Bloomsbury £20

Marilyn, The Passion and the Paradox, By Lois Banner

This investigation tells us more than ever about Monroe's childhood - but do we need to know?

In the 50 years since Marilyn Monroe's death, an industry has grown up around her. She is one of the most instantly recognisable celebrities of the 20th century, endlessly reproduced on posters, t-shirts and even handbags. Monroe means something to a great number of people, but what that might be isn't so easy to define.

The anniversary of the night in August 1962 when she was found dead in bed offers an irresistible opportunity for fresh readings, informed by the pre-occupations of our time. One is the meaning of celebrity. In her weighty volume, historian Lois Banner remarks that Monroe was happier with still photographs of herself than her films. It speaks to an aspect of her character which feels incredibly modern. When narcissism no longer carries a stigma, she is the precursor of a stream of celebrities whose most obvious talent is self-promotion. Working with just a photographer she was in control, unlike a film studio where she clashed with directors.

Banner is conscious of Monroe's skill in projecting herself, a "rare genius". It isn't so rare these days, but Banner's purpose lies elsewhere, offering a new interpretation of the star's life which draws on feminism and the history of gender . It's certainly the case that Monroe's story has been handled in the past by biographers and critics who don't share that perspective, including the novelist Norman Mailer and her ex-husband Arthur Miller. Mailer's book on Monroe is a drooling rehearsal of a particular species of male fantasy, while Miller's play After The Fall presents her as a monster.

Mailer's book is a warning to any woman who aspires to be "the new Monroe". The problem with Mailer's interpretation is not that it's wrong but that it cuts off feminist re-readings at the knees. Monroe was almost certainly sexually abused as a child, and her vulnerability and eagerness to please were central to her success. For Mailer, she was the embodiment of easy sex, the woman who promised that it "might be... dangerous with others, but ice-cream with her".

Banner's book provides the most detailed account yet of Monroe's fractured childhood, identifying 11 families who provided homes for her. Born in 1926 – she would be the same age as the Queen if she were alive today – Marilyn grew up as Norma Jeane Mortensen. Her mother Gladys gave her the name of her second husband, a meter reader called Edward Mortensen, but Monroe always believed her father was Stanley Gifford, a supervisor at the Hollywood film studio where Gladys worked.

Neither man played a role in her upbringing, and Norma Jeane moved from one step-family to another as her mother suffered a series of breakdowns. Gladys spent time in mental institutions, leaving Norma Jeane with a lifelong fear that she had inherited her instability.

She spent seven years in California with Ida and Wayne Bolender, evangelical Christians who took in foster children. Banner thinks that the significance of religion has been overlooked in Monroe's formative years. The Bolenders believed in sin and redemption, organised nightly Bible readings and took Norma Jeane, aged six, to a dawn service at the Hollywood Bowl.

A later foster mother, Ana Lower, introduced her to Christian Science, a mystical religion founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy. Monroe would later convert to Judaism when she married Miller, but the religious fervour she encountered as a child infused her nightmares with witches and demons. Nor did it help with the guilt she was made to feel when Ida caught her in childish sex experimentation, possibly masturbation, and whipped her for touching the "bad part" of her body.

The sexual abuse happened when she was eight years old, after she left the Bolenders, and was carried out by an elderly man who has never been firmly identified. Banner sees this episode as a key moment in Norma Jeane's life, producing "dissociation" and her "major alter ego" Marilyn Monroe: an alternative self, "sexual and self-confident". Obviously, "Marilyn Monroe" was an invention, but Banner's own account of Monroe's relationships with men reads like a catalogue of exploitation and abuse. Early in her film career, after she was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946, she became a "party girl" – one of the aspiring actresses expected to entertain visiting executives. Banner says that one of the things Monroe learned in this period was to be adept at sex, including fellatio. She would later call Hollywood "an overcrowded brothel".

Her film career was chequered, turning into a constant struggle with studio bosses who wanted to keep her in the "dumb blonde" role. Her marriages suggest a powerful need for male affirmation; her first husband was a high-school athlete, her second the sporting hero Joe DiMaggio, and her third (Miller) the country's pre-eminent intellectual. It's hard to imagine anyone as damaged as Monroe forming stable relationships but there's also a hint of something which has become common in the 21st century, namely short-lived alliances between very famous people who look good together in public.

Banner isn't the first feminist to write about Monroe; she was beaten to it by Gloria Steinem, whose 1986 biography is a lovingly-crafted rescue fantasy. But Banner's purpose seems two-fold: to claim Monroe as a kind of pre-feminist icon, and to establish herself as the foremost scholar in a crowded field. Her Marilyn is difficult, ironic, insecure, bisexual; she's also clever - far from an original claim.

Banner's biography dispels some myths about Monroe's childhood but the sheer quantity of detail is daunting, and her prose is sometimes excruciating. I'm not convinced that Monroe's life has a positive message for women. As I once observed in another context, her enduring appeal suggests that (some) gentlemen prefer dead blondes.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde www.politicalblonde.com

Buy Marilyn (Bloomsbury) from www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £16 (RRP £20) including postage or call 0843 0600030

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players