‘It stirs up envy, fame does,’ Marilyn Monroe said in her last published interview. ‘People you run into feel that, well, who does she think she is, Marilyn Monroe? They feel fame gives them some kind of privilege to walk up to you and say anything to you, of any kind of nature — and it won’t hurt your feelings — like it’s happening to your clothes, not you.’
Ted Schwarz’s full-scale biography has been almost a decade in the making. The cover blurb describes Marilyn Revealed as ‘the first comprehensive look at the life of Marilyn Monroe’. At 650 pages in total, it’s certainly one of the longer books on the actress, but Monroe has already been written about so much that it hardly qualifies as a new concept. Moreover, the publisher promises that Schwarz will ‘demystify’ this most hyped of stars.
The book begins with a look at Hollywood’s involvement in World War II, when Monroe was a munitions plant worker, catching the eye of photographer David Conover, who worked for Ronald Reagan’s publicity corps. A snap of the pretty teenager in overalls, used for morale-boosting cheesecake rags, was a springboard to a modelling career, which led her to pursue acting. Schwarz then jumps back to Monroe’s ancestry – she came from a long line of ‘dreamers and schemers’ – and the confusion surrounding her early life.
Schwarz contends that Monroe fabricated details of her early life to make herself seem more interesting. He refers to her by her birth name of ‘Norma Jean’ long after she took the more glamorous name of Marilyn (though she did not change her name legally until the age of thirty.) But on her birth certificate she was Norma Jeane with an extra ‘e’ at the end, her mother’s variation and the spelling she preferred.
Although Norma Jeane’s legal father was Edward Mortensen, Gladys’s second husband, from whom she was estranged when her daughter was conceived, it has long been thought that her biological father was C. Stanley Gifford, a co-worker with whom Gladys was having an affair. Berniece Baker Miracle, Monroe’s half-sister, confirmed this belief in her book, My Sister Marilyn. Despite this, Schwarz insists that Mortenson was the father and that Marilyn spread the rumour to spice up her image. Whatever the facts, it remains that neither man had any involvement in Norma Jeane’s upbringing, or her adult life.
As for Marilyn’s stories of sexual abuse, Schwarz dismisses them on two grounds: firstly, because by her first husband’s account, she was a virgin on her wedding night; and that Marilyn was essentially a fantasist, who ‘stole’ these experiences from her foster sister, who had genuinely suffered horrific abuse.
Marilyn spoke publicly of child abuse to Ben Hecht, who co-wrote her 1954 memoir, My Story. She described an incident when she was about nine years old, and living in a boarding house. A lodger, ‘Mr Kimmel’, molested her and then gave her money ‘for ice-cream’ in return for her silence. When a distressed Norma Jeane tried to tell her foster mother, she was swiftly told to shut up.
Schwarz believes this tale to be nonsense, as he cannot identify when Norma Jeane lived in a boarding house. He does not consider that Monroe could have changed minor details to protect her relatives, or that her story may be fundamentally truthful. His definition of sexual abuse seems to include only penetrative sex, but a child can be molested in many other ways.
In The Final Days Of Marilyn Monroe, Donald Wolfe suggests that the incident may have occurred when Norma Jeane briefly lived with her mother, and this theory might explain her wish to obscure the facts in an attempt to protect Gladys.
Monroe had few happy memories of her childhood, and this was not just spin. Fostered from an early age, she barely knew her mother and spent time in an orphanage after Gladys suffered a breakdown and was hospitalised. Treatment for mental illness was undeveloped, and though the credibility of her initial diagnosis was shaky, Gladys quickly became too institutionalised to live outside without help.
Meanwhile, Norma Jeane was left to grow up without her natural parents, though well-cared for by a family friend, Grace McKee, who eventually became her legal guardian. When Grace married, Norma Jeane began spending more time with Grace’s aunt, Ana Lower, a Christian Scientist whom, Norma felt, was the only person who ever loved her unconditionally.
Thus while Marilyn’s childhood may not have been quite as deprived as she sometimes said – no doubt spurred on by Hollywood publicists – it was almost certainly a time of loneliness and insecurity, leaving its mark on a self-doubting, sensitive young woman. Schwarz briefly acknowledges this, but seems more interested in exposing Monroe as a ‘liar’.
