Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “biography”

Katie’s #CBR4 Review #49: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Title: Eat, Pray, Love
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Source: library
Rating: ★★★★★
Review Summary: A humorous and relatable story with such great characters it’s hard to believe they weren’t invented just for this book.

What do you do if you have everything you “should” want and are still unhappy? In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert shares her story of leaving it all – a promising career, a comfortable home, and even her marriage – to travel the world in search of happiness. Like Cecilia Ahearn, I expected Elizabeth Gilbert to be too “girly” or emotional of an author for me and was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the book includes many emotional topics, such as the author’s agonizing divorce proceedings, but she describes everything in a relatable, humorous way. She comes across as very down-to-earth and comfortable laughing at herself and never became too angsty.

Read more on Doing Dewey.

 

Sophia’s #CBR4 Review #23: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer–and yet also, like most things, so very simple–was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day…, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go…And so I walked on.”

I started reading Wild (2012) by Cheryl Strayed exactly when I most needed it. I’d been in the fire academy for about two months. I was completely exhausted and burned out. My mind was buzzing from stress, and I hadn’t read anything that was not fire related since before the academy started. But then there came one blessed three-day weekend where I didn’t have quite as much fire reading as usual. So I took advantage of my unusual free time and spent most of the day in bed reading Wild.

Read the rest of my review here.

Idgiepug’s #CBR4 Review #33: Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb

Wish You Were Here is Nick Webb’s exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) biography of his good friend Douglas Adams.  The first half (or so) of the book was fascinating, reigniting my interest in all things Adams and sending me back to my old copies of the Hitchhiker’s series for reference.  The organization of the book was awkward, though, and by the end, I was ready to be done despite my love of the subject.

Instead of proceeding through Douglas’ life chronologically, Webb breaks the biography up into chunks.  It begins with his childhood and works forward for a while, and then Webb begins organizing the book by topics.  It leads to a lot of asides and circling back later.  Most of the book is fascinating, though, and offers a humorous, touching look at a brilliant but deeply strange man.  Adams was a giant physically with, according to Webb, a big heart to match.  The inside look into Adams’ writing process (and writer’s block) was especially interesting and includes a famous-in-the-publishing-world anecdote about the time an editor had to lock himself and Adams into a hotel room for several days to keep Adams away from distractions long enough for him to finish one of the books. Adams’ private life was fun to read about, too; he apparently threw some monumental parties with very famous musicians just rocking out in the living room. Again, though, the layout was a bit confusing because Webb would talk about, say, Adams’ parties in one section and then his personal life in another section, which led to a lot of “more about that later” asides and, for me, a lot a flipping back to double-check dates in one section with dates in another.

I feel like I’m being a bit too hard on Webb because the book really is interesting.  I just wish he’d organized the biography differently so that it wasn’t quite so long and repetitive.  Douglas Adams’ life is definitely worth reading about, and Webb’s own love for Adams permeates the book with a sweet nostalgia for the man who, at times almost against his will, gave us some of the most charming and amusing science fiction novels of all time.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #18: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

The very long life of George F. Kennan. Read more at my blog.

Mrs Smith Reads The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke by Timothy Snyder, #CBR4 Review #19

The Red Prince is a book I read a blurb about somewhere and thought it sounded interesting and educational so I put it in my library queue. The book jacket also mentions that Archduke Wilhelm occasionally liked to wear dresses which piqued my interest even more. Archduke Wilhelm Franz of Austria, aka The Red Prince, was a nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, cousin of Franz Ferdinand (the man, not the band) and he himself set forth from an early age with a plan to become ruler of a Ukrainian state.

I wasn’t disappointed by Timothy Snyder’s deeply researched history of the decline of the Habsburg empire over the course of two world wars, as it was cunningly disguised as the biography of a very wealthy bisexual with poor financial skills and delusions of grandeur. Wilhelm, prompted by his father the Archduke Karl Stefan, devised a plan to unite Ukrainian nationals in Eastern Europe and release them from German and Soviet control, all with an eye to becoming their presumptive leader—hopefully as a King, and failing that, military dictator would be OK too. Wilhelm liked hanging out with soldiers, especially dark-haired, exotic looking ones.

