Marilyn Monroe died 50 years ago + my favourite books about Marilyn

I’ve been thinking about Marilyn, particularly because she was born in the same year as my grandmother who just passed away. My Nanna had a whole 50 years more of life. She wasn’t famous but she had a loving family (something Marilyn lacked and longed for). Arthur Miller said: ‘To understand Marilyn best, you have to see her around children. They love her; her whole approach to life has their kind of simplicity and directness.’

I’m trying to write something longer about these two women born in 1926. Today I just want to give a little nod to Marilyn, and direct you to some reading.

I fell for Marilyn in my teens. I related to the outward appearance—the smile, the sashay, the glow—masking insecurity and vulnerability. I felt for her, deeply. I’d dream about her (I still do), mostly just curling around her, skin soft and pale. Comforting her.

John Banville’s tribute in the Guardian is worth reading:

The fact is, she was one of the 20th century’s great clowns, whose clowning was intended not to make us laugh—though she was wonderfully funny—but to lose ourselves in fantasies of longing and desire. Other movie stars act the part of themselves, more or less convincingly; Marilyn created a wholly other version of herself, meant not to convince but to seduce. She was both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, and it is our constant, subliminal awareness of this duality that makes her such a fascinating and compelling creature, even still, 50 years after her death.

I like, too, how he quotes Shelley Winters. Winters was sympathetic to Marilyn. There are few figures in her life who were truly patient and understanding, and whose company she enjoyed, even if only for a time. Montgomery Clift was one. Lee Strasberg saw much in her that others refused to. Arthur Miller, unfortunately, lost his patience with her and she found out in the worst of ways, by coming across his notebook. That was devastating for her.

But I’m not an expert. I just adore her and like others who do I absorb information and construct my own version of her. I’m aware it may be as flawed as any other version.

I have a huge collection of Marilyn books. I want to share with you some of the highlights:

The Marilyn Encyclopedia
Adam Victor

A useful A-Z with entries on Marilyn’s friends, the people she worked with, the names of her films, quotes on different subjects, places she lived in or visited and entries like ‘mirrors’, ‘mental illness’, ‘sleep’, ‘cosmetic surgery’ and much more. Victor’s writing is engaging and he draws from many different sources. You can learn something about her just by flipping to any page. And there are plenty of pictures.

Marilyn: Norma Jeane
Gloria Steinem (photos by George Barris)

Gloria Steinem, as you may know, is a feminist writer, and this book was first published in 1986. Steinem begins by examining why the love for the star continues to bloom despite our ‘throwaway culture’. There are chapters titled: ‘work and money, sex and politics’, ‘fathers and lovers’ and ‘the body prison’, among others. This may be where I first learnt about something that was a huge impact on Marilyn’s life and only touched upon in other biographies. Marilyn suffered from such severe menstrual pain (as a small percentage of women do) that it may have been the initial cause of her reliance on drugs. It was more than likely that she had endometriosis, which was why she also had trouble conceiving (or carrying to term) a child. Overall this is a refreshing and sensitive biography, with many of the more natural pictures of her.

I also found this great video interview with Steinem, discussing Marilyn in relation to feminism, from just after the book was released. Check it out.

My Sister Marilyn: A Memoir of Marilyn Monroe
Berniece Baker Miracle and Mona Rae Miracle

Marilyn’s sister Berniece provides insight into Norma Jeane, and into the family history (including a history of mental illness). She stayed in touch with Marilyn over the years, and last saw her on a visit to Marilyn and Arthur Miller in Connecticut. Some intimate family photos are included.


Marilyn: The Story of a Woman
Kathryn Hyatt

A fictionalised graphic bio of Marilyn’s life. A great introduction if you’re a new fan. Well paced, and contains most of the well known events in her life. It has a lovely ending.



Marilyn Monroe
Barbara Leaming

This was the first full-length biography I read of Marilyn and though I can’t fully remember why, it remains my favourite. Others I’ve read are often written in a very sensationalised language, or are simply boring. This one is certainly full of drama (emotional, political and more) and I learnt a lot about Marilyn and her life. I’m sure Leaming doesn’t ‘victimise’ her too much, as some do. She provides a lot of detail, fleshing out each scene (with colours, smells, tastes and more) so we can experience it, including on the set of Marilyn’s films.

MM—Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe
Lois Banner (photographs by Mark Anderson)

This is a strange book. It’s basically photographs of items from Marilyn’s file cabinets. It fascinates me and creeps me out, mainly because it does fascinate me (and others) to stare at receipts, telegrams, fan letters, a sewing kit, newspaper cut-outs, business letters, her birth certificate, a lease, cheques and much more. Relics from the life of someone we didn’t know.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
ed. Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment

The best Marilyn book because it features her own words. Fragments that reveal her sensitivity, her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her pain.

