The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

This is not a typical biography but instead the author examines the other major biographies that have been written about Marilyn. I'm not a bio fan to begin with so this book really isn't my cup of tea.

Author Sarah Churchwell
Publisher Granta Books
Cover Type Hardcover
Dimensions 6 x 9.5 inches
Publish Date 2004
ISBN 1-86207-695-2
Signed No
Number of Pages 384


The one thing I must say about Sarah Churchwellís new Marilyn book, it sure does have a cool cover. But then I would need to add that the old saying about not being able to judge a book by its cover has not been disproved by the publication of ìThe Many Lives of Marilyn Monroeî.

 The premise of the book is wonderful and one that is sorely needed: a steady comparison of all of the material that has been written about Monroe, highlighting the conflicting reports, ranging from her childhood all the way to her death, in hopes of finding some glimpse of truth between the lines of the hundreds of books and articles that have covered the life and death of one of the 20th centuryís most intriguing figures. The premise is elaborated on in the inside flap of the dust jacket: ìPeeling back the fantasies, fallacies and falsehoods that have colored the portraits of Monroe, Churchwell uncovers the shame, belittlement, and anxiety we bring to the story of the woman we supposedly adore.î That should be the heads up for anyone hoping to get an in-depth study of the many conflicting stories surrounding most every aspect of Marilynís life. For the focus is not so much on trying to figure out which stories are true and which are urban legends, but on what ìweî, the fans and the reading public, bring to the story with all of our own cultural baggage and individual perceptions of the Monroe saga.

 Sarah Churchwell is a ìcultural criticî. Educated at Vassar and Princeton and now a professor at University of East Anglia, Churchwellís fascination is not so much with the various ways Marilynís story has been told and twisted along the way but in how people perceive Monroe and make their own choices of what to believe among the ìmany livesî. Unfortunately, for me in any case, while the premise is interesting, it wasnít what I wanted. And to be completely honest, Churchwell is not an author I could say I enjoyed reading. As a social commentator, a cultural critic and a professor, Churchwellís way of communicating is often tough going. When this reader was yearning for a more ìletís sit down and talk this thing throughî approach, I found myself instead with the feeling that I should be taking notes and trying to figure out what the hell sheís talking about later as I was sure there was going to be a test.

 Still, there are passages in the book that are enlightening and highly recommended. Her discussion of the ìtruth in fictionî of Joyce Carol Oatesí ìBlondeî is delightful, carefully going through the work of the revered novelist and seeking out the kernels of truth in Oatesí fictional account of a famous American icon. The same goes for the battle between Robert Slatzer and Donald Spoto as Churchwell tries to be as kind as possible while pointing out what likely is fiction presented as fact by both authors.

 A little less lecture and speaking on my level would have been appreciated. I wonít admit that I am stupid, in fact I figure myself to be a fairly articulate and well-read individual. But when faced with a sentence such as ìThe inner child of the past is an extremely literal version of the idea that identity lodges discretely inside us, the Cartesian pilot inhibiting the ship of the body, although the inner child is a stowaway, less pilot than hijacker and suicide bomber,î I have to admit I stop, re-read and still lose my way halfway through.

 But this is a book review. So hereís the questions: Would I recommend this book? Yes. Would I say I enjoyed it? Not really. But did I get anything out of it? Yes. Overall, was it worth it? Yes.

  Churchwell is an author with an obviously brilliant mind and one who has taken a great deal of time to consider the cultural phenomena that was Monroe. While I wish that her ability at communicating those thoughts was greater, there is no denying that the book forces one to think through oneís own perception of this woman who has so enchanted the world. That in itself should be enough to recommend the book to people who are already enamored of Monroeís talent and story. But be forewarned-- thereís some heavy duty plugging along ahead of you if you decide to read it.

Maybe we should just be grateful for the fact that the book is solid proof that Marilyn Monroe is no longer being brushed off as the dumb blonde she was so long taken as. She now generates serious consideration and hard-going scholarly dissertations. That should be applauded. The decision is up to you however if you want to get quite that serious.

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