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke by Timothy Snyder

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #36: Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe, by Richard Buskin

In Blonde Heat: The Sizzling Screen Career of Marilyn Monroe author Richard Buskin chronicles all of Marilyn Monroe’s thirty films, highlighting the dramas that occurred behind-the-scenes, as well as giving details of the casts, crews, and plots of each film. He also includes quotes from some of her directors and costars over the years, including Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, Jean Peters and Jane Russell. Buskin also includes some interesting quotes from the actress herself:

“I think cheesecake helps call attention to you. Then you can follow through and prove yourself.” — MM, 1951.

Not only Marilyn’s movies but her surviving screen tests, her one television commercial, and an appearance she made on Jack Benny’s television show are included in the volume. Because of the nature of her film contract, Marilyn could not appear Whenever she chose on television, radio, or record music – she could not appear in different mediums as interchangeably as today’s stars can. One of the reasons modern movie stars have more freedom is because Marilyn fought hard to win hers.

With David Wayne in How to Marry A Millionaire

Marilyn’s notorious “difficult” behavior is put into context by people who worked with her before she became a worldwide sensation. Marilyn learned early on in her career that people would wait for her.

“She was only making $500 a week but she enjoyed a remarkable position because she could come in at any bloody time she wished. … I mean, all of the studio personnel were alerted that no matter what time Marilyn came in, nobody was to bark at her or ask her where she had been, and the reason for that was that Joe Shenck, who owned 20th Century-Fox, was head over heels in love with Marilyn.” — Actor David Wayne, who worked with Marilyn in four films, starting in 1951 with As Young as You Feel, and then in We’re Not Married (1952), O. Henry’s Full House (1952), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

Interspersed in the behind-the-scenes sections on various films are some of the familiar stories that have appeared in many other biographies of the star, including her failed marriages and struggles with barbiturates.  But Buskin is most interested and most interesting when he is chronicling Marilyn’s struggles and legal wrangles with her film studio, Twentieth Century-Fox.

“[After Marilyn fled Hollywod and formed her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions] Fox verbally promised to give her a $100,000 bonus for appearing in [The Seven Year] Itch, while also agreeing to pay drama coach Natasha Lytess, vocal coach Hal Schaefer, choreographer Jack Cole to work with her on [There's No Business Like] Show Business. What’s more, a new, more financially rewarding seven-year contract would be implemented in August 1954. Round one to Marilyn – at least in terms of her dealings with the studio.”

Perhaps the most fascinating and tragic story that Buskin tells in Blonde Heat is how completely insane were the dealings of the studio with their stars, especially Marilyn, during the making of the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give, the film that she was never able to complete before her untimely death in August 1962. The production had been troubled from the start. A remake of the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne comedy My Favorite WifeSomething’s Got to Give had an unfunny script that was constantly being tinkered wth, which added to the tension and dissatisfaction of everyone on the set. Things went crazy, and fast as the shoot progressed.

Because of the over-budget spectacle Cleopatra, Fox was going bankrupt, and decided to take its wrath out on an easier target than Elizabeth Taylor, who was still needed to complete the bloated extravaganza. Fox execs fixed on Marilyn, deciding to teach A lesson to all of its “wayward” stars, through her. Marilyn had missed many days on the set, due to a recurring sinus infection, and when it became clear that Something’s Got to Give was in serious trouble, Fox decided to fire her for breach of contract. They filed a suit against her for $500,000 and hired Lee Remick to replace her. But costar (and producer) Dean Martin refused to work with anyone but Marilyn, so Fox sued him for $500,000, too. Costar Cyd Charisse sued Dean for $14,000 for lost earnings. Not satisfied, Fox raised its lawsuit against Marilyn to $750,000, and sued Dean (as producer) for $3,339,000. Dean counter-sued for $5,885,000.

Even with all of this crazy litigation by August 1 the astute Marilyn had managed to patch things up with Fox. The lawsuit was dropped and she was rehired. She also signed a new two-picture deal — a raise on Something’s Got to Give, from $100,000 to $250,000 (the most she had ever made on a picture) and $750,000 for her next picture. Marilyn had also been busy, meeting and planning some other new projects — I Love Louisa (which became What A Way To Go!Harlow, a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and some potential projects with Brigitte Bardot, to be filmed in Europe. What a combo they would have been.

