The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe: review
Christopher Silvester examines a portrait of Marilyn Monroe that sheds new light on her fractured family relationships
For J Randy Taraborrelli, it is not the secret love affairs with the Kennedys, or FBI surveillance reports, or mysteries surrounding her death that fascinate him, but the relationship between Marilyn Monroe and her mother, Gladys Baker, who spent much of her adult life in and out of institutions, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This fractured relationship was the central relationship of Monroe’s life, he argues, and its implications were horrendous. “The often heart-wrenching war she fought with her own mind has never, until now, been properly examined and presented,” he insists.
No one can accuse Taraborrelli of a lack of diligence in his research, or of failing to challenge existing assumptions, but he also pays reverential tribute to earlier biographers with many of whose conclusions he none the less disagrees. For example, he praises the two books of James Haspiel, who knew Marilyn personally, but declines to mention Haspiel’s theory that Robert Kennedy smothered her to death.
Or take Monroe’s claim to have been almost smothered as a child by her deranged grandmother, about which Anthony Summers, in his Goddess: the Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, said: “This little horror story almost certainly belongs to the ragbag of fantasies from which Marilyn embroidered her youth.” Yet Taraborrelli has found friends of Monroe’s foster parents who could recall the incident.
Monroe’s grandfather died of syphilis of the brain, but her grandmother Della told her children that he had gone mad and died. Della most certainly did go mad. She claimed to hear voices and experienced other paranoid delusions before being committed to an asylum where she died 19 days later. Gladys, Monroe’s mother, was traumatised when her first two children were kidnapped by her ex-husband and taken from California to Kentucky. She travelled to Kentucky in a vain effort to retrieve them and it was while working there as a nanny that she began hearing voices and imagining strange visitors.
Back in California, Gladys gave birth to Monroe, always insisting that the father was a work colleague, though he always denied it. While Gladys struggled with her mental problems, Monroe was fostered for a while by Ida and Wayne Bolender, but a few years later went to live with Gladys and her friend Grace Goddard. She later spent just over a year in the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home, returning to live with Grace, and later with Edith Ana Lower, Grace’s aunt, while Gladys was in an asylum.
Years later, in studio publicity material, Monroe was portrayed as an orphan, so when the press discovered in 1952 that Gladys was alive, and because Monroe failed to make it clear she had been helping her mother since her release from the asylum seven years earlier, the impression was given that she was ashamed of Gladys. “On the contrary,” says Taraborrelli, “Marilyn throughout her life did everything she could to help her mother.”
Monroe was encouraged in her self-belief by her first foster mother, Ida Bolender, as well as by Grace Goddard and “Aunt Ana”, who both supported her dreams of seeking a career in showbusiness. It was their support, reasons the author, that produced her “steely determination” to pursue her career in the teeth of her three husbands who attempted to stifle it.
Her third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, emerges from these pages as cruel, manipulative, cold-hearted and exploitative. Like his predecessor, the former baseball star Joe DiMaggio, he found it difficult to cope with Monroe’s fame and he dismissed her as more child than woman.
During the Fifties, she became addicted to prescription drugs, fought depression, sought comfort through psychoanalysis, struggled to cope with the news that she was medically unable to have children, and, like her grandmother and mother before her, heard voices and imagined she was being followed.
Taraborrelli reduces Monroe’s “affair” with JFK to a single weekend tryst; he says her “affair” with Robert Kennedy never took place, simply ignoring some of the witnesses that Anthony Summers marshalled for his book, and instead relying on others who are resolute in their denials. He concludes that her death was the result of an overdose, most likely an accidental one, by an “unstable woman who had been spiralling deeper and deeper into her own mental illness”. Despite this, Taraborrelli’s Monroe seems less of a victim than in some earlier portraits. Her burdens are shown to have been greater and her decency shines through.
Over the years, explanations of her death have varied from deliberate suicide (Fred Lawrence Guiles and Barbara Leaming) to negligent homicide (Donald Spoto’s theory that her psychiatrist administered a fatal overdose of barbiturates by enema) to assassination by the Comintern, the CIA, the Mob – an enema of barbiturates, again, being the favoured method – or even Robert Kennedy himself. “If the way Marilyn met her end is unknown,” concludes Taraborrelli, “in an odd way that keeps her alive – there’s still more she has to reveal.”
The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
by J Randy Taraborrelli
560pp, Sidgwick and Jackson, £18.99
Buy now for £16.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) from Telegraph Books