to provide background data. On occasion the central story all but surrenders to detail and the trail of the narrative fades. The author includes an appendix that provides a synopsis of each of Monroe’s films. Extending the practice to include background information on some personalities and events would have served equally as well. These are the minor shortcomings of an impressive work of unflinching objectivity. Marilyn Monroe’s talent and memory deserved a biographer who brings to his task a dedication and skill that is worthy of her as a subject. Vitacco-Robles had done just that. He has paid her the highest possible tribute in completing this most memorable biography.
This review initially appeared in somewhat condensed form on the web site bookpleasures.com
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