It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed anything Marilyn Monroe related. I guess after all that time spent in my Month with Marilyn that mad this blog what it is today I was burned out on the blonde bombshell. We return to look at her in an amazingly factual biography that should be the starting point for Marilyn fans. Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential by Michelle Morgan is free of exploitation and heresy (helped by the exhaustive sources section in the back). While it can be a little dry reading at times that doesn’t diminish from the wealth of information presented, the people interviewed, and the stunning, never-before-seen photos that are worth a purchase. Or you can win a copy free by reading below!
I’ve read my fair share of biographies on Marilyn ranging from the bland to the scandalous (my review of Darwin Porter‘s Marilyn at Rainbow’s End is on this blog). Michelle Morgan’s book falls comfortably in the middle, giving an honest depiction of the star, warts and all. What’s impressive about this book in comparison to others is the detail on Marilyn’s early life. Authors tends to want to jump immediately to the fame and only give her background a cursory glance but Morgan spends a little less than half the book discussing her mother, the various theories on her real father, and the different “foster homes” Marilyn lived in. Marilyn was famous for detailing her life as an orphan and while that’s been marked as false, Morgan includes interviews with the different families who all loved Marilyn including the Knebelkamps, the Goddards and others. A few of these families wished to adopt Marilyn and it’s sad to think about how her life might have turned out had she been in a stable family.
A great deal of the book looks at the life Marilyn could have led away from the Hollywood fame game. A segment discusses the quiet life Marilyn led with playwright Arthur Miller. Another common feature in biographies on Marilyn is to gloss over the Miller years but Morgan looks at them with tenderness; showcasing Marilyn’s time gardening and enjoying country life. When Marilyn divorced Miller it’s said she knew she would never visit that country life again and it does make you yearn for this young woman to find happiness as she had numerous opportunities. At the end of the book is a beautiful section of “remembrances” where various friends and actors interviewed discuss where they were when they discovered Marilyn died, her legacy in the world, and various views on why her life didn’t go as planned. If anything I’d love to see a full-length book with these as they’re from the heart.
The book doesn’t waste time on plot synopsis or actors (something I’ve grown increasingly annoyed to discover fills a lot of pages in biographies today). In fact the movies are introduced with a few sentences and a title so if you’re hoping this will analyze Monroe’s movies you’ll have to find another and trust me, they aren’t that hard to find. The only issue I had in terms of discussing Marilyn’s film work is the lack of any type of quotes or interviews from the big stars of the pictures. In a few of the films only one person is interviewed throughout the entirety of that movie and it’s a bit player. Considering the extensive magazine and newspaper research Morgan did I wished she had included some articles or something from stars like Clark Gable, Cary Grant, or Lauren Bacall and what it felt like working with her. The limited viewpoints extend out to other aspects like her childhood where Morgan relies on only a few people leaving little diversity in opinion. While I enjoyed hearing from the various relatives who are still alive during Marilyn’s upbringing, there’s again no reason during her film career other interviews couldn’t be included. I did also feel as if Morgan included excerpts from books and didn’t necessarily mention they were pre-written. For example in one section psychic Kenny Kingston is quoted and it sounds fake or at least written down and lifted from his memoirs. Unless he’s just weird for explicitly mentioning his “Filipino houseboy” (189).
Those are really the only nitpicks I have as the rest of the book is open and upfront about Marilyn and has enough evidence to back up the assertions; again it’s why I love that huge section of references at the end. Morgan actually goes so far as to disprove theories espoused by other books and includes evidence explaining why. One story that’s made the rounds of a few Marilyn biographies, and was included in the Porter book, is the secret “relationship” and marriage of Marilyn to unknown Robert Slatzer. Not only does Morgan debunk this but includes evidence of cancelled checks proving Marilyn wasn’t in Mexico where the site of this marriage supposedly took place. Morgan also debunks Colin Clark, the author of My Week with Marilyn which shocked and surprised me mainly because I have the book to read, and because I didn’t hear anyone criticizing the authenticity when the movie came out. Morgan attributes many of the stories Clark used to Marilyn’s British pianist Alan and even alludes to Clark and a few friends of spying on Marilyn for stories. One story that is strengthened is Marilyn’s time at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital. I was a tad skeptical of this story the way Porter wrote it but Morgan does say it’s true, including the claims of Marilyn being stripped and examined. All of this weaves together a book that provides nothing but fact while tearing apart the fiction you can read so much of when it comes to Ms. Monroe.
The book does of course discuss the various relationships in Marilyn’s life and while it asserts the same things like DiMaggio‘s possibly abuse, by the way Marilyn tried to maintain strong relationships with DiMaggio and Miller, Morgan never demonizes them. In fact Morgan presents Marilyn as a sad little girl who didn’t understand all the fuss about sex, succinctly summarizing that “the most famous sex symbol of all time never found any fulfillment in sex herself” (182). Quite a good portion of the book looks at Marilyn’s views on love and marriage, sadly presenting a girl who exhibited a lifetime of self-esteem issues and possibly trauma. In an interview she gave to a magazine Marilyn is quoted as saying “When I sense there’s something wrong, I ask ‘What’s the matter? Sorry if I did something.” It’s statements like this that make you want to hug Marilyn and do a perfect job of humanizing her than any book I’ve read so far (193).
It could explain the “love ’em or leave ’em” attitude that Marilyn had a tendency to exhibit to men. A lover of her past, Bill Pursel, details his brief relationship with Marilyn and how, one day, she just said goodbye to him. In reading the entire book her actions make sense as she’s presented as a young woman looking for a grand romance and finding “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” as we know from Some Like It Hot. Another surprising attribute that’s looked at is Marilyn’s ability to be selfish and somewhat rude. A surprising story involves Michael Selsman who worked for Marilyn and was married to actress Carol Lynley. The story details that a pregnant Lynley was told to wait outside in the car by Marilyn who wanted Selsman’s complete attention. It’s shocking to discover Marilyn could be rude considering her persona as a sweetheart but it continues to humanize and show that some days she didn’t feel like being nice.
The main thesis of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential is how Marilyn was the girl next door, the girl who “couldn’t get a dressing room” (184). The dressing story lasted all the way through to the Seven Year Itch and there are countless stories in the book about people not recognizing Marilyn even after The Seven Year Itch came out. No matter what though Marilyn was all about her fans as the book does a beautiful job of highlighting numerous stories of regular people who encountered Marilyn. Marilyn always took out time for her fans and many of the stories are filled with appreciation but were also able to detect the loneliness Marilyn felt. To many, they felt they were helping Marilyn by being so cordial to her.
Add in some spell-binding, never-before-seen photos that include pictures of a young Marilyn, her mother Gladys Baker, and numerous family outings and you have an amazing book! Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential is the book all Marilyn fans need to seek out! Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for sending me a copy.
You can win a copy of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Confidential. Just follow me on Twitter @Journeys_Film and send me a tweet saying “I Want to Win!” The winner will be picked out at random next Monday the 27th. If you win just email or direct message me (I’ll be sure to follow the winner) with your address! So get those entries in!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.