The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli (Book Review)

The Secret Life of Marilyn MonroeThe Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: biography, ugh, conspiracy-theories, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, addiction, mental-illness, show-your-work, americana, hollywood

I’m fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. Not sure why. It’s not that my husband likes to say I look like her–I don’t. He’s just being sweet. But it’s odd that it took me this long to read a Marilyn biography or watch a Marilyn movie. I chose this one because it was the highest-rated on Goodreads. I almost decided not to finish it, and now I’m pissed that I did finish it.

1. Much of Marilyn’s life was mysterious, glamorous, tragic. Mostly mysterious, particularly her death. I was annoyed several times as the author glossed over speculations about her death and things rumored to have factored in to it such as the possibility of an affair with RFK as well as JFK, with statements like, “Fresh research assembled for this book says it didn’t happen.” That’s it. Just take his word for it. But it’s even worse than that. He starts the sources section by saying that appendices are just typing exercises, they’re a waste of ink and paper, nobody reads them anyway, so he’s not actually going to set out his sources. He refers to a few documentary sources in the narrative, such as reports from the FBI (whom he trashes). But he doesn’t cite them as a source.

What the what? Math and biographies, dude: SHOW. YOUR. WORK.

I’m one of those people who does read appendices.

But here’s the real kicker. He dismisses speculation about her death this way: “If she had been a stable woman who had never overdosed in her lifetime, then, yes, one might legitimately question the circumstances of her death. However…” And I am not using that quote that out of context.

What in the actual fuck. She was an addict, so any questioning of suspicious circumstances is not legitimate? She was an addict, so she can’t also be a victim of foul play? Is the author one of those assholes who thinks a rape victim’s sexual history is relevant? This is especially galling after you’ve read an entire book themed around poor-Marilyn-nothing-was-her-fault; see #2.

2. The writer was perhaps a bit too dazzled by his subject. To hear him tell it, she was incapable of making a stupid decision or simply acting like a shit sometimes like the rest of us. Every negative behavior is blamed on mental illness, her sad childhood, her crazy mother, her daddy issues, power-tripping studio heads, greedy and controlling acting coaches, hyperprescribing doctors, too much therapy and wallowing, abusive husbands, the effects of alcohol and pills, the nature of addiction, paranoia from the FBI following her around. Marilyn herself was never culpable for anything. It wore thin.

Except for her death, of course; she evidently had that coming. It’s appalling.

3. It suffers from Other People’s Childhoods Syndrome. Normally I’d give the author a pass for this one because it’s so tough to make anybody else’s childhood interesting to me, but I’m throwing the book at this book, ha ha. I skipped ahead to the James Dougherty marriage and the beginning of modeling, and don’t feel I missed anything, especially since he repeats so much; see #4.

4. The writing is meh, and the narrative jumps around in time and repeats things so I was always flipping back and forth to see if I really already had read something, and yes, yes I had. Overall, it reads like a not-quite-finished draft; do some more editing, tighten up the timeline, cut about 200 pages of minutiae. One photo is said to have been taken at a party hosted by producer Harvey Weinstein, who would have been ten years old at the time. Understandable mistake, I suppose, but then it appears that Harvey Weinstein, writer Walter Bernstein and producer Henry T. Weinstein are all conflated when the book references the (as far as I can determine) non-existent producer Harvey Bernstein. Exhaustive detail is not always a good thing, and there’s way too much of it here…

5. …right up until her death, which the author treats almost like a postscript. The book bogs down with detail and it was getting annoying, glancing down and seeing I was only at 35%, 43%, good Lord, I’ve been reading for a day and a half and I’m only at 48%? I initially skipped what I was sure would be the most interesting parts (the Rat Pack, the Kennedys, the Lost Weekend) because I’d had enough, and jumped ahead to her death. I couldn’t believe the treatment he gave it, so I went back and read what I’d skipped to see if I’d missed some justification for the conclusions. I had not.