A set photo from Something’s Got to Give, taken by Lawrence Schiller

But as we know, Marilyn never was able to complete any of those films, or Something’s Got to Give. Her unfulfilled promise is why she still remains so elusive, so enigmatic. Buskin has done a great job covering her life and her films in his enumeration of Marilyn’s career in Blonde Heat. Marilyn is long gone, but her films remain, and what seems universally agreed upon is how she loved the camera and it loved her back. Marilyn was simply born for the camera.

“No matter what her lack of technique was every shot of her — as long as she didn’t back out of her light — was a treasure. She just could not be badly photographed. It was impossible.” — Actor David Wayne

“She doesn’t do anything right and she drives everybody crazy, but then you go in the projection room, look at her on screen, and go ‘Wow!’” — Director Jean Negulesco (How to Marry a Millionaire), to actress Jean Peters (As Young as You Feel, Niagara)

“She was practically perfect to photograph. … No two eyes are alike on a human face — one will be a bit smaller or a slightly different shape — and a real artist will capture the essence in getting the likeness of the person. However, if you could measure Marilyn’s eyes and facial features, they were almost perfect. The end of her nose was tipped up a bit, but it was charming, and she was absolutely lovely. She photographed perfectly from any direction.”— Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Prince and the Showgirl)

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #35: Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, by Donald Spoto

I remember taking some of Donald Spoto’s film theory classes at The New School in the late eighties. He had written a nice book on one of my favorite film directors, Alfred Hitchcock, and I enjoyed the class discussions and being exposed to some great films I might never have gone to see on my own, like The Battle of Algiers and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. He has written many celebrity biographies over the years, including books on Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich. His book on Marilyn Monroe is considered one of the most definitive biographies of the star. The facts of her life and death seem to be elusive (or even fabricated) to most who write about her, so I had high hopes for Spoto.

For the most part, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography, doesn’t disappoint. If it does nothing else, Spoto’s meticulous research does seem to debunk once and for all the highly unlikely claims of Robert Slatzer, who has told anyone and everyone who would listen about his three-day “marriage” to the star. Spoto points out how other biographers, like Anthony Summers have used Slatzer as a credible source and have allowed the cult of mis-information about Marilyn to snowball. Spoto also identifies Marilyn’s “friend” Jeanne Carmen as a fraud, another person who has trumpeted her “close relationship” to the star, only after Marilyn’s death, to her own financial benefit. But the most interesting and useful of Spoto’s discoveries is that Marilyn may have had a one-time fling with President John F. Kennedy, as did many, many other Hollywood starlets, but that she never had an affair or any other sort of intimate relationship with his brother, Robert Kennedy. If the “Kennedy conspiracy” is subtracted from Marilyn’s life and death, her story is not only very different, but much more believable.

“Beginning in 1955, a formidable file on Marilyn Monroe also began to accumulate in Washington – records of which she was never aware. They comprise a ludicrous waste of paper.”

Spoto believes that if there is anyone to “blame” for Marilyn’s death it is the highly unethical behavior of her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, and her housekeeper, Eunice Murray, who Greenson had Marilyn hire shortly after she moved back to Los Angeles from New York. They do seem to have worked as a team, with Murray keeping tabs on the star and reporting back to the doctor. Marilyn was seeing Greenson almost daily at this point in her life, so the extra spying seems completely over-the-top, but Spoto makes a great case for Greenson’s desire to “possess” his most famous patient, and highlights his extremely unprofessional behavior throughout his career. While he doesn’t go so far as to accuse them of murder, he comes awfully close, suggesting that Murray (a person with no medical training) may have administered barbiturates to the already drugged-up star on Greenson’s orders, and that the dose was what put her over the edge.

I have to admit that I don’t completely buy Spoto’s reconstruction of Marilyn’s last days. He claims that she and Joe DiMaggio were planning to remarry on August 8 and she was excited and happy about it. There are receipts for a special dress and hair appointments and catering arrangements that help back up this idea. But he offers no reason for why, paradoxically, two days before her supposedly planned nuptials, she became suddenly upset enough to start the whole alcohol/pill/depression cycle again. He suggests her plummeting mood on the day of her death may be connected to her regular daily session with Greenson — he claims that she tried to fire the doctor that day. Maybe. She started drinking and popping pills and called Joe DiMaggio’s son, Joe Jr., twice that day, and did finally get through to him in the evening (he later said they had a pleasant conversation), but there are no records of her trying to contact Joe at all. Wouldn’t she have called her fiancé at least once, if she had been so disturbed, either by her meeting with Greenson or by something else?

