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The 50-Year Itch

A new book Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by USC Dornsife’s Lois Banner marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic actress’ death.

A leader in the field of women's studies and history, USC Dornsife's Lois Banner has written a new book breaking stereotypes that have haunted Marilyn Monroe since her death at age 36 a half century ago. Banner photo by Roger Snider.
A leader in the field of women's studies and history, USC Dornsife's Lois Banner has written a new book breaking stereotypes that have haunted Marilyn Monroe since her death at age 36 a half century ago. Banner photo by Roger Snider.

Marilyn Monroe’s biographers haven’t always been kind. Since she was found dead in her Brentwood, Calif., home on Aug. 5, a half-century ago, she’s been portrayed anywhere from bimbo and victim to tempestuous manic-depressive.

Those stereotypes belie the kaleidoscopic identity that emerges in a new biography by Lois Banner, professor of history and gender studies in USC Dornsife. Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (Bloomsbury, 2012) brings a new level of academic credentials to the study of Monroe’s life, and reveals a figure far more complicated than her biographers have given her credit for.

Banner, a pioneer in the field of women’s studies and history, has unique insight into the star’s private life. In 2011, she authored MM – Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe (Abrams). The book is a collection of memoranda recovered from two personal filing cabinets owned by Monroe containing a trove of more than 10,000 personal documents.

The Monroe she’s come to know through 100 interviews with friends and associates of the actress and endless research was a complex and intellectual autodidact. Monroe read voraciously, devouring Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekov, with a fondness for the poetry of Walt Whitman. In her autobiography, Monroe describes sitting in a restaurant with a playwright and a director — Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, both of whom had relationships with Monroe — listening to them discuss Renaissance art. She couldn’t follow the conversation.

The next day, Monroe signed up for a course on Western art at a branch of UCLA.

It’s one of many ways Monroe was completely determined to be the best at everything, Banner said.

“There’s a megalomania in her,” she said. “It’s an ambition to be perfect. It’s an ambition to conquer the world.”

Her research revealed private sides of the actress that have never before been exposed. Monroe anguished over lesbian affairs and what they meant about her feminine identity. She labored to overcome dyslexia and a debilitating stutter. And she nurtured a deep spirituality, a part of her life that has gone ignored in the past. While it’s known that Monroe converted to Judaism after marrying Miller, she also explored Christian Science and Buddhism, and donated money to the New York Theosophical Society.

“She hoped she could somehow find a way to conquer her very difficult self through meditation or spiritual order,” Banner said. “And it never really did happen.”

Monroe’s psyche and tragic childhood have been picked over by writers before, but Banner’s research confirmed the extent of her hardships. Some biographers doubted the number of foster homes Monroe claims to have lived in. She wasn’t exaggerating — Banner tracked down a dozen. Banner also confirmed the childhood sexual abuse that would sometimes manifest itself in aberrant behavior. Later in life, Monroe would speak publicly about that abuse — a bold move for any national celebrity, but particularly for a woman in the conservative 1950s.

Most fitting for an enigmatic personality, Monroe lived a hidden life as well, keeping secret apartments, wearing disguises and using pseudonyms. Partly, she did this to hide from the press and the public. And partly, she did it simply for the sake of a thrill, Banner said.

“She had put together this whole fantasy world for herself in addition to the regular world in which she lived. She liked to do daring and dangerous things,” Banner explained, adding that she married three times and badly wanted to have children, but she also lived her life in an unconventional way.

Banner will attend a book signing Aug. 5 at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., prior to a screening of the Monroe film River of No Return. Aug. 5 is the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.

“There wasn’t a single conventional bone in her body,” playwright and one-time husband Arthur Miller said of her – a sentiment Banner is quick to confirm. Self-made woman, natural publicist, prototypical feminist and secret spy — these are some of Monroe’s off-screen roles.

Other biographers have glossed over the depth of Monroe’s personality, Banner said.

“They thought she was a dumb blonde,” she said. “She had a reputation as not being very intelligent and not being very interesting. I was floored by what I found.”