"It was a strange feeling, as if I were two people. One of them was Norma Jeane from the orphanage who belonged to nobody. The other was someone whose name I didn’t know. But I knew where she belonged. She belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world." –Marilyn Monroe
Since Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 5, 1962, at age 36, hundreds of books have emerged, some celebrating her legacy, others scrutinizing her life in obsessive detail. Controversies still swirl, but we know many of the facts: She grew up in foster homes, devoutly religious and shy. She married her first husband at age 15, and when he went off to war, she started modeling and found the power in a snug sweater to keep up troop morale. She worked her curves on and off camera, propelling herself from wholesome girl next door to ultimate platinum vamp—a transformation most stunningly depicted in David Willis’s Metamorphosis. We learn from Marilyn in Fashion that she often worked with designers to create looks to enhance the Marilyn image, defining sophisticated '50s style. She had dozens of affairs (some public, others deeply private), but Norman Mailer noted—in his seminal 1973 biography, Marilyn, later paired with Bern Stern’s photographs in a lavish Taschen tome—that her “greatest love affair was conceivably with the camera.”
Much of her life beyond her legend remains enigmatic. Marilyn famously said she didn’t want to be rich, she just wanted to be wonderful, and too often she didn't realize that she already was. On film, we saw Marilyn luminously at home in her body: Lawrence Schiller, who photographed her on the sets of Let's Make Love and Something's Got to Give, describes her in Marilyn & Me as a tough, ambitious agent in her own career and a self-assured model.
But her incandescent confidence was a veneer barely concealing her vulnerability and self-doubt, a conflict masterfully dramatized by Joyce Carol Oates in her novel Blonde. Marilyn grew to deeply resent and resist the prison of the sex symbol role in which she had cast herself. She longed to be taken seriously, and despite her stutter and deepening battles with addiction and depression, she devoted herself to becoming a great dramatic actress (beyond the comic genius so evident in Some Like It Hot), and she showed every sign of getting there.
She made up for a missed education by devouring books, writing poetry, and developing intense friendships and affairs with artists, intellectuals, and, most (in)famously, politicians like the Kennedys. Some believe that her autobiography, My Story, was altered after her death to the point that it’s not entirely reliable, but her genuine wit and intelligence is undeniable. Lois Banner's MM—Personal offers the most revealing look inside her everyday life (photos and art and other objects that mattered to her), while we see the introspective, intellectually hungry Marilyn most directly in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, which culminates in a spread of her most cherished books.
Many assert that Marilyn was coming into her own as an artist and learning to speak with her own voice just as her life ended. Adam Braver's new novel, Misfit, centering on her last weekend at Frank Sinatra's Lake Tahoe resort, brilliantly imagines her struggle to create an authentic identity and the tragic consequences. Several writers and historians contend, citing convincing detail, that she was decisively silenced: Donald Wolfe makes a meticulously researched homicide case in his nonfiction work, The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, and J.I. Baker's The Empty Glass is a breathlessly paranoid noir thriller that draws on much of the same evidence.
I feel the full loss of her when I imagine how a well, vibrant Marilyn—a woman who pushed the cultural boundaries of the 1950s until they strained at their seams—might have expressed her creative and intellectual self over the course of a full lifetime. Her husband Arthur Miller observed that "to have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” Lois Banner describes in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox how Marilyn's private funeral, arranged by Joe DiMaggio (whom Marilyn had planned to remarry that same week) ended with fans rushing her grave "in one big wave," tearing apart every floral tribute in their frenzied desire for souvenirs—much like people had tried to take pieces of her dress or hair when she was alive. Marilyn gave too much to deserve that. Books make much more marvelous souvenirs. –Mari Lynne Malcolm
See more of our favorite books about Marilyn Monroe.