Sunday 14 July 2013

Review: Marilyn: Norma Jeane by Gloria Steinem

Like so many others, I am fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. She was a gorgeous, iconic, complex and ultimately tragic woman. I think it's the mystery of Marilyn, the enigma of her life, that makes her legend so enduring. Sure, the many photographs of her that are part of the fabric of our pop culture are absolutely stunning, but I think it's about more than the pretty face and gorgeous body. It's the soul that reaches out of her eyes - the sadness, hope, confidence, insecurity, intelligence, fear, innocence, loneliness, sensuality - the myriad facets of Marilyn that continues to touch our hearts and get under our skin.

I've seen a few documentaries and trashy TV movies about Marilyn's life, but this was my first biography. I think it was a good place to start to get a taste of the truth. It's short and covers each aspect of her life only briefly, but the key information is there and, more importantly, a sympathetic and authentic portrait of Marilyn herself. Steinem focuses on a different theme in each chapter - childhood, body image, career, marriage, and so on - and by looking at such aspects of Marilyn separately, you get a more comprehensive understanding of the whole woman.

Drawing heavily on Marilyn's own writing and interviews, Steinem attempts to get at the heart of the star. What emerges is an overarching picture of a woman of many contradictions. She was incredibly beautiful but incredibly insecure. She was seen as a sex goddess but didn't particularly enjoy sex herself. She was very intelligent but consistently cast as the dumb blonde, both on screen and off. She wanted to be taken seriously as an actress but was forced into silly roles in dubious comedies again and again. She was an independent career woman whilst remaining chronically needy of men. She desperately wanted to be loved but had no relationships that lasted. She had fans all over the world but was unbearably lonely. She was terrified of the mental illness that took her mother and grandmother, but spent most days self-medicating with alcohol and assorted drugs. She had fraught relationships with women and often felt judged by them, but was also at her most comfortable around other women and had some strong female friendships. She loved children and yearned to be a mother, but for one reason or another, she had multiple abortions. She was childlike and innocent but also very sexy and sensual. She was Norma Jeane and she was Marilyn.

Ultimately, Marilyn's tale is an impossibly sad one. Steinem handles it with intelligence, respect and a sense of poignancy. Through her words, you get a sense of not only the Marilyn that was but the Marilyn that could have been. In many ways she was ahead of her time, and had she been born 50 years later, her tale might have ended very differently. But then, without Marilyn, the world might be a very different place.

Rating: 4/5

Fine Print
Published: March 2013, Open Road (first published 1986)
Source: Netgalley
Get It: Amazon


  1. This was a great review! I've always been curious of Marilyn Monroe, I'll think I may just read this.:)

  2. I thought that Marilyn Monroe had several miscarriages?

    I've always really liked Marilyn, not really sure why. There's just something about her. I haven't read a biography about her in YEARS though, so maybe I'll pick this one up.

    1. Steinem mentions she had at least one miscarriage when she was married to Arthur Miller, but that she also had several abortions before and possible after that.

  3. I've always avoided MM bios because there's always such a focus of the famous men she slept with/married/knew and myeh. But I feel like if you're going to read a biography about Marilyn Monroe Steinem is probably the best person for it, so I am definitely adding this one to my TBR list.

    1. I think it's definitely a good place to start. I wish it was a bit more in-depth but at least it focuses not just on the men.