Actress, Sex Symbol, Feminist?
What is the first thing one thinks of when they hear of Marilyn Monroe? “Happy Birthday Mr. President?” A sex symbol? An actress of the 1950’s? A woman who died mysteriously? What about a strong business woman? Or even a feminist? Biographer Michelle Morgan, author of Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, Before Marilyn, The Ice Cream Blonde, and Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star, makes an argument for the latter two options in her new book, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist.
Some may shudder at the idea of a woman who has been labeled the ultimate victim personified and who, supposedly, fully relished in being objectified as a symbol of patriarchal sexuality, as being a feminist. Images of women such as Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, and Valerie Solanas easily come to mind for those who closely followed second wave feminists in the 60’s while millennials may think of Margaret Cho, Rose McGowan, and Meryl Streep but Marilyn Monroe is sorely lacking in the minds of many. Yet Morgan shows us the errors of our ways.
Composed of ten chapters, Morgan opens the book with a brief biography about Monroe’s life. Chapter one, where our story begins, follows Monroe during the preproduction of The Seven Year Itch, which closely aligns with her marriage to Joe DiMaggio. By the time filming was completed, so was her marriage. Chapter two, aptly titled “No Dumb Blonde,” shows the dedication that Marilyn spent to honing her craft and takes a deeper look at Monroe’s 1955 move to New York. Chapter three explores the press’ fascination with Marilyn seemingly giving up her career in Hollywood to focus on cultural aspirations in New York and the formation of Monroe’s production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. Chapter four digs deep into what would become Monroe’s primary focus for the rest of her life, The Actor’s Studio, run by the man some call her Svengali, Lee Strasberg. We are taken on Monroe’s whirlwind acceptance into the famed acting school and Morgan shows us Monroe’s arguably idyllic life as a single woman in New York in 1955. Chapter five has Morgan exploring the idea of Monroe being a feminist, pointing out that the term received backlash from those who only ten years later would have almost assuredly embraced the title such as Vijaya Lakshmi and those who fully embraced it at the time, like singer Eartha Kitt. Morgan asserts that Monroe probably would not have accepted the term during this time (1955) but likely would have appreciated it in the latter 1960’s. Chapter six begins with examining more of Monroe’s business genius and the reader can’t help but feel that if Monroe had chosen a career closer to Elizabeth Moss’ Margaret “Peggy” Olson from Mad Men she would have easily become the next Don Draper. Morgan shows how she negotiated with not only Fox during this time (1955) but also notoriously stubborn screen legend Laurence Olivier. Chapter seven takes us through what many Monroe fans will argue was the beginning of the happiest time of her life, 1956, and shows the reader just what Monroe was up against even after she had won her contract disputes with Fox the previous year. A highlight of chapter eight, which primarily deals with the pre-production of The Prince and the Showgirl and the beginning of Monroe’s marriage to playwright Arthur Miller, is the impeccable research that Morgan has completed on Monroe’s former acting coach, Natasha Lytess and comments that Lytess’ made about Marilyn both before and after her death. Chapter nine takes us through filming and cast attitudes towards Marilyn during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Finally, chapter ten gives the reader an overview of Marilyn’s life from 1957-1962. Morgan paints a fascinating portrait of a woman who is still exhibiting a keen business sense behind the scenes after ridicule by the public for asserting herself but the feminist flame is not burning quite as brightly as the ideal period of 1954-1956, which is what the book primarily focuses on. That is not to say that Monroe was no longer a fighter, she most certainly was, and Morgan points that out, but society has seemingly doused Monroe’s flame and put forward the misconceptions of Monroe that are still alive and well today. An extra bright spot is the epilogue, featuring testimony from fans and luminaries alike such as Suzie Kennedy, Emma Watson, Daisy Morgan, Andrea Pryke, and Tara Hanks.
Morgan shines light on aspects of Monroe’s life that have been overlooked by most biographers. She accurately asserts that “…the public preferred their Monroe funny,” (17) and does not paint Twentieth Century Fox as being the primary “bad guy” in Monroe’s plight like most books do. Fox was a business. They were not there to foster her artistic ambitions. It’s refreshing to see Morgan acknowledge that society boxed her in which caused Fox’s typecasting. There are private Marilyn moments never before fully explored such as Monroe’s time at photographer Milton Greene’s Connecticut farmhouse in 1955. Morgan paints a wonderful picture of Monroe being able to enjoy literature and take jasmine and gardenia scented bubble baths (64). Another highlight is Morgan introducing us to another aspect of Monroe, the businesswoman with a much deeper understanding of the inner-workings of the studio system than previous authors have given her credit for. Morgan relays a story most likely told by Eli Wallach in a 1955 anonymous interview, “Marilyn gave me the kind of advice I’d only expect to get from a Hollywood lawyer. She knew the ins and outs and the fine-print tricks better than an agent.” (119)
This book is not simply a biography on Monroe and shouldn’t be mistaken as one. Instead it’s a detailed and accurate study of feminist culture in the 1950’s with Monroe as the primary case study. Morgan interweaves anecdotes about 50’s society and brings other women forward to show their plights and how they were similar to Monroe’s. A notable story in the book is that of Selma Silbert, the wife of a court reporter who was covering Monroe’s divorce from DiMaggio. After watching Monroe’s tear-filled testimony at her divorce hearing, Silbert bypassed meeting her husband, Mark, for lunch and instead jumped out of a ten story window. The cause, Morgan asserts, was postpartum depression, something that overlooked and written off as “normal” for many women during the 1950’s (46). While Monroe herself never dealt with this issue, she did struggle with feeling depressed quite often in her life and the reader can see why Morgan has chosen this story. Another current issue that has been ignored until recently is sexual assault by some lecherous men in Hollywood. Morgan shares both Monroe’s stories and those of other actresses who faced similar situations during this time. Harvey Weinstein types were alive and well and Morgan isn’t afraid to be frank about it (79).
The one thing that I wish Morgan would have focused on a tad more is the long line of female production studio owners and directors of the 1920’s and how Marilyn would have likely known about many of them being from Los Angeles and born during the era. Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino both started production companies (Lupino was also a director and the only person, male or female, to both direct and star in two separate episodes of The Twilight Zone) well before Monroe but it is a testament to the time that they received very little publicity in fan magazines for these accomplishments. Morgan sufficiently covers that base in her book. Women’s accomplishments just were not as important as men’s in the 1950’s. Morgan notes that most women behind the scenes in prestigious roles in development (producers, directors, etc.) were before 1943.
Overall The Girl is the first book on Monroe that focuses almost exclusively on her achievements, both personally and professionally. Morgan uses a variety of sources including fan magazines, interviews, and newspapers from the time to show just what Monroe was facing from the public. Morgan gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly and we can fully appreciate just what Monroe faced during her lifetime.
The Girl will undoubtedly become a resource for not only scholars of Monroe, but also for those who want to study the roots of second wave feminism from the decade before and society’s view of women in the 1950’s. Was Monroe a feminist? Absolutely. She does not deserve the stigma that surrounds her as being nothing more than a dumb blonde who relied on her sexuality and became the eternal victim. Monroe was strong. Monroe was a fighter. Monroe was smart. Morgan is the first author to truly capture all of that. I don’t think it often on books on Monroe but The Girl truly is a must-have. If I had my way, it would be on the shelf of every person in the world.