Monday, 21 May 2012

Marilyn Monroe - The Biography, By Donald Spoto

This August (4 August, to be precise) exactly 50 years ago, Marilyn Monroe died in circumstances which to this day don't cease to invite and inspire the wildest and most unlikely conspiracy theories. 20 years ago, the acclaimed film historian Donald Spoto intended to put an end to them once and for all by writing the definitive book on Monroe by shedding new light on the mystery surrounding her demise.

The title Donald Spoto chose for his study on the greatest and arguably most famous movie star in history, is very apt indeed - The Biography - for it suggests that it is the only one around which, of course, it isn't. In fact, there are scads of books on Monroe available, more, probably, than on any other Hollywood star, though the emphasis is on book. For what's commonly available on Monroe has little to do with any biography - let alone one that is well researched and based on empirical data - notwithstanding the fact that their authors take great pains to pass them off as such. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these books are little more than thinly veiled attempts to cash in on the Monroe legend or to be precise, on the mystery surrounding her death. Thus they abound in conspiracy theories by adding fuel to the rumours, claims, and accounts regarding an alleged affair between Monroe and Robert Kennedy, an affair, which Spoto exhaustively proves actually never happened.

Spoto covers Monroe's life over nearly 700 pages. Having read other books by him before (on Hitchcock and Crawford) I hoped that this one, too, would be equally thoroughly researched and critical by also betraying his respect and admiration for the book's subject. My hopes weren't disappointed. If anything, the quality of Spoto's study - a word I deliberately employ here as the much overused term biography doesn't do it justice given the impressive research that evidently went into his book - on Monroe even exceeds his other works. That might have to do, first of all, with the fact that Spoto is a great admirer of Monroe, something which is clearly obvious by reading the book and which is something I consider to be a prerequisite for such an undertaking. For why bother, otherwise? Secondly, as a pre eminent film historian, Spoto must have been well aware of all the countless inaccuracies and the often calculated, exploitative fiction, that have been published on Monroe and her tragic life over the years, and decided she deserved the truth to finally be brought to light.

Coming from any writer other than Spoto, a title as this - The Biography - might easily come across as sophomoric or braggy. But this being Spoto, the book more than lives up to the title's promise. It is a biography worthy of the name. And it is indeed the biography. To say it bluntly, having read several others on Monroe myself, this is the only one worth reading. The definitive study on her. Comprehensibly, Spoto does away with murky murder and conspiracy theories which might make could copy, but which have little to do with the truth which, it should be added, is actually far sadder and far more tragic than the many myths, lies and half-truths that have been circulating for half a century. These might have filled the pockets of some of their creators, but they were of no service to Monroe, who deserved better than this. In fact, what these ruthless peddlers of rumours have been doing precisely mirrors what many of the people Monroe was surrounded by during her lifetime did: using her for their own self-serving purposes, this is especially true for her shrink, the infamous Dr. Greenson, and Monroe's housekeeper, Eunice Murray who, as Spoto suggests, was little more than Greenson's stooge.

Rather than relying on previous accounts and books published on the subject, Spoto based his study solely on empirical data, letters, documents, and oral histories to recapitulate Monroe's life and demise. Starting as far back as her great grandfather, he also refutes those who claim that Monroe's biological family had a history of mental illness. Therefore, Spoto's book was a revelation in more than just one way. For instance, Spoto also amply demonstrates that far from being depressed during her last weeks, as generally believed, Monroe was in fact in great spirits, looking forward to a future, 'she couldn't wait to begin' as she told a close friend verbatim. Having bought into the 'constantly late', 'hopelessly depressed', and the 'perennially drugged' latter-day Monroe myself, I also often wondered how the footage of her last - uncompleted - film, Something's Got to Give, could be so wonderful, virtually flawless and promising. Spoto has the answer: it was a fabrication by 20th Century Fox which sought to abandon a much troubled film project whose script, for instance, had never been completed. So why not make use of the film's star and put the blame on her, especially since her travails had already been well covered by the press and thus easily believable.

A clip from Something's Got to Give (George Cukor, 20th Century Fox, 1962, uncompleted)

Spoto uncovers all the lies and myths bit by bit and credibly exposes them for what they are. However, what's as astonishing as it is annoying is that his effort notwithstanding, these lies and myths are very persistent. They have a way of sticking like oatmeal, refusing to go away. The answer as to why they do is the same as to why they emerged in the first place: because it makes for better copy. Why destroy the myth and legend, since it's so much more exciting and exotic than the truth, which, if anything, is nothing but sordid. And terribly and utterly sad.

For anyone truly interested in the life of Marilyn Monroe and the circumstances that led to her demise almost exactly 50 years ago, this is the book to read - if you haven't done so already.

For anyone who's after melodramatic, hair-raising murder mysteries, I'd recommend, say, Robert Ludlum.