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‘There are no second acts in American lives,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote – and he should know. Like Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald’s flame burned brightly, but was all too soon extinguished.

David Marshall’s first book, The DD Group (2003), confronted one of the mysteries of the twentieth century – why did Marilyn Monroe die alone in her bed on a Saturday night in 1962, at the age of 36? While not claiming to know the answer, Marshall traced all lines of enquiry, adding his own commentary to the diverse findings of an online discussion group. Now, in Life Among The Cannibals, Marshall asks another question – if Monroe had survived her overdose, how would her life have progressed? Would she have continued along the road to self-destruction, or found a path to fulfilment?

Old age is never kind to actresses, especially beautiful ones. Roles become harder to find, and more peripheral – the love interest becomes a mother-in-law, the heroine a harridan. Some, like Greta Garbo and Doris Day, abandoned the spotlight altogether, while others like Mae West tried to ignore the ravages of time.

The book’s title evokes the cut-throat atmosphere of Hollywood, where Monroe made her name. Shortly before her death, Marilyn reflected, ‘Everybody is always tugging at you. They’d all like a chunk out of you…but you want to stay intact and on your feet.’

Marshall’s narrative treads a tightrope between past and present, fact and fiction. He places himself, unobtrusively, within the narrative through a chance meeting with Marilyn at Joe DiMaggio’s funeral in 1999. Marshall then acts as her biographer, covering the period from 1962 to 2003.

He begins by waking Marilyn from a coma in August 1962. She dismisses her entourage of shrinks and drama coaches, and stops taking sleeping pills. After completing her next movie, she surprises her bosses by leaving Hollywood for good.

Marshall understands Monroe’s iconic status well – but how to illustrate the transformation of a woman who has seemingly outgrown her image? The answer is, to reinvent that image in a radically different light. In 1963, Marilyn attends Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and, among the crowd, listens to his epochal speech, ‘I Have A Dream.’

Monroe’s metamorphosis from sex kitten to ‘Hollywood’s conscience’ may at first seem unlikely, but it is based on prior fact, and her strong sense of justice. It is worth remembering Marilyn’s loyalty towards Arthur Miller during the red-baiting years, and her own battles with Hollywood.

Marshall depicts a woman no longer ruled by stardom, finding renewed success on her own terms. Marilyn re-establishes herself as a leading character actress, and takes control behind the scenes. This affords her a degree of respect that perhaps was lacking at the height of her fame.

Turning to private affairs, Marshall explores a possible reunion between Marilyn and her former husband, Joe DiMaggio. This idea is also based on fact – in the final years of Marilyn’s life, she and Joe had grown close again. Sceptics have argued that DiMaggio was too jealous, and staid, to satisfy Marilyn for long. Nonetheless, his enduring love for her has been confirmed by numerous biographers and friends.

One of Monroe’s regrets was her inability to have children, and some have suggested that they could have saved her life. Having survived a difficult childhood, Marilyn was acutely aware of a young person’s need for consistent love and a feeling of security. There is some evidence that in 1962, she considered adopting a Mexican child while visiting an orphanage. In his book, Marshall grants Marilyn her last wish – she finally becomes a mother.

Beyond his thoughtful portrayal of Monroe, Marshall carefully places her story within a changing world. She lives quietly with DiMaggio in San Francisco, observing each phenomenon from the hippies at Haight-Ashbury to the Gay Rights movements of the 70s and 80s.

Marilyn is also affected by events from the assassination of President Kennedy to the election of fellow Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan to the White House. Marshall shows Monroe’s encounters with characters as diverse as Janis Joplin and Pat Nixon, and compares her to other icons including Madonna and Princess Diana.

However, Marshall is not unrealistic in his view of Marilyn’s potential. Indeed, the past returns to haunt her on occasion – the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype which she continues to battle against, and persistent gossip about her association with the Kennedys. Marshall also reveals professional disappointments and family tensions; all part of a full, complex life, rather than mere adjuncts to a pre-destined happy ending.

Some readers may wonder if Marilyn really had the willpower to beat her demons and turn her life around. If not, then she would probably have died an unhappy woman sooner or later. However, the tragic aspect of Monroe’s life has already been recognised, whereas her capacity for survival has not. Had she lived, Marilyn might not have become quite the mythical figure she is now – but on the other hand, she would have been free to pursue her goals and find real happiness.

Marshall pursues this prospect in depth and writes about Monroe with sensitivity. Life Among The Cannibals is an important addition to the wealth of speculative literature on Monroe, because instead of mourning what was lost, Marshall celebrates what might have been. In this highly entertaining book, Marshall gives Marilyn Monroe the second and third acts she surely deserved.

Further Reading