Hollywood reporter Sidney Skolsky, a hypochondriac who worked out of the famous Schwabs drugstore (where he had easy access to sampling their products), befriended Marilyn. Once before an audition he “gave her three sleeping tablets so that the anxiety of preparing would not exhaust her before the test.”… Joe called Marilyn and Sidney Skolsky “pill-pals, not pen-pals.”

“Barbiturates to sleep, amphetamines to stay awake, narcotics to relax – in Hollywood, these were as plentiful as agents, and could easily be obtained through the studio front office.”

“[Her internist, Dr. Hyman] Engleberg visited Marilyn at home every day but six during July; except for the fourth, the sixth through the ninth and the 16th, she received injections – liver and vitamin shots, she said. But these transformed her mood and energy with alarming rapidity.”

The last few days of Marilyn’s life aside, which we are unlikely to ever fully know all the facts of, Spoto does paint a wonderful portrait of Norma Jeane and how she became Marilyn Monroe. Her great ambition, her constant struggles with health, and the huge difference between how she looked and how she felt inside, are meticulously and chronologically presented. He isn’t afraid to show her weaknesses and bad decisions, but he is also eager to show the screen goddess in a flattering light when he can, and has the facts to back up his debunking of old rumors — such as Marilyn’s family didn’t have a history of insanity as has been endlessly reported. Her grandfather died from a brain infection and her grandmother “of heart disease, which caused impaired mentation due to insufficient oxygenation of the brain.” Marilyn’s mother Gladys did fear genetic mental disease, especially after she had heard that her own grandfather committed suicide. Spoto points out that his death was related to his ongoing bad health and imminent eviction, not mental illness, Gladys was never aware of those facts. Gladys certainly suffered from anxiety and depression, but there was no Prozac for Marilyn’s mother in 1935, so she chose to opt out of life and spent most of her life in sanatoriums.

He charts her uneven childhood. She lived in many foster homes — but not as many as usually reported, and most of her foster parents were friends of Gladys, not unknown to her. She was in the Los Angeles orphange for two years. Maybe because of this bounced-around upbringing, always having to please a new set of adults, Marilyn throughout her life would seek out a patron of some sort, usually a family, like the Strasbergs, or an older man, like agent Johnny Hyde. But even with powerful people on her team she still had to work hard to get noticed, to get a decent part in a picture.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy: “This girl had something I hadn’t seen since silent pictures.… She got sex on a piece of film like Jean Harlow. Every frame of the test radiated sex.… She was creating effects visually. She was showing us she could sell emotions in pictures.”

George Sanders: “She showed an interest in intellectual subjects which was, to say the least, disconcerting. And in her presence it is hard to concentrate. … She so obviously needed to be a star …”

Marilyn, about this time in her life, “… I didn’t have any friends. I had teachers and people l could look up to — nobody I could look over at. I always felt I was a nobody, and the only way for me to be somebody was to be — well, somebody else. Which is probably why I wanted to act.”

Spoto has a very different take on Marilyn’s sexual history than most of the other lurid biographies of the star. The author claims that rumors of multiple abortions are ridiculous. She never had even one. “Later there were two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy requiring emergency termination, but no abortion.” Marilyn had lifelong struggles with endometriosis (for which she had multiple operations to try and ease the symptoms) and uterine bleeding which would cause her great pain. She, the great goddess of sex, was most likely unable to bring a pregnancy to term because of her physical problems, one of her life’s great disappointments.

Spoto uses quotes from many people in Marilyn’s life to document how she was able to turn on and off her “Marilyn” persona at will — when she had the need to feel glamorous, to be recognized. He uses these instances to support his underlying theory of her internal conflict of identity, of her never really reconciling her two (or more) selves. This Norma Jeane vs. Marilyn idea is hardly new. But what Spoto doesn’t acknowledge, probably because he has never personally experienced it, is that this sort of conflict exists in most women. Marilyn was an extreme case, surely, but most women have to deal with their public and private faces daily. Women are judged primarily visually. We are bombarded with cosmetics and media images that we are expected to at least attempt to aspire to. Men are judged by what they do, first, before how they look. For Marilyn, both how she looked and how her work was perceived, was incredibly important to her and to everyone in her orbit.