Next, Schwarz covers Marilyn’s years as a model and starlet. He recognises her rare intimacy with the camera, and credits her work ethic and desire to improve. More controversially, Schwarz depicts the young Monroe as wildly promiscuous, a woman who would ‘do anything’ to get ahead, including giving sexual favours to photographers, producers and executives. Hence the subtitle, The ‘Ambitious’ Life Of An American Icon.
He dismisses some sources, like Ted Jordan, a sometime actor who claimed that he and Monroe had a lifelong affair, pointing out that there is no strong evidence that they knew each other. However, Schwartz chooses to believe Mickey Rooney, who saw Monroe as little more than a prostitute – despite conceding that Rooney’s other claim, to have given Marilyn her stage name, is bogus. There is an inconsistency here, and it is unclear why Schwarz chooses to believe some rumours but not others.
In her 2007 book, Marilyn Monroe: Private And Undisclosed, Michelle Morgan paints a very different picture. A former boyfriend, Bill Pursel, is quoted as saying, ‘I do know there were several women jealous of her after she became Marilyn Monroe. Besides, call-girls earn big money – I saw no evidence of this with her. I would put no credence at all in these rumours…someone’s cheap imagination.’
Marilyn’s first agent, Harry Lipton, recalled her leaving a party in tears after a businessman offered her expensive gifts in return for sex. Another actor recalls that Marilyn was reluctant even to give him her phone number. Michelle Morgan concludes, ‘It seems unlikely that the woman who constantly complained of being pestered by ‘wolves’ would ever sell herself like that.’
The rumours of Monroe’s promiscuity have usually come from lurid memoirs by her now-forgotten peers, while serious biographies have shown that the reality was probably more complex. While Marilyn certainly understood the importance of befriending powerful men in a notoriously exploitative industry, there is no solid proof that she slept around. In any case, it seems rather unfair and sexist to judge Monroe so harshly based on rumours about her relationships with men, rather than her professional achievements.
As the book progresses, Schwarz’s tone becomes increasingly judgemental. In a chapter covering Marilyn’s breakthrough role, The Asphalt Jungle, Schwartz writes, ‘Monroe did not seem to have that genius, nor did she seem to have any talent. She was a ‘little-known’, seemingly a slut, and someone who would be dismissed in modern times as a wannabe.’
While it is true that Marilyn did not come from a theatrical background, and had little self-confidence, this does not necessarily mean that she lacked talent. Director John Huston certainly thought otherwise, saying ‘She got the part because she was damned good.’ Marilyn took her dramatic studies very seriously, first at the Actor’s Lab, and later with respected mentors including Natasha Lytess, Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg.
But Schwarz consistently derides Monroe’s acting ability, ignoring her positive reviews and stressing the critical ones, though he does admit that she had a seductive screen presence, good comic timing and a pleasant singing voice. He claims that most of her performances were a miracle of editing, pointing out her need for endless retakes – but ignoring the fact that retakes are an inevitable part of the film-making process, and the final edit could not have been so memorable if there wasn’t some magic in her original work.
If Schwarz is often hostile in his view of Marilyn, the other people in her life don’t fare much better. Second husband Joe DiMaggio is portrayed as a self-centred bore, and as with Marilyn, Schwarz makes little attempt to empathise or show compassion. He presents their marriage as a sham, though their friendship lasted until Marilyn’s death.
Despite its considerable length, little of Schwarz’s book will be news to longterm Monroe fans. At times he seems to rehash old anecdotes according to his own perspective, perhaps to fit his agenda of portraying Monroe as a shallow, calculating hustler. For example, he suggests that MGM’s Dore Schary failed to sign up Marilyn on ‘moral’ grounds, because of her supposed sexual laxity. But Schary later reflected, ‘I did not recognise her star potential…Darryl Zanuck signed Miss Monroe, she became an extraordinary figure in movie history and for years I blushed with embarrassment every time her name was mentioned.’
In another episode, Schwarz describes Marilyn’s visit to Korea, to entertain US troops. The tale has been told before, of how she called Joe DiMaggio during dinner with Marine officers, and their intimate conversation was accidentally broadcast over loudspeakers. Schwarz alleges that Marilyn had arranged the phonecall with the Signal Corps, knowing that their dialogue would be amplified – in a deliberate bid for publicity, causing much discomfort to her husband.
