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Marilyn: A Biography by Norman Mailer

Marilyn: A Biography (1973)

by Norman Mailer

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396540,453 (3.76)6



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Mailer’s text in Marilyn is supposed to serve as a supplement to the plethora of full-page photos one encounters in the hardcover first edition. That the image takes center stage, if you will, is important to consider from the outset in dealing with this book. Marilyn Monroe being a film icon and near universal sex symbol, just looking at the images alone tells you how she was perceived by and presented to the public. We might then expect Mailer’s text, with the subtitle of the book explicitly casting the work as biography, to offer a counterpoint to these images. He could unravel and use his writerly skill to map out a thoroughly researched biography that takes a critical eye to the Marilyn Monroe legend. The stunning thing about this book, why it succeeds, is precisely because he does not do that. Mailer writes, “let us at least recognize that the reductive voice speaks with no more authority than the romantic,” noting that to explain Marilyn we must recognize that there “are a million dumb and dizzy broads with luck and none come near to Monroe” (23). As a novelist and prose stylist, Mailer sees the legendary as something valuable.

Without some perceived mystique on part of others, Marilyn would not hold the sway she does in culture. Mailer exploits and plays with notion operating in a space somewhere between hagiography, novel, and critical examination. As to the first category, many passages in the book reiterate her beauty and uniqueness with striking phrases. Though if the entire text were a novelist fawning over or pitying a beautiful woman he never met, the narrative would in no way be sustainable. Most of the book centers around Monroe’s relationships, especially with love interests. These are examined with a sharp critical eye, evaluations lashing out from strangely unexpected avenues. Take the seemingly odd claim that “DiMaggio is interested in Marilyn only as a human being, not an Actress, and therefore is a vandal” (107). This is not an assertion you would find in any straightforward biography. Throughout the book, Monroe is characterized as a crude artist, but a less crude art object. Her skill is displaced by her all-American normality, but this is subverted by her otherworldly air. This otherworldliness, this presence, is what infests the screen.

From Mailer’s viewpoint, for DiMaggio to discount Marilyn the actress is discount the whole of her, to cheapen her by asserting nothing but her Southern charm or loveliness. To do this is make Marilyn into anybody else. Mailer transfigures Marilyn by making her into an artwork rather than an artist, though this doesn’t pejoratively objectify her. The photos here, the films to some extent, do the same thing. We perceive Marilyn and our gaze is mesmerizingly reflected back. To rub this away completely, to unpack the mystery and establish nothing but the facts would devolve a narrative of her life into dry filmography or an opportunity for pity and tragic sensationalism about her demise.

A recurring theme in the text, perhaps even a purposeful device, os the repetition of ghostly or occult elements. One notable example is how Mailer compares the way an actor “inhabits a role the way a ghoul invests a body”, and later, specifically characterizes Monroe’s repeated clashes with directors as analogous to “a medium who seeks to get rid of “those guests who are too hearty or hostile at a seance, as though she can express her own art only after she has neutralized those more active life forces around her” (151, 106). The comparison of Monroe to somehow holding a seance, and assigning to her a mildly vampiric quality that somehow manages to not be defamatory, prove that Mailer’s prose offers a treatment of Marilyn that is unique and often beautiful, if a little idiosyncratic.

Many of the claims in this biography were anecdotal, but at the time widely believed, though they have since been discredited. In most other instances, this would cause an older biography to suffer as a result, but here it simply adds to the narrative focus on legend and mystery and suffers nothing. A view of Mailer’s writing as purely a supplement to a phenomenal book of photographs would be unfair, as it is most certainly an equal component mapping Marilyn in all of her mythic, if sometimes mythical, proportions. Mailer's narrative is not objective nor even entirely factual biography, but that admixture of the real and the speculated is altogether suitable for a figure like Marilyn Monroe, especially when presented through Mailer's splendidly verbose and eccentric prose. ( )
1 vote poetontheone | Mar 19, 2014 |
I was a bit leery of reading a novelist's foray into biography, but having read this, I can't think of a better writer to take on such an iconic, compelling, enigmatic, and often contradictory individual. This proved to be an enjoyable, informative, and occasionally heartbreaking read. ( )
  KLmesoftly | Jan 15, 2012 |
  leslie440 | Jan 5, 2012 |
I read this book many years ago. In fact, it was the first book on Marilyn Monroe, that I ever read. I've given it 5 stars because at the time of my reading it, I enjoyed it very much. Like other reviewers, I loved the photos and the general layout of the book, but I wouldn't say this is a reliable biography of Marilyn. In fact, much of the information in this book has been proven over the years to be nonfactual, or unsubstantiated, and of course controversial. Nevertheless, it's entertaining if you treat it as a fictional novel (based on fact) rather than a true full account. Even though it was entertaining and the photos are breathtaking, I can't recommend this book to the reader who is interested in a factual narrative of her life. If you're still keen though, then get it for the photography and take the rest of it with a grain of salt - unless of course if you're able to swallow the conspiracy theories that Marilyn's death involved the FBI and CIA or believe that sleazy Slatzer guy was once her lover. ( )
2 vote CindyBytes | Jun 19, 2010 |
Beautiful photography ( )
  bluecat51 | Jul 6, 2008 |
Showing 5 of 5
Mailer’s adoration is as amateurish as an autograph hunter’s. But because of it we are once again, and this time ideally, reminded of his extraordinary receptivity. That the book should be an embarrassing and embarrassed rush-job is somehow suitable. The author being who he is, the book might as well be conceived in the most chaotic possible circumstances. The subject is, after all, one of the best possible focal points for his chaotic view of life. There is nothing detached or calculating about that view. It is hot-eyed, errant, unhinged. Writhing along past a gallery of yummy photographs, the text reads as the loopiest message yet from the Mailer who scared Sonny Liston with thought waves, made the medical breakthrough which identified cancer as the thwarted psyche’s revenge, and first rumbled birth control as the hidden cause of pregnancy. And yet Marilyn is one of Mailer’s most interesting things. Easy to punish, it is hard to admire – like its subject...