The best part of Marilyn Monroe: The Bigraphy is Spoto’s detailed recounting of just how hard Marilyn worked to become Marilyn. Once she became a star, we all know that things got even tougher for her, but Marilyn stayed strong and did things that no one would have ever expected of her — she started her own production company, married and divorced two very different American icons, worked hard to be taken seriously as an actress. Her death is tragic, and others certainly had a hand in helping her find the crutches that eventually killed her. But however she died, what really resonates from Spoto’s book was how she lived — always questing, reaching, trying to improve herself, trying to grow. That’s a new and valuable image of Marilyn.

Images from: Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #33: Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, by Susan Strasberg

In Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends, Susan Strasberg tries to tell what it was like to have Marilyn Monroe enter her life and the life of her family. Her father was Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio, and guru to many of the film and stage actors of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s (Marlon Brando, Geraldine Page, James Dean, Elia Kazan, Eva Marie Saint, Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, etc.) Her mother was former actress Paula Strasberg, who became Marilyn’s personal coach and factotum. For a short spell their home was a haven to Marilyn, who had fled Los Angeles after her divorce from Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn was looking for a new life as an actress, and was scheming with photographer Milton Greene about starting her own film production company, which would free her from the dumb blonde roles that her studio Twentieth Century-Fox was determined to lock her into.

Written approximately 30 years after Marilyn’s untimely death at the age of 36, Strasberg is still able to write from a teenage perspective. She may have been in awe of the glamorous movie star, but she was mostly envious of the attention her father payed her. Even while in the throes of a passionate love affair with Broadway costar Richard Burton, Strasberg can’t help but complain how available her father made himself for Marilyn at all hours. Once Marilyn moved to New York and started taking private acting lessons with Lee, she used the Strasberg home as her refuge — before, during, and after her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller.

Paula became a surrogate mother, but Lee was her barometer — she constantly sought his approval. Apparently everyone in his orbit felt the same way, including his daughter, who seems to have fought a lifelong battle with resisting but desiring his help and input in her own work. Marilyn managed to get his attention more than most. That is what Strasberg is most jealous of. She idolizes her father, but she doesn’t seem to want to truly understand him. When he does offer her praise she doesn’t believe him, and becomes even more insecure. She had more in common with Marilyn than she realized.

Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe and Susan Strasberg visit backstage (Cort Theatre) in 1956.

Strasberg may be unwilling or unable to personally criticize her father, but she does allow others to share their viewpoints:

Johnny Strasberg: “He [Lee] was really fascinated by her, but that’s like saying about someone who is so fascinated by animals they put them in a cage so they can study them. In that sense you could say he loved her. He did have this great generosity in his work, although usually he never considered the needs of anyone else before himself. His gift to Marilyn, his great gift, was that he took her seriously in her work, and even personally, too, up to a point. Marilyn was there more than anyone before had been. Lee adored her; at least he seemed to do anything to please her.”

Strasberg does share a story that shows just how brainwashed and dependent everyone became on Lee. She was offered the role of Allison in Peyton Place (to be filmed at Twentieth Century-Fox, Marilyn’s studio, and the same one that once fired Lee) for $150,000. It was a great part and a great sum — Marilyn hadn’t made that much per picture yet. She asked her father if she should take it. He said no. When the family objected, he then told her to ask for more money. The studio refused to pay more, but still wanted her at the original sum. She debated about whether she should take the part anyway, without his permission (she was 19 and already her earnings were helping support the family.) Strasberg ultimately turned it down, and regretted it, but also justified her decision by saying she was avenging her father’s previous firing at Fox. Lee was using both his daughter and Marilyn to try and avenge his wounded ego. Strasberg doesn’t seem to see how her early success on stage (at age 16, in The Diary of Anne Frank) may have threatened her father. She didn’t study with him (although her mother coached her.) She never seems to consider that he may have helped her behind-the-scenes. Marilyn and Me is almost better reading between the lines.

