791: Marilyn by Gloria Steinem

by Gerard


791.43028092: Steinem, Gloria. Marilyn: Norma Jeane. New York: Open Road, 2013 [1986]. Approx. 180 pp. ISBN 978-1-4532-9533-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine arts and recreation
  • 790: Recreational and performing arts
  • 791: Public performances
  • 791.4: Motion pictures, radio, and television
  • 791.43: Motion pictures
  • 791.43028: Acting and performance
  • +092: Biography

Unless you live under a rock, you know who Marilyn Monroe is. She was “discovered” as a photogenic face during a media session at her job at an airplane part manufacturer in 1945. At that point, she was just Norma Jeane Dougherty. For the next seventeen years, though, she would become a symbol of American sexual appeal with the name Marilyn Monroe. She had a part in 33 movies, for which she won three different Golden Globes. But not many people know her full story. Gloria Steinem, in Marilyn, tries not only to give us a full telling of her life but also sheds some light on the enduring character traits of this iconic blonde bombshell.

To start, she was born after her father divorced her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker. Unfortunately, Gladys was mentally ill and young Norma was placed with foster parents, but after a few run-ins with her birth mother, she was made a formal ward of the state. From there, she bounced between family friends, foster homes, and other relatives until she married family friend James Dougherty. Everyone knows the story after this. She became a Hollywood model and starlet, married and divorced Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and was connected romantically with Frank Sinatra and the brothers Kennedy.

During all this, she dealt with numerous physical and psychological ailments. She tried many, many times to get pregnant during her marriages, but they all ended badly. When she did get pregnant, it was unintentional and out of wedlock and so had to get illegal abortions. She tried desperately to build the family she never had. Her social anxiety and continually bifurcated existence (between Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe) left her addled and unable to sleep properly. Her medicine cabinet was a testament to just how damaged she became over time.

Steinem’s narrative is both sad and illuminating. I had never really given Monroe any respectful thought, but its looks neither did anyone else. Actors, writers, and reporters dismissed her as the stereotypical “dumb blonde” when all she wanted to be was a decent actress. She tried to read heady novels to improve herself only to be met with derision and scorn. Even though this text was originally written 26 years ago, it reminds one of many current starlets, each trying to simultaneously appeal to the audience with their physicality and hoping they don’t get too close. It seems that the more things changes, the more they stay the same. This was indeed an eye-opening book.