The passage of time and occasional discoveries of new source materials have made Marilyn Monroe an ever-evolving presence. Marking the 50th anniversary of her death on August 5, 1962, two revisionist biographies offer divergent views of the blonde icon.

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, by USC gender studies professor, feminist historian and unabashed Monroe fan Lois Banner, seeks to quash the notion of Monroe as damaged victim. Marilyn is instead the one on top—a smart cookie, largely in control of her self-created sexy persona and career.

Adept at depicting time and place in authentic detail, Banner digs deep into the fractured childhood of Norma Jeane Mortenson, showing that Monroe exaggerated chapters of her life (her foster families were relatives/friends, not total strangers), while downplaying probable childhood sexual abuse.

Growing up in the shadow of Southern California’s film industry, Monroe did more than dream of stardom; she set out to make it happen. After being snapped by a photographer for a recruiting magazine, she became an eager and astute photo subject, then a possible “party girl” (serving up sex and drinks to the powerful) and studio contract player. Her star was rising when rumors hit that she’d once posed nude for a calendar pin-up. Instead of today’s typical insincere apology, Monroe owned up to it. Asked if she had anything on during the shoot, she quipped, “The radio.”

Seeking self-improvement she frequented bookstores, took classes at UCLA, studied acting. She confounded studio executives by wanting control over her movies, and infuriated the same crowd when she went out without donning underwear.

Banner takes us through the films, love affairs, the shrinks, the medication and a pivotal weekend during which something murky transpired at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva Lodge. A drunken Monroe may have been sexually violated; she was certainly humiliated. Days later she was dead, at 36. Banner recounts various Monroe death theories, including those with a conspiratorial edge involving the Kennedys, and wonders if, had she lived, she would have embraced the sisterhood of feminism. 

In Marilyn Monroe: The Final Years British author Keith Badman charts similar biographical terrain, but steadfastly refutes an affair with JFK—beyond a one-nighter—and shoots down a rumored RFK romance. Itineraries prove both were logistically impossible, Badman argues. He also claims to have solved the mystery of Monroe’s death, via copious data regarding her lengthy use of prescription meds. Well, maybe. . . .

Like Banner, he delves into the creepy goings-on at Cal Neva, while taking a magnifying glass to the actresses’ final films, The Misfits and the never-completed Something’s Got to Give.

Author of books on the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Badman is gifted at depicting Monroe’s colorful supporting cast, including longtime acting coach Paula Strasberg (dubbed Black Bart by crew members) and publicist Pat Newcomb, who remains a tantalizing figure in the life of the ultimate mystery woman.

Author Pat H. Broeske is also a Hollywood journalist whose byline appears in the latest issue of Emmy magazine.

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