Marilyn congratulates Susan backstage at The Diary of Anne Frank on opening night

As much as the Strasbergs offered Marilyn a second home, they may not have been the best port in the storm, as they had their own problems, including a strange way of expressing and dealing with anger. Lee would rage so much he would sometimes get a nosebleed, scaring everyone. Paula would get hysterical and threaten suicide. Susan would hide in a closet, silently screaming. But none of this would have mattered to Marilyn, who had finally met someone who showed her some respect:

Marilyn, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when your father took me seriously. I’ve always wanted for people to see me, not the actress, the real person. Your daddy does. He treats me like a human being. … I worked with this woman in California for years [her first acting coach, Natasha Lytess]. She taught me, educated me, like your father, gave me books to read, but even she thought I was a dummy. He doesn’t, and the most important thing is, with your father for the first time I feel it’s okay to be me, the whole kit and caboodle, you know, the whole mess.”

Once Marilyn gathered the courage to attend classes at the Studio and to even do scenes, her confidence increased, if only temporarily. Strasberg ran the Studio as a place where actors could experiment, be free. People may have thought she was a joke when she said she wanted to play Lady Macbeth, but they might have reconsidered if they had known Lee’s ideas for her in the part. He envisioned Lady Macbeth as “a sensitive, driven, compulsive woman, who used her sexuality and power to get her husband to do these terrible things. It was a side Marilyn possessed, but that she had never shown in her work.”

Strasberg is never able to truly focus on Marilyn without dragging herself into the picture, as she does when telling about Marilyn recounting her horror story of being locked up in a psychiatric hospital ward by her New York shrink Dr. Marianne Kris: “‘I was always afraid I was crazy like my mother or that I’d get that crazy with age. You know women sometimes to go nuts then, but when I got in there with really crazy people, I realized I had problems, but I saw I wasn’t as bad as they were.’ She made it sound as if it hadn’t been that bad. Yet I had heard that it had been worse. Was she trying to protect me from how horrible life was, or didn’t she trust me? Who was she lying to? Me or herself? Why?” It’s not all about you, Susan.

With all of Strasberg’s competitive neuroses, she still comes across as likable, and as someone, who with all the envy, did care for Marilyn. “[Marilyn] took ordinary black-and-white light and reflected it back to us in Technicolor, in epic proportions. Yet she kept it accessible. As famous as she was, she remained human.” Marilyn and Me is a very human book about the star and an entertaining read. Strasberg may have been jealous of her, loved her, but she never ceased to be amazed by Marilyn and her power. At the 1962 Golden Globes, when Marilyn attended to accept the World Film Favorite Award, “There was a room full of the biggest stars in the world, and when Marilyn walked in and made her way slowly to the table, her dress was so tight she could barely move; some people in the room stood on chairs, just to get a look at her, like kids. I’d never seen stars react to another star like that.” Strasberg’s judgements and impressions may not always be accurate, but they do offer a personal glimpse of a woman and a movie star who for most, still remains a mystery.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #29: Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, by Anthony Summers

I’m working on a long-form project on Monroe, so I’m reading everything I can get my hands on.

Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Anthony Summers is a comprehensive look at the actress’s life, from her erratic childhood to her pursuit of a Hollywood career. Marilyn was atypical from many starlets, as her primary goal wasn’t fortune or fame. She wanted adulation and love, but what she seemed to want most was to be a success as an actress, and to transcend her humble and unhappy beginnings. In 1952 Harry Brand, the publicity director for Twentieth Century-Fox said of her, “We’re grooming her — or maybe I should say she’s grooming herself — to be the sexiest thing in pictures since Jean Harlow.”

Marilyn as Jean Harlow, photographed by Richard Avedon in 1958 for LIFE magazine

Marilyn was blessed (and possibly cursed) with beauty, but she was more than just pretty, she was incredibly photogenic. The camera loved her. She was made for movies. But she also had a crippling stage fright. She would never have had much of a career on the stage, but film presented the ability to cut and paste her various successful takes. Her directors were often amazed at the performance that showed up on film, versus their experience with the nervous actress they struggled with on set.