It is impossible to tell if Schwarz’s interpretations are correct, because the book contains just a select bibliography and there is no detailed list of sources. Overall, his representation of Marilyn’s life and character is confusing and contradictory, and he sometimes seems too disdainful of his subject to convince readers that he truly knows her – which in turn makes it difficult for readers to connect with his version of events.
The most interesting revelation, of an alleged heroin overdose in 1956, appears to come from FBI files on Monroe – and he details the discovery of a ‘Pearl Baker’ in a motel room by private eye Barney Ruditsky. Pearl was the middle name of Monroe’s mother, Gladys, who was once married to a man named Jasper Baker.
Marilyn often checked into hotels under assumed names, using names that had some personal resonance to her. And her growing addiction to sleeping pills was well-known in Hollywood circles, though she has rarely been associated with ‘street drugs’ like heroin. But whether this story is true or not remains unproved. All manner of rumours have been passed on to the FBI, so that in itself is not necessarily a reliable source.
Having covered Marilyn’s first thirty years in exhaustive detail, Schwarz skips through the final six – as if aware that he is approaching his maximum word count, and is rushing towards a deadline. Her marriage to Arthur Miller – the longest relationship of her life – is merely summarised, whereas shorter dalliances are analysed at length.
Schwarz mentions a miscarriage on the set of The Prince And The Showgirl, though there is little evidence that she was even pregnant at this time. He does not cover the two-year period where she left Hollywood and lived quietly with Miller. This gives Schwarz’s book a curiously disjointed, anticlimactic feel – as if he would rather focus on her time as a struggling nobody than celebrate her glorious success.
In a life as short as Marilyn Monroe’s, the final six years deserve serious attention – but this remains a missed opportunity. Schwarz does discuss Monroe’s escalating dependence on alcohol and pills, and unhealthy friendships with fellow addicts like Peter Lawford. He rightly castigates her studio bosses and doctors for failing to intervene as her addictions spiralled.
But, incredibly, Schwarz seems to dismiss the emotional conflicts that exacerbated her drug habits, stating that at the end of her life, ‘she was as happy as she had ever been.’ Schwarz seems not to fathom that Marilyn might have needed more than continuing fame to make her happy. Many of Marilyn’s close friends have confirmed that she suffered from frequent episodes of depression even before she became hooked on prescribed medication.
It is this lack of empathy, and compassion, that makes Marilyn Revealed such a frustrating, dissatisfying read. Schwarz’s text is not without its merits – far from it. He has done a great deal of background research and added detail and clarity to previous accounts.
His understanding of the Hollywood publicity machine is shrewd, for example when he relates the story behind Howard Hughes’ ‘discovery’ of Norma Jeane. And while including details of Marilyn’s association with the Kennedy brothers, Schwarz resists the temptation to indulge in conspiracy theories about their alleged (but unproven) involvement in her death.
But the reprinting of book excerpts and legal documents, verbatim, sometimes reads like filler. His digressions into the lives of peripheral figures, like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, seem to be of the cut-and-paste variety and their relevance may be questionable. If the manuscript had been more efficiently edited in the earlier stages, Schwarz could have added more material on the latter phase of Monroe’s career.
Schwarz lists the archives where documentation of sources is housed, adding, ‘If my emphasis proves wrong, others can get the full details. And if my statements and conclusions are challenged, anyone can learn on what they are based.’ His tone comes across as somewhat defensive, as if anticipating scepticism.
Ultimately, his book does not fail on grounds of research, but his apparent lack of interest in his subject. His book was originally entitled The World Of Marilyn Monroe, and he seems more comfortable with Monroe’s ‘world’ than he does with Marilyn herself.
It is hard for the reader to engage with a book that repeatedly implies its subject is neither good or bad, just mediocre. He certainly does not explain why Monroe is an American icon, or the motives behind her driving ambition. And so, despite the sheer volume of this book, Schwarz’s aim, to ‘reveal’ the true Monroe, is never fully realised.
‘The truth is I’ve never fooled anyone,’ Marilyn once said. ‘I’ve let people fool themselves. They didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them. They were obviously loving somebody I wasn’t. When they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them and fooling them.’