Open Road Integrated Media
Gloria Steinem’s insightful and uniquely sensitive account of Hollywood’s brightest star from the Golden Age
Few books have altered the perception of a celebrity as much as Marilyn. Gloria Steinem reveals that behind the familiar sex symbol lay a tortured spirit with powerful charisma, intelligence, and complexity. The book delves into a topic many other writers have ignored—that of Norma Jeane, the young girl who grew up with an unstable mother, constant shuffling between foster homes, and abuse. Steinem evocatively recreates that world, connecting it to the fragile adult persona of Marilyn Monroe. Her compelling text draws on a long, private interview Monroe gave to photographer George Barris, part of an intended joint project begun during Monroe’s last summer. Steinem’s Marilyn also includes Barris’s extraordinary portraits of Monroe, taken just weeks before the star’s death.
This was a very sad and poignant read – Steinem writes a very empathetic story about the life and death of this tortured and fragile individual and reveals more about Marilyn Munroe (stage name of Norma Jeane) than we are usually presented with, more than mere gloss, Hollywood hype and cheesecake photo shoots; Steinem reveals the ghosts of Norma Jeane’s past that so critically affect the adult Marilyn Munroe.
Norma Jeane had a tragic and emotion deprived childhood – she grew up in a series of babysitters and relatives homes, often only seeing her mentally unstable mother on weekends. When her mother was hospitalized Norma Jeane continued to flit from home to home, from relative to relative to family friends, foster care and an orphanage (where Marilyn alleges she was sexually assaulted at the age of 8). She later lived with a distant relative – an aunt who encouraged the teenage Norma Jeane to marry the boy next door (for security and protection). Norma Jeane was just sixteen. The adult Marilyn continued to look for happiness, security, love and approval in her many marriages.
Steinem’s account of Marilyn Munroe’s life is one that shows talent, promise, intellect, neediness and insecurity; a complex individual largely a victim of her unstable upbringing and the social mores of the time that defined women as mere homemakers, sexual objects, and dependant. I was surprised to hear of Marilyn’s political voice, her activism – writing letters to the editor, using her fame to influence decision makers, “she told us of her strong feelings about civil rights, for black equality…..her anger a red baiting…. ( p.72) Steinem shows us a Marilyn that is not obvious in the public persona, the actress whose roles largely related to the one dimensional “dumb blonde”.
I enjoyed learning that there was more to Marilyn than was obvious or that was portrayed in the media. Steinem has cleverly created a narrative that allows the reader to step back in time to see the world through Marilyn’s eyes.
Despite the fact that Marilyn Munroe died fifty one years ago her name and image remain fresh in our minds. Marilyn’s life made an impact on Hollywood and popular culture and the manner and timing of her death, whether accidental or murder or suicide, will intrigue the media hungry public forever (or until a suicide note is made public or a conspiracy plot is revealed). Steinem suggests (p. 96) that after Marilyn’s death it is “likely that Peter Lawford employed a private detective to sweep the house… and to destroy any evidence embarrassing to the Kennedys, including a suicide note or unfinished letter.” The intrigue and mystery lives on, the legend of Marilyn Munroe, screen goddess, still very much alive.