As with most biographies of Marilyn, Summers catalogues her many love  affairs, possible multiple abortions, and almost constant use of prescription drugs. Originally written in 1985, Summers conducted interviews with many of Marilyn’s intimates or staff who knew her, like housekeeper Eunice Murray and “friend” Peter Lawford. He relies a bit too much on the testimony of Robert Slatzer [who controversially claimed he was married to Marilyn for three days in 1952], who keeps turning up, but for no discernible reason, in Marilyn’s life — according to him. If Slatzer was truly such a good friend of Monroe, then he was also an enabler, calling her to tell her when Robert Kennedy would be in town, and looking the other way when she was drinking and drugging too much. The major players in her life — Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and actors and friends like Marlon Brando (all dead now) declined to comment for Summers’ book, which just adds fuel to the fire that there will always be questions about the end of her life that must remain unanswered.

Marilyn could be a mass of contradictions. But because of her beauty and the circles she moved in, she took on the status of a goddess. Her brief life was lived not only in front of the cameras, but at a time when many societal changes were happening in America — specifically, for women. Marilyn may have embodied the “Dumb Blonde” and the “Bombshell” on screen, but she was also one of the few women in her time in Hollywood who dared to form her own production company to have some control over her films and her image.

She was a high school drop-out, but she had an endless thirst for knowledge. She was avid about books, and tried to better herself intellectually and spiritually. She loved children, but was plagued with gynecological issues from an early age. “Maurice Zolotow, her early biographer, once penetrated her studio dressing room and noted no less than 14 boxes of pills. Almost all were painkillers prescribed for menstrual cramps.” Her friend Amy Greene [wife of Marilyn Monroe Productions business partner and photographer Milton Greene] said, “She told me she’d always use drugs. She was a baby when she started taking pills, 17 or 18 years old.”

Marilyn tried desperately in her teens and twenties to prevent pregnancy, as it would have been deleterious to her career. When she was finally ready, in her ’30s, her body had sustained too much damage. Or maybe, with her various issues, she was infertile. It was not lost on her that America and the world’s goddess of sex could not bring a baby successfully to term.  Greene: “Marilyn made the horrendous admission that she had had 12 abortions, some of them back-street butcheries dating back to her earliest days in Hollywood. And then … she was surprised that she had trouble having babies …” Greene took her to a gynecologist who diagnosed endometriosis and advised a hysterectomy, but Marilyn refused. “I can’t do that. I want to have a child. I’m going to have a son.”

Marilyn’s status as a sex goddess was a boon and a curse, as she told Ben Hecht, in 1954, “Why I was a siren, I haven’t the faintest idea. I didn’t want to be kissed, and I didn’t dream of being seduced … The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves I was as unresponsive as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.”

The goddess, photograph by Douglas Kirkland

Her ability to make love to the camera made her a star, on film and in print. Her oft-told tales of abuse when she was just a young girl may have caused to to think of sex as something she could use, so that it wouldn’t use her. As she explained to interviewer Jaik Rosenstein in 1960, “When I started modeling, it [sex] was like part of the job. All the girls did. They weren’t shooting all the sexy pictures just to sell peanut butter in an ad, or get a layout in some picture magazine. They wanted to sample the merchandise. If you didn’t go along, they were 25 girls who would. It wasn’t any big dramatic tragedy. Nobody ever got cancer from sex. … You know that when a producer calls an actress into his office to discuss a script that isn’t all he has in mind. And a part in the picture, or any kind of a little stock contract is the most important thing in the world to a girl, more than eating. She can go hungry, and she might have to sleep in her car, but she doesn’t mind that a bit — if she can only get the part. I know because I’ve done both, lots of times. And I slept with producers. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t …”

Marilyn never apologized for sex, or her use of it to get ahead. Unlike her iconic gold-digging character from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lorelei Lee, she didn’t use it to trap a rich husband, turning down powerful agent and lover Johnny Hyde, who left his long-term marriage to be with her. She could have been comfortably set up for the rest of her life, but she just wanted him to help her get better parts in films, not take care of her. And he did, securing her first prestige parts, in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, which helped put her on the map. Marilyn was ambitious as an actress:

“My illusions didn’t have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third-rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn! To change, to improve! I didn’t want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act.”

