Marilyn Monroe is the subject of a cottage publishing industry, so it’s surprising and laudatory when a revelatory and insightful book comes along. That makes The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, by celebrity biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, a must-have not only for Monroe fans, but for anyone who loves a juicy Hollywood saga.

Just 36 when she died of an overdose of prescription medication in 1962, Monroe remains the ultimate sex symbol. Her imitators are many, but no one has come close to the original.

Taraborrelli, author of books on Frank Sinatra, Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson, the Kennedy women and others, conducted interviews over decades and utilized FBI files. He digs especially deep into Monroe’s (fractured) family ties, which imparted feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Born Norma Jeane Mortensen, she was the daughter of a paranoid schizophrenic. Thus, she was alternately raised by an unofficial foster family, her mother’s close friend, a great-aunt and an orphanage. She was a ravishing 16 when she was pushed into marrying the son of a family friend. It was that or another orphanage.

She was working at a Burbank factory when she was snapped by Yanks magazine. So began her enduring relationship with the camera. In less than two years she appeared on 30 magazine covers. Movies followed—as did pills, booze and therapy. There was a star-crossed affair with Sinatra, marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller and a fling with JFK that made her think she could be First Lady. She was by then borderline paranoid schizophrenic—and trapped within her own shrewdly crafted persona.

Serious questions persist about the circumstances of her death. But there is no mystery about her stature in Hollywood. In this age of throwaway tabloid celebrities and instantaneous reality show “fame,” Monroe is the iconic reminder of true superstardom, and the terrible price it can exact. Read it and weep.

Pat H. Broeske has written about Monroe for the New York Times.

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