J. Randy Taraborelli’s biography of Marilyn Monroe has made a home on my bookshelf for at least three years. After the airing of Lifetime’s surprisingly exemplary adaptation of it – which I reviewed – I figured now was the time to actually crack that binding. There are as many Marilyn Monroe biographies as their are films in a given decade. You could say more has been written on her than movies she made, so it’s easy to end up reading subpar work that aims for the scummier side of Monroe’s life, much of which remains unsubstantiated. The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe isn’t as secretive as it claims, or I’ve read too many books that have cannibalized Taraborelli’s work, but what remains is a fascinating and honest examination of woman who enjoyed exaggerating her life as much as authors today do.
Taraborelli stakes his claims of originality in deconstructing Monroe’s childhood, particularly her fractious relationship with her mother Gladys, and surrogate mothers Ida Bolender and Grace McKee. The majority of Monroe books tend to limit these women to peripheral characters either front-loaded into the narrative (Bolender), unimportant (McKee) or an unfeeling burden (Gladys). Taraborelli emphasizes that all three were prominent people in Marilyn’s life, who followed her up until the end. The Bolenders, often depicted as unloving adoptive parents who married off a young Norma Jean to be rid of her, are seen as sympathetic, with Ida’s husband being the father Norma Jean/Marilyn wished was her own.
A surprise I didn’t see coming was Taraborelli’s interview subjects. The standard inclusion of quotes from Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and others are a given. But Taraborelli gains invaluable interviews with Monroe’s half-sister, Berniece – a woman who I never knew existed despite reading several Monroe biographies – and the son of the man Marilyn assumed was her father. In the case of the latter, the reader can take his words as definitive proof, lies, or the naivety of a child unaware of his father’s past. Taraborelli could have written a biography purely on Monroe’s life before fame ever came her way because his research is impeccable.
Partly because of how diffuse Monroe’s life is in popular culture, but the remainder of the biography remains in familiar waters. It’s never boring or exploitative, but it treads on ground anyone who’s read one bio on Monroe is already aware of – her contentious marriages, the Wrong Door Raid, her time at Payne-Whitney, etc. By staying away from uncorroborated claims, Taraborelli creates a narrative aiming at finding Monroe’s soul but that lacks any memorable punch or pull to continue.
If you’ve never read any Monroe biographies – and that’s a pretty tall order – you should give The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe a read. Well-researched and well-articulated, with some spellbinding new revelations about the actress’ life, this is one to read.
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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.