Marilyn is frequently portrayed as a woman who was used by Hollywood. She may have gone out with many older men to advance her career, but she always seemed to have a choice whether to date a powerful man like Elia Kazan or Joseph Schenck or Johnny Hyde. Many of her problems came as a result of her pill and alcohol dependence. But there are many who knew her who felt she was ill-served by her friends and mentors. John Strasberg, son of Lee and Paula: “The greatest tragedy was that people, even my father in a way, took advantage of her. They glommed on to her special sort of life. Her special characteristics, when what she needed was love. My parents did give her some love, but it was inextricably linked with the acting.”

The most sinister characters in the last few years of her life, at least according to Summers’ account, were Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and the Kennedy brothers, who all come off terribly in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. “The goings in at Lake Tahoe enraged [DiMaggio]. ‘He was very upset,’ says [DiMaggio pal] Harry Hall. ‘She went up there, they gave her pills, they had sex parties, and Joe thought — because at that time he was a friend of Sinatra — it never should have happened … he [Sinatra] should have left her alone.’” Sinatra, the Kennedys, etc. didn’t see Marilyn as a person; just her sex goddess image. Why else would they want to be with such a drug-addled, vulnerable girl, except to say they “did” Marilyn Monroe?

Another account of a typical party at Sinatra’s Cal-Neva Lodge, from Marilyn’s friend Gloria Romanoff: “I think some of this gets a bit hazy because they were all drinking a good deal. … Marilyn drank champagne, and some vodka, and would take sleeping pills. The Lawfords walked her about, after midnight, trying to keep her awake, and I think they called Frank in, too. I remember Marilyn telling me one of her problems was that she’d take pills for so long, they didn’t work for her the way they did for other people. So she’d begin about nine in the evening, and build up that lethal combination of booze and pills.”

Marilyn was caught in a vicious cycle of insomnia, pill-taking, parties, booze, and enablers. She could call friends and doctors at all hours, who would come running with barbiturates. She saw her psychiatrist Dr. Greenson and internist Dr. Engelberg almost every day during the last few months of her life. Both doctors kept prescribing sleeping pills. Although they tried to reduce her drug intake, no one ever seemed to really try to dry her out, or to address her chronic insomnia in some other way. Marilyn must have been beyond annoying to be around, as most addicts can be, yet no one seems to have wanted her to harm herself. Marilyn OD’d many times, and was brought back by friends and doctors many times. It is interesting that many of her previous overdoses coincided with miscarriages. Could she have lost another baby the week or month that she died?

Marilyn with a glass of champagne, her drink of choice

Marilyn’s life is usually presented as an inexorable, inevitable, and pathetic progression towards her death. Death is waiting for us all, but we wouldn’t be able to function if we didn’t have hopes and dreams for our present and future. For all of her talk about death, Marilyn did, too. She always wished and hoped that the next guy would be the right guy. She had ambitions for her career, for her life. She was in talks to get back to the set to finish Something’s Got to Give and to appear in some other interesting projects, but unfortunately they never had the chance to come to pass.

Summers gets a little too sidetracked in Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe with the Kennedys and their amorous and political complications. Poor Marilyn gets lost in the middle of the book in the Kennedy glare. The last few chapters present a Rashomon-like account of her final hours. It’s well-researched, but full of so many conflicting statements by people who claimed to be “on the scene” that it is depressing and dizzying to read. Autopsy surgeon Thomas Noguchi “had the strong feeling that the case was being delayed, and that the scene of death had been disturbed.” There was no CSI for Marilyn in 1962. “It seemed to me … it’s very likely the police department did close things down. I’ve encountered this often in my experience, and deaths involving important people…” Noguchi himself may have shown undue reverence in the autopsy, analyzing Marilyn’s stomach contents and liver, but not her intestinal tract which may have shown traces of chloral hydrate and Nembutol. The absence of drugs in her stomach continues to fuel conspiracy theorists about drugs being administered to her in some other sinister fashion (e.g. via an enema).

All of Summers’ meticulous documenting of links between Jimmy Hoffa, Sam Giancana, Sinatra, and the Kennedys aside, readers will most likely be convinced that Marilyn was not murdered — but her association with the Kennedys led to her death scene being fudged in attempts to cover up the relationship. Not that it did any good, as the open secret of Marilyn’s affairs with both Kennedys has survived them all. Maybe singer/actor Sammy Davis, Jr. said it best, “The husbands, and some of the lovