As the media undoubtedly will note this week, Aug. 5
marks the 50th anniversary of the sad, premature death of Norma Jeane
Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe, the multitalented movie star and L.A. native.
Her films go unwatched by most people under 50 these days. So why, or more to the point, how
do we care about Marilyn Monroe now, anyway? Answer: as a subject of
biographies, an iconic face on walls and shirts, a color-drenched
silkscreen portrait by Andy Warhol. For those who dig a little deeper,
she is yet another vaguely situated satellite in the shadowy universe of
(drum roll) Kennedy conspiracies. And yet ...
the real-life story of an unwanted girl who was abandoned at birth by a
mentally unstable mother (a film cutter at a Culver City movie studio),
raised in a Hollywood orphanage and in foster homes in Hawthorne and Van
Nuys, who, through ferocious drive, made it to the pinnacle of
Hollywood stardom, married two celebrities and sang "I Want to Be Loved
by You" to the world before dying unhappy, drugged-out and alone at 36.
While some excellent and thorough biographies like Anthony Summers' Goddess and Donald Spoto's Marilyn Monroe: The Biography cover her life from its Dickensian start to its rocker-burnout finish, Keith Badman's Marilyn Monroe: The Final Years
(St. Martin's Press) focuses exclusively on 1961-62, the disastrous
last two years of her life. As former rock biographer Badman
exhaustively documents, these were the spinning-out-of-control years,
when the superstar's ill-advised liaisons with the sexually sleazy
president of the United States, his flirtatious but morally upright
younger brother Bobby and their much sleazier friend Frank Sinatra and
his Mafia buddies put her in harm's way. Her drug dependence didn't
The book is, therefore, necessarily 80 percent
depressing, chronicling everything Monroe did wrong and everything wrong
that was done to her. In the former category we have two chapters'
worth of Monroe's erratic behavior during the filming of the last movie
in which she was supposed to star, Something's Got to Give, a
project she herself derailed with ridiculous, diva-ish demands, along
with a string of no-shows during production, which resulted in her quite
rightly being fired. (The book quotes twice-burned screenwriter
Nunnally Johnson: "I used to be sympathetic with actresses and their
problems. But Marilyn made me lose all sympathy for actresses.")
second category takes up much of Badman's book, and he prides himself
on both debunking and confirming several decades-old rumors and
conspiratorial chestnuts, particularly the Kennedy kind. While
acknowledging that Monroe most likely had a Don Draper-worthy one-night
stand with the president in Palm Springs in 1962, he proves the
impossibility of other alleged liaisons between the two, with
well-documented specifics that earlier biographers should have caught.
The author's triumphant verdict: one boink but no affair.
many claim that Monroe and Attorney General Robert Kennedy also "met,"
pelvically, at a party at actor Peter Lawford's place on PCH in February
1962, Badman makes a strong case that the ever-righteous RFK never did
anything more intimate with her, then or later, than talk politics. He
quotes Monroe as telling columnist James Bacon, "I like him, but not
Badman does, however, recall in minute detail RFK's
angry visit to Marilyn's home the day before she died, the purpose of
which was to tell her to stop trying to contact JFK, on whom she had by
then quite deluded romantic designs.
And yet: In the realm of
Marilyn-/Kennedy-noia, nothing a conspiracy theorist would dream up
could be as nightmarish as Badman's account of the most horrific episode
in this woman's tragic life, only alluded to in earlier books: the
night of molestation and possible rape that descended on her at
on-/off-again boyfriend Frank Sinatra's Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe in
June 1962. Reading the unbelievable description of Monroe, very drunk
following a late-night performance by singer Dean Martin, being molested
by Mafia thugs and photographed in her hotel room with a prostitute in a
sordid, sloshed, faux-lesbian encounter is pretty horrifying. Rat Pack
For all the author's admirable detective work, the
book can be a bit of a grind, with his insistence on laundry-listing
every receipt, every bill, every flight number. It would have been good,
too, if the publishers had spent a few bucks to translate this
originally British book into American English. Even for Anglophiles,
encountering "from the off .... the play hit the buffers" and "a scrum
of reporters" can be distracting.
Still, all the heroes and
villains from that smoky, shabby time are here: Monroe's pill-dispensing
shrink Dr. Greenson, loyal ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, slimy Peter Lawford
and troubled husband Arthur Miller, all bewildered or damaged by their
encounter with our one-in-a-billion "eternal feminine" just before her
bright, quavering yellow flame went out, as Badman persuasively argues,
by her own hand. "The girl was an addict of sleeping pills," he quotes
director John Huston, "and she was made so by the God-damn doctors."
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