‘for life:
It is rather a determination not to be overwhelmed.’

There’s also a picture in the back of some books from her private collection. They include Flaubert, Camus, Conrad, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kerouac.

Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting
Bert Stern

A hardcover with every picture from Bert Stern’s final sitting with Marilyn, even the ones where she has crossed over the negatives. Incredibly revealing, a huge range of facial expressions and costumes. In some, Marilyn is clearly drunk or drugged. She plays sweet, funny, glamorous, sad, the child, the woman. Flaws and scars are visible. You could stare at them all day. I lay-byed this book at the Queensland Art Gallery shop when I was about 20 and my sister was living there. I’d send her a small amount each pay day to pay it off for me. It looks like it’s even rarer and more expensive now. But it’s so stunning. If you’re a Marilyn fan, it’s well worth saving up for.

Have you read any/many books about Marilyn? Do you have a favourite? I’m sure many more tributes will emerge over the next few days. Keep an eye on my Twitter feed and/or Facebook page for links.

12 thoughts on “Marilyn Monroe died 50 years ago + my favourite books about Marilyn

  1. Marilyn and Me by Susan Strasberg (Lee’s daughter) was hiding away on my shelf, I just found it putting books back. It’s also a good intimate biography by a woman (a girl at the time) who knew her.

    I also have a soft spot for John Gilmore’s Inside Marilyn Monroe, given to me by my friend Kathy and signed by the author. It’s a rather raw, personalised account with lots of inside Hollywood anecdotes (Gilmore was of the same Hollywood generation, met Monroe and felt a connection with her).

  2. Great post Angela. I’ve also been crushing on Marilyn since my teens. The all valuable bedroom wall real estate usually assigned to the hot band/s of the day was shared equally with Marilyn. Oddly enough I was discovered Marilyn around the same time I first discovered Arthur Miller, so it was like two of my favourite worlds converging. I fell hard and fast, hoovering up every book I could find. But I’ve not seen a couple of the ones you’ve mentioned. So when someone asks what I’d like for Xmas, I now have a few suggestions.

    • I also discovered Arthur Miller around the same time as Marilyn. I read Death of a Salesman, The Crucible. I’m still a bit afraid to read After the Fall…

      • I’m with you. After the Fall is the only Miller I haven’t read – I’ve picked it up many times but always put it back and buy something else. I guess I have to trust whatever has been guiding my hand.

  3. G’day Angela, and greetings to Marilyn fans everywhere.

    I haven’t read Fragments, Poems etc., but I did read this review of it in the LRB. And like a lot of things in the LRB, I found it to be incredibly interesting and incisive:

    I’m not exactly a die-hard Marilyn fan, and I’m certainly not taken by the throat (or by any other part of my male anatomy) by the sex symbol cardboard cut-out of her that was promoted relentlessly by the studios. She just strikes me as having been a lovely, intelligent, horribly conflicted and, in the most life-affirming way, sexy person who deserved far better from her ‘life and times.’ And yes, like people the world over (Bernie Taupin et. al.) I read this account of her and wished I’d known her and had a chance to understand. Ah well.

    • Yes, that LRB review was a good one. And thanks for your words on Marilyn. She both fought and perpetuated the role the studio gave her, the way the system worked then (studio contracts) meant she was stuck much of the time. But she broke away, creating her own company with Milton Green, studying at the Actor’s Studio and taking on a more nuanced role in Bus Stop. But a part of her did feed on the public’s adoration, and much of the public adored her in a certain kind of role. Steinem’s book explores all this very well.
      Thanks again!

    • That sounds very cool, I’ll have to get it. I forgot to mention my favourite Marilyn fictionalisation here, too: Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde. An emotive, poetic, powerful novel, one to get lost in.

    • Hey Katie, I thought it was an OK film. I love Michelle Williams and she’d obviously studied Marilyn intensely, some of her facial expressions looked uncannily like her. But there always will be some essence lacking with any actress playing Marilyn (compared to watching Marilyn on screen). Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, though, was delightful. I think he’s been waiting his whole life to play him. He got the frustration and the menace, and then the succumbing (to the idea of Marilyn’s ‘brilliance’) just right. I’m sure he read Olivier’s essay in this book: as part of his preparation.

    • Can you believe I haven’t read Mailer? Big gap there. Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde is one of my favourite novels of all time.

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