Four identical side-by-side portraits of Marilyn Monroe smiling.

Review: Donald Spoto’s Marilyn Monroe, The Biography

Donald Spoto’s 1993 biography of the eternally captivating Marilyn Monroe is a well-researched, deeply human look at the actress who was criminally underestimated and continues to be misrepresented. Beginning his investigation into her life several generations before it began, Spoto devotes the first chapter of the book to the hardships, misfortunes, and familial tensions that ultimately led to the birth of Norma Jeane Baker (her last name frequently changed even before her whole name did). These previous generations, the lack of constancy they faced, and the virtual nonexistence of familial closeness, reliability, or stability in their lives provide crucial insight into the struggles Monroe faced in childhood and adulthood, as well as her dreams of being adored both professionally and personally.

One excellent quality of Spoto’s writing is his honest yet sympathetic realism and firm dismissal of conspiracy theories and scandalous gossip. This is refreshing from any biographer, but crucial in a writer who has undertaken the story of a star on the scale of Marilyn Monroe, about whom insidious and ridiculous rumors have persisted before and long since her death. Spoto dispenses with the hyperbolic descriptions of her drug and alcohol habits, as well as with the numerous falsehoods surrounding her sex life, personal associations, and the circumstances of her death. And, as is usually the case, a straightforward portrayal of her trajectory from stardom to the end of her life is much more effective, and much sadder, than any story a Hollywood rumor mill could churn out.

Spoto’s biography makes clear that Marilyn Monroe, often dubbed mentally ill, hopelessly alcoholic or drug-addicted, sex-obsessed, and Hollywood’s perpetual play thing, was in fact interesting, bright, and hardworking, determined to break out of her stereotypes, prove her value as an actress, and willing to go to great pains to do so. She befriended and studied under famous acting coaches. She briefly abandoned Hollywood to study drama and to study herself. She was interested in politics and social movements. She was discerning about her characters and how she played them, often more so than her directors. And she had a lifelong dream of forming the family she was deprived of in her youth.

About her neuroses and famous difficulties on-set, Spoto is forthcoming and fair. Neither denying she caused problems behind the scenes nor demonizing her for doing so, he paints a portrait of a deeply anxious woman whose perfectionism and self-consciousness virtually paralyzed her. As several of her costars have said (many of whom Spoto quotes), whatever her numerous problems were, they were not driven by ego, and they were in fact a result of an unfounded lack of confidence in her own abilities. Perpetually late because of a combination of sleep aid hangovers and professional terror, she would often require take after take (most famously during the filming of Some Like It Hot). This odd formula of not appearing for, but then working endlessly on the same film, or indeed the same scene, defined the paradox that was Marilyn Monroe — too scared to show up, too determined to give up.

As is to be expected in any study of Monroe’s life, there is tragedy at the end of the story. Spoto’s depiction of Monroe’s last days, and especially her final evening, is nothing like the wild theories frequently spread about her death. But in its clarity, simplicity, and dutiful reliance on evidence, the story of how Monroe died is, in fact, much more heartbreaking and disturbing than any conspiracy ever could be. It was sudden, unnecessary, and utterly avoidable — a result of a woman being in the care of unfit (and possibly unhinged) people who were at best reckless with their charge. And it also took place at a time in her life when Monroe, contrary to the beliefs of those who feel she committed suicide, was maturing as a person and an actress, when she was becoming more than ever before the woman she wanted to be. “There’s a future,” she told a reporter shortly before her death, “and I can’t wait to get to it.”

Reading this biography was both a pleasure and a bit of challenge, because it was infuriating to endure the combination of ignorance around mental illness and chemical dependence, as well as the rampant misogyny of the 50s and 60s, all of which Marilyn bore the brunt of. But in her patient and savvy navigation of these challenges, Marilyn’s definitive toughness and intelligence shows through the text, and a truly fascinating, multi-dimensional person becomes vivid, a long overdue correction of the simplistic and fantastical reports of who Marilyn Monroe was in work and in life.

While I’ve always been interested in Monroe because of what I perceived to be her under-appreciated talent, I shied away from trying to research her very deeply, partly out of a lack of trust that her biographers would do her justice rather than lean into sensationalism, and also out of wishing to avoid the inevitable sadness at the end of her story. I also find the ongoing obsession with her to be more than a little macabre, and have found that many of her devoted fans continue to do to her in death what caused her so much anxiety in life — stripping away her personality and talent and trapping her in her own attractiveness. Spoto defied all these expectations, presenting Monroe as a fully realized person and a genuine icon. In a 1993 interview promoting this book, Spoto says that while he didn’t begin his chronicling of Monroe’s life as a fan, he wound up as one by the end of the journey. I think it’s likely that will be the case for readers of the book, as well.

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