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J. Randy Taraborrelli is the leading celebrity biographer of our time. His subjects include contemporary stars like Michael Jackson and Madonna, and he has produced a string of bestsellers. Taraborrelli’s style is best described as gossip journalism – tabloid-style, perhaps, but widely read. Having published books on Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys, it was perhaps inevitable that Taraborrelli would turn his attentions to Marilyn Monroe, who knew them all. But Monroe  represents a unique challenge to biographers because she has been written about extensively in the 47 years since her death, more than any other actress. Furthermore, accounts of her life and character vary widely and it is difficult to find a consensus on even the most basic facts.

The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe deals primarily with two subjects : firstly, Marilyn’s childhood and the women who cared for her; and secondly, a re-examination of Marilyn’s mental illness towards the end of her life, suggesting her depression was more severe than previously disclosed. Of course, Taraborrelli’s focus on these topics in particular means that others are overlooked – Monroe’s work, which was her passion, is not central to this book, and her close friendships with people like Norman and Hedda Rosten are barely mentioned. The danger of this approach is that it may distort the subject, exaggerating the significance of some details and obscuring the bigger picture. Another potential problem with Taraborrelli’s narrative is his tendency to ‘reconstruct’ events, which makes the reading experience a compelling one, but ultimately leaves the reader wondering how much is reportage, and how much is invention.

Taraborelli’s material on Ida Bolender is particularly interesting because she has generally been dismissed as a dour religious zealot. But Ida was Norma Jeane’s foster mother for the first seven years of her life, the longest time she spent with anyone. Taraborrelli also focuses on Marilyn’s biological mother, Gladys Monroe Baker Eley, in later times as well. It has often been assumed that after achieving her extraordinary fame, Marilyn cut ties with her relatives. Indeed, early in her career she told journalists her mother was dead, and was condemned as heartless when the truth was uncovered. Marilyn had a tendency to reminisce about her childhood in only the bleakest terms, which is perhaps understandable – but she rarely spoke of the love she had received from women like Ida and Grace Goddard. Perhaps Marilyn’s intentions were rather nobler than they seemed – in disguising the complexity of her private life, she also protected her relatives from the media.

From the earliest days of Marilyn’s career, when she worked as a model, she regularly set aside money to help towards Gladys’s care. In 1953, Gladys moved into California’s Rock Haven Sanatorium where she would live for the next twenty years. Her living expenses were paid by Marilyn, who would also create a trust fund for her mother in her will. It has often been thought that Marilyn had very little real contact with Gladys as an adult. While their relationship was fraught with difficulty, Taraborrelli claims that Gladys remained an integral part of Marilyn’s life. There was much misunderstanding between mother and daughter, however. Gladys suspected that Marilyn resented having to support her, while Marilyn believed herself an unwanted child, because of her illegitimate birth. Over the years Gladys wrote to her daughter frequently, though Marilyn could not always bear to respond, or even read the letters. Nonetheless, Marilyn kept many of these letters among her possessions, and a framed portrait of Gladys adorned her nightstand. But though Gladys sometimes seemed cold and unwittingly cruel, it should be remembered that she was a very sick woman, who had suffered a great deal.

The Secret Life Of Marilyn Monroe is a sad, shocking story, but not entirely grim. Using anecdotes gleaned from Marilyn’s friends and associates, Taraborrelli reveals a woman as courageous as she was fragile. Against daunting odds, Marilyn became the brightest star in Hollywood, and the most celebrated of American sex symbols. Determined to escape her mother’s fate, Marilyn embarked on daily sessions with a psychiatrist, and studied method acting, using her past experiences to evoke whatever feelings a dramatic role required of her. Many of her circle felt that this made her too introspective, and broke down the coping mechanisms that had brought her so far. Additionally, she became dependent on prescribed drugs to ease her insomnia, anxiety, and chronic endometriosis. By her late twenties, Marilyn was already an addict.

Dr Ralph Greenson, Marilyn’s psychiatrist from 1960-62, believed that she was suffering from borderline paranoid schizophrenia. Other commentators have suggested she might now be considered Bi-Polar, or Manic Depressive. But Marilyn’s worries were not as irrational as they might sound. Back in 1947, she was allegedly attacked by a policeman in her apartment. Taraborrelli suggests this was fantasy, but it was reported in a local newspaper, and it seems unlikely that Marilyn would risk her reputation with a stunt of this kind. Moreover, since her marriage to Arthur Miller in 1956, Marilyn had been monitored by the FBI at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover. Surveillance increased when she befriended the Kennedy family. Though his chapters on Marilyn’s childhood are expansive, Taraborrelli fails to mention the rumoured sexual assault on the eight year-old Norma Jeane by a lodger in her mother’s house. Though details are vague, such an incident would surely have impacted Marilyn’s life terribly.

Of course, Dr Greenson’s diagnosis can, and should be questioned. He seemed almost obsessed with his beautiful star patient, and began to exert a controlling influence over Marilyn’s life. Greenson criticised Marilyn’s choice of lovers, and even her friends. In early 1962, Greenson hired a housekeeper, Eunice Murray, to watch over Marilyn. However, Taraborrelli does not follow the conspiratorial line of a Kennedy affair and subsequent murder of Marilyn Monroe. He argues that there is no hard evidence of anything more than a weekend fling between Marilyn and the philandering president, and no proof whatsoever of a romance with Bobby. But Taraborrelli does suggest that Marilyn may have become infatuated with JFK, and was devastated by his rejection – hence the repeated calls to the White House in the weeks before her death.

He also writes about Marilyn’s friendship with Pat Kennedy, then married to Peter Lawford. The bond between these two women was possibly deeper than Marilyn’s brief encounters with the president and attorney general. Taraborrelli admits that Bobby was a friend of Marilyn’s, but insists they were platonic. Veteran journalist Liz Smith begs to differ; ‘Well, I can’t cite my source,’ she wrote last week, ‘but it is impeccable. So this is what I know – it was more than once with JFK, and not at all platonic with brother Bobby. Of course, that is not a very nice story, and doesn’t speak well of any of the participants. But…nobody’s perfect.’

While the beginning and end of Taraborrelli’s book are intriguing, the middle – dealing with Marilyn’s time in the spotlight – is a little weak. One chapter narrates a supposed affair between Marilyn and Frank Sinatra in 1954. The source of this story is Lena Pepitone, Marilyn’s former maid who described it in her much-derided memoir, Marilyn Monroe Confidential. Taraborrelli backs this story with quotes from Sinatra’s associates. Still, the timing seems a little off. In 1954, Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio, then Sinatra’s friend, was in trouble. Shortly after the couple separated, Frank accompanied Joe on a stakeout, hoping to catch Marilyn with a lover. They broke into an innocent woman’s apartment, she reported it to the police and it was dubbed the ‘Wrong Door Raid’, leading to a court case and great embarrassment for all involved. Though not impossible, an affair between Sinatra and Monroe at this time seems a little implausible. However, just a few months later Marilyn would attend a Sinatra concert with friends, and six years later, she and Frank did indeed become lovers.

At nearly 600 pages, this is an attention-grabbing book. Unfortunately, there are quite a few errors along the way, spotted on first reading. Most will probably go unnoticed by casual buyers, but there is no excuse for such carelessness, especially on such an ambitious project. Furthermore, Taraborrelli’s list of sources is rather vague and contradictory. Fans of Monroe should bear these points in mind while reading this biography, but nonetheless it does make for a very gripping read.