On her way to being divorced from Arthur Miller, Marilyn stopped off in Dallas. In Dallas! Mailer can hardly contain himself. ‘The most electric of the nations,’ he writes, ‘must naturally provide the boldest circuits of coincidence.’ Full play is made with the rumours that Marilyn might have had affairs with either or both of the two doomed Kennedy brothers, and there is beetle-browed speculation about the possibility of her death having placed a curse on the family – and hence, of course, on the whole era. Mailer himself calls this last brainwave ‘endlessly facile’, thereby once again demonstrating his unfaltering dexterity at having his cake and eating it.
added by SnootyBaronet | editCommentary, Clive James (Nov 11, 1973)
About half of "Marilyn" is great as only a great writer using his brains and feelers could make it. Just when you get fed up with his flab and slop, he'll come through with a runaway string of perceptions and you have to recognize that, though it's a bumpy ride, the book still goes like a streak. His writing is close to the pleasures of movies; his immediacy makes him more accessible to those brought up with the media than, say, Bellow. You read him with a heightened consciousness because his performance has zing. It's the star system in literature; you can feel him bucking for the big time, and when he starts flying it's so exhilarating you want to applaud.

But it's a good-bad book. When Mailer tries to elevate his intuitions into theories, the result is usually verbiage. (His theory that men impart their substance and qualities into women along with their semen is a typical macho Mailerism; he sees it as a one-way process, of course. Has no woman slipped a little something onto his privates?) There are countless bits of literary diddling: "--she had been alive for twenty years but not yet named!--"; the exclamation points are like sprinkles, Mailer the soothsayer with his rheumy metaphysics and huckster's magick is a carny quack, and this Hollywood milieu seems to bring out his fondness for the slacker reaches of the occult--reincarnation and sob-sister omens ("a bowl of tomato sauce dropped on her groom's white jacket the day of her first wedding"). We know his act already and those words (dread, existential, ontology, the imperatives) that he pours on like wella balsam to tone up the prose.
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So we think of Marilyn who was every Man's love affair with America, Marilyn Monroe who was blonde and beautiful and had a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice and all the cleanliness of all the clean American backyards.
If we want to comprehend the insane, then we must question the fundamental notion of modern psychiatry – that we have but one life and one death. The concept that no human being has ever existed before or will be reincarnated again is a philosophical rule of thumb which dominates psychiatry; yet all theory built upon this concept has failed – one is tempted to say systematically – in every effort to find a consistent method of cure for psychotics.
The stinginess for which he was famous – find the witness to testify that Miller had ever picked up a check – now seemed to have become a species of creative thrift. He was tight, he was tied up, he was abstemious – an artist in a time of such orderliness and depression can feel he has nothing to write about. Experience repeats itself with the breath of a turnip.
Holding the cross of high theatrical culture overhead, as if exorcising an incubus, Strasberg could have played the chaplain in a dungeon mortuary where the services would provide no music other than his icy voice. Veteran performers went weak at the thought of performing before Strasberg. For good cause. He invariably looked as if he had just caught a whiff of some hitherto buried stink.
English accents, Olivier’s in particular, have to certainly remind them that she is a girl from a semi-slum street and he is a boy from Brooklyn. She says the wrong things at her first press conference. The British do not care if she is witty, or refreshingly dumb, but she must choose to be one, or be the other — instead, she is pretentious.
Huston is, of course, the only celebrated film artist to bear comparison to Hemingway. His life celebrates a style more important to him than film. His movies do not embody his life so much as they seem to emerge out of a pocket of his mind. He will take horses seriously and hunting, gambling, and serious drinking, he will be famous for a few of the most elaborate practical jokes in the well-documented Hollywood annals — by implication he does his picture work with disdain. It is as if film is an activity good men must not take upon themselves too solemnly.
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In 1973, Norman Mailer published 'Marilyn', his celebrated in-depth account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, as a glossy, fully illustrated coffee-table tome. Now, it has been made available in an accessible mass-market paperback edition.

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