THE paperback edition of Anthony Summers's 1985 book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe carries the flash: 'The ultimate biography of the ultimate star'. But the copywriter must have known that, with Monroe, every pen is at best the penultimate. There will always be one more biography. At 750 pages, Donald Spoto's is this month's heavyweight contender.
To be fair, Spoto's volume has a structural justification for being a late entrant to the field - or funeral lawn - of Monroe scholarship. The book's main business is to rubbish the ones that have come before, and, specifically, Anthony Summers. Only geometricians are more obsessed with new angles than publishers, and, after the long supremacy of nudge-nudge, government cover-up texts, we have entered an intriguing new phase of non-conspiracy-theory books. David Yallop recently demystified Carlos the Jackal as a rather humble gun-man; a book last year alleged that President Kennedy was accidentally shot by a clumsy bodyguard.
Playing the same spoiling sport, Donald Spoto alleges that Marilyn Monroe's early death - variously linked to the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia and her sexual involvement with both dead Kennedys - was merely due to an accidental overdose. She died, he claims, from the backfiring of a Nembutal enema administered by her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, on the instructions of her psychoanalyst, the late Dr Ralph Greenson. Spoto's hypothesis is that Greenson's professional misconduct - the housekeeper was untrained - required the couple to stage a cover-up, its juicy loose ends encouraging less rigorous biographers to perpetrate 'a long-running, grotesque literary charade that matches any other for brazen audacity'. Spoto also grumpily debunks MM's alleged bunkings with the Kennedys. She had JFK once, he concedes, but RFK not at all.
In casting doubt on the redoubts of conspiracy theorists, Spoto veers weirdly between the serious - the claims by some of Summers's sources to have been misquoted - and the petty: ticking Summers off for a mistake about MM's dressing-room. But his main tactic is to pick off Summers's softer witnesses while ignoring the testimony of the stronger ones. Senator George Smothers - a Kennedy contemporary who understood that MM was involved with RFK - is omitted by Spoto, as are former LA mayor Sam Yorty and ex-LA police chief Tom Reddin, who have spoken persuasively of oddities in the investigation of Monroe's death. Documented telephone calls from MM to RFK are airily explained by Spoto as blandly sociable.
The problem is that Spoto becomes as woolly, partial and splenetic in denial of conspiracy as other authors have been in the promotion of it. Less than a page after condemning another writer for 'glittering generalisations', Spoto cheerfully inserts himself into the heads and lives of those he has decided were responsible for MM's death: 'Eunice Murray had become a crippled version of the increasingly healthy Marilyn: now Ralph Greenson was himself retreating into a psychoneurotic fear of abandonment and rejection . . .'
Such amateur head-scratching disfigures the childhood sections of the book - 'She was clearly scarred by the psychological and emotional stress of her uncertain identity' - and the best part is the middle, which is a good, brisk, gossipy account of the movie career. But, as with her friend John F Kennedy, a biography of Monroe is more or less an autopsy, and it is here the work lives or dies. Dies, in my opinion.
Spoto's publishers also describe this book as the 'ultimate biography'. But we must again add that 'pen-': like JFK'S, MM's end contains enough contradictions, coincidences, dodgy or conveniently dead witnesses to satisfy both conspiracy theorists and non-conspiracy theorists until the last trump of publishing. Some like it hot, Spoto likes it cold: no conspiracies. It is entirely possible that his squalid death scene is correct - a screwed-up star who abused drugs once too often - but he may also have fatally misunderstood the mood of the Kennedy- Monroe reading public. Conspiracies are our religion, and this humanist view of one of the Sixties' great mysteries makes a dull missal.
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