Today I began reading the first official selection for the book club, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe by J. Randy Taraborrelli. But before giving my first impressions, I wanted to reflect upon why I began this book club. What are my reasons? Is it to demonstrate appreciation for Marilyn Monroe as a fan? Is it to create a sense of purpose in my pleasure reading?
The answer, to both of those questions, is yes–however this does not fully encompass my motivation behind this book club.
For me, in reading the books Marilyn Monroe owned is in part an effort to reconsider the ways in which society values women. There are many women whose intellect, drive, talent, and passion have taken a backseat to their physical appearance. This is because, generally speaking, society immortalizes women like Marilyn as objects of beauty (and disregards women who fail to meet societal standards of beauty) rather than appreciate women as fully realized, complicated, and messy human beings. If we praise and recognize women for their positive attributes other than their appearance, then perhaps we can help to change how society sees and values women.
So, why not start social change by trying to change the narrative about a sex icon, or rather, the sex icon of the 20th century?
I do not mean that we should completely ignore Marilyn Monroe’s physical appearance, for to do so would be to ignore a lot of labor that she did. While she was naturally beautiful, cultivating and maintaining her appearance was something Marilyn worked hard at, and it should be valued as such. However to see her and value her only for her appearance is the same as, say, valuing Shakespeare only for Othello or David Bowie only for his work on the movie The Labyrinth.
Marilyn Monroe’s physical appearance is an important part of her, but it is far from the only part of her that was important.
That, in essence, is why I am reading the books that Marilyn read.
Now let’s move along to the first impressions of The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, which is obviously not a book from her library. I felt that rather than dive into her reading list, beginning this endeavor with a biography of her would help prepare me for seeing her world and putting myself in her shoes when reading her books. Spoiler warnings ahead for those who would like to read without any hint as to what is coming in the first few chapters.
Right away I was hooked. Sometimes biographies or historical works can take a bit of effort for me to enjoy at the beginning. Not so for this book. Taraborrelli’s writing style is very readable, and his narrative flow is seductive. If you chose to read this book, absolutely read the prologue, it completely sets the tone.
The titular secret life, as we learn, is Marilyn Monroe’s struggle with mental health. Taraborrelli goes into detail describing her family history with mental illness. I presume much of what is to come in the following chapters is an investigation into how Marilyn Monroe worked at concealing this struggle throughout her life. I can tell this is going to be an emotional read that will inevitably result in me shedding tears, but I anticipate will cause me at the very least to appreciate even further the Marilyn Monroe.
One aspect of this biography which makes it simultaneously attractive and worrisome is the use of dialogue. Some historical works err on the side of caution when it comes to using dialogue, which perhaps makes the work a little more tedious to read. This particular work inserts dialogue in a way that makes for a really colorful narrative that sucks the reader into the scene. So in this respect, I do appreciate it and can overlook my concerns. I say inserting dialogue here is worrisome, however, because I always raise my eyebrow at dialogue in biographies and historical accounts, particularly when it reflects a time before conversations were recorded. Is the dialogue presented in the biography being remembered by one of the participants, and if so, how accurate, really, is it? I believe, however, this concern is the historian in me talking, and focusing too much on details like that will inevitably impact my ability to appreciate the work for what it sets out to be.
Something else that has struck me in this particular narrative is the amount of editorializing that occurs when describing the female beauty, saying things like, “she was a real looker,” when referring to Gladys Baker (Marilyn Monroe’s mother). Such editorializing, on the one hand, adds to the sense that beauty, along with mental illness, is a family trait, and as such is key to Marilyn’s identity. It also does making the narrative flow enticing.
Yet there is still something uncomfortable about it–perhaps because I, as a reader of historical works, don’t necessarily want to have an author tell me how to feel about a real person’s appearance, but rather, if it is necessary to the storyline, present to me how their appearance affected their lives—whether they be traditionally beautiful or not. Beauty is subjective, and therein lies a problem. In fiction it works to tell the reader that this or that person is beautiful because the reader’s imagination is at play, and because judgements are not being placed upon real humans.
I don’t read biographies to judge people–I read biographies to understand people.
But perhaps the objectification in these editorializing statements is actually meta, referencing the fact that the work is a biography of a beautiful person. Ultimately I have yet, to make a judgement call on whether or not I deem this to be somewhat genius or too discomforting, but I’m sure by the end of the book I will have a definite opinion.
Thus ends my first day’s reflections. I do not believe I will write every day, but may check in again at the halfway point, and again at the end.
Thanks for joining me!