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Marilyn owes its genesis to photographer Lawrence Schiller, who assembled some sixteen thousand photographs from the files of twenty-four photographers to create a special exhibition titled “Marilyn Monroe: The Legend and the Truth.” It was Schiller who contacted Norman Mailer after this exhibition with the proposal that Mailer write the text for a book featuring the best of these photographs. Mailer originally planned to compose 25,000 words but ended with a text of 90,000 words. Schiller printed 118 photographs, including work by such notables as Richard Avedon, Milton H. Greene, Sam Shaw, and Eve Arnold. The arrangement of the photographs in relation to Mailer’s text is rarely governed by principles of chronology or simple illustration. Mailer and Schiller deliberately place some photographs out of sequence in order to provide a sharp tonal contrast with the printed text or to create some kind of visual essay (sequences of photographs showing Marilyn on various beaches, for example). Marilyn, then, is a rich and complex work that can be appreciated on many levels, as a collection of stunningly effective photographs, as a boldly original text, or as a powerful combination of the two, constantly beckoning to the literal eye and to the eye of the imagination.

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Drawing extensively on two previously published books for his primary facts (Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe, 1969, and Marilyn Monroe, 1960), Mailer quotes frequently from these secondary sources, using them more than twenty times. In addition, Mailer makes use of other background data gathered from another dozen primary sources he personally interviewed (all these primary and secondary sources, and all the photographers, are acknowledged in the last chapter of Marilyn). Describing himself as a kind of psychohistorian, Mailer tends to summarize the well-documented facts of Monroe’s life and career, preferring to dwell on the psychic impact of key moments in her emotional life.

Mailer moves in a chronological fashion, spending a considerable amount of time on Marilyn’s unhappy childhood in Los Angeles and on the psychological consequences of her illegitimacy and inherited propensity for irrational behavior. Grandfather Monroe and Grandmother Della both went insane, and Marilyn’s mother (Gladys Monroe Baker), a film cutter by trade, named her baby girl Norma Jean Baker (for her idols Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow). Born in 1926, the child lived in a series of foster homes, a pattern that would continue until her first marriage, and she was shaped by such events as a near suffocation inflicted by her grandmother and the brutal shooting of her pet dog Tippy by an enraged neighbor. A shy, tongue-tied child emerges in this portrait, a child who quickly learns to pretend and to invent different versions of herself. In Mailer’s view, Norma Jean grew up without any sustaining sense of self, and this crippling void at the center of her psyche would define her progressively tragic existence in the adult world.

After a brief marriage to young Jim Dougherty (she was sixteen, he twenty-five), her career was launched when a photographer from Yank magazine shot pictures of her at a defense plant where she worked spray-painting airplanes. Soon she attended charm school, dyed her hair blonde and was rechristened Marilyn Monroe by the public relations crew at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios. She became the girlfriend (and probable mistress) of veteran producer Joe Schenck. Her nose and jaw were surgically altered. She became the mistress of agent Joe Hyde, who interceded until finally Darryl Zanuck gave her a bit part in As Young As You Feel (1951).

She then entered her DiMaggio period, during which she was wooed by, married to, and finally divorced from Joe DiMaggio, whose rugged, masculine style did not mesh well with Marilyn’s burgeoning interest in the art and craft of acting; soon she would become deeply involved with the famous director Lee Strasberg and his celebrated method acting. Nevertheless, the early days with DiMaggio were among her happiest, and their time together was marked by two of her most successful films, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) at the beginning of their relationship and The Seven Year Itch (1955) at its close.

Marilyn seemingly bounced from her relationship with the famous baseball star to a new attraction, Arthur Miller, a gentleman and an intellectual, who fulfilled the need for a close contact with drama. Miller was a celebrated writer of plays and scripts, a man who ultimately wrote a film (The Misfits, 1961) just for her, although her irrational behavior and obvious drug addiction during the shooting of the film finally destroyed this marriage, also.

Shortly after her celebrated singing for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday, Marilyn was fired from the production of Something’s Got to Give. In the last few weeks of her life, Marilyn continued her long-standing friendships with Peter Lawford, Robert F. Kennedy, and Frank Sinatra. Although her dependence on her psychologist and her shrinking financial resources were well-known to all of her friends at this time, no one seems to agree on the actual events of the night of her death, which was apparently the result of a massive overdose of barbiturates. She was only thirty-six, and her untimely death prompted Arthur Miller to write After the Fall (1964), an extended epitaph to his former wife, “a lovely if seldom simple woman.”

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38

Bloom, Harold, ed. Norman Mailer, 1986.

Clemons, Walter. Review in Newsweek. LXXXII (July 30, 1973), p. 71.

Kael, Pauline. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVIII (July 22, 1973), p. 1.

Mills, Hilary. Mailer: A Biography, 1982.

The New Yorker. Review. XLIX (August 6, 1973), p. 87.

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