Yes, my interest may be morbid, but in my own defense, I also like true crime. Marilyn’s death remains so mysterious but the author skims right over it. After endless imagined or third-hand conversations, interviews with people only peripherally involved in her life, detailed descriptions of what she was wearing, allusions on virtually every page to her vulnerability and mental illness and despair and emotional spirals and loneliness, she’s a poor-little-lost-girl-victim all the way, over and over, okay, okay, I get it, and then the last chapter is like, “Marilyn was found dead from a drug overdose. Lots of contradictions and different theories. Ignore the suspicious stuff because I said so. Accidentally or intentionally, she did it herself. So sad. Legend, icon, live forever in our hearts, blah blah blah. The End.”

Since I was lying around feeling lousy, nursing a sinus infection/allergies/spring crud, I decided to continue being unproductive and turned to YouTube clips. Yes, she did have a certain something, a fascinating blend of innocence and sophistication. We’ll never know if she could have become a good dramatic actress, but she certainly had a gift for the sexy and funny. All glammed up she was the quintessential movie star but au naturel her beauty was ethereal. The woman was stunning, and cameras loved her. (Some of her nude shots don’t even try to cover a surgical scar, and I appreciate that.)

Movie clips led to Marilyn documentaries, the conspiracy stuff. Good Lord, I’d never known. What really gets me is the story of how she was found: The housekeeper became alarmed when Marilyn’s door was locked, she called the doctor, he came over, he looked through the window of the French door to her bedroom, saw her lying face down with the phone in her hand, he broke the window and reached in to open the latch so he could get to her. Fine, but now Google photos of the house. (1) Where she was lying on the bed, Marilyn would not have been visible through the window at that angle; there’s a bureau or something with stuff piled on it, in the way, and (2) no intelligent person would reach through that broken window; you’d shred your hand and arm.

That’s just for starters. Yes, innuendo and rumor are one thing, but suspicions raised by officials and forensic science are quite another. Those officials’ statements and crime scene reports are not even referenced. What about the later statement that none of the interior doors in the house had locks, including the one to her bedroom? What about the assistant district attorney who says that Marilyn’s organs and other samples and slides disappeared, that what tissue analysis was done was almost perfunctory? What about her completely empty stomach and the lack of any water glass at the scene? What about the claims that bruising and lividity indicated her body had been moved after death? (And if you look at the “death” photo, that shows her lying face-down on the bed, that lividity is clearly visible.) What about the missing diary? What about the Hollywood cop who stated that on the evening of Marilyn’s death, he’d pulled over a car driven by Peter Lawford with Bobby Kennedy in the passenger seat, even though Kennedy was supposedly in San Francisco that night? Rumors of the FBI, the CIA, the mob? Only some of that is here, and it’s glossed over and dismissed out of hand.

There’s a lot floating around out there; the only conspiracy I didn’t find online is that she faked her death and is off somewhere living it up with Jimi Hendrix and Elvis. And I understand how it is. One person says this, another says that, the first person later says another thing, and things contradict other things.  People misspeak during trauma, perhaps remember differently later, misjudge times and whatnot. Memories fade after 50 years. I get that. But it’s one thing when a conspiracy blogger says “research shows” without citing that research; I expect better from a journalist.

This book has a lot (a lot) of information about Marilyn’s relationships with her mother and half-sister, other friendships, her marriages, her movies. The author hammers on indications that she was borderline paranoid schizophrenic. But as far as her death is concerned, and life circumstances that contributed to it, it’s hardly definitive. Not when the writer doesn’t address discrepancies, justify conclusions, or cite sources.

I’m quite annoyed that this is the Marilyn biography I chose to read. We can call it my Lost Weekend.

P.S. My daughter and I just watched The Seven Year Itch in its entirety. Loved it.

P.P.S. A good friend of mine is adamant that he saw Marilyn’s ghost at the Hollywood Roosevelt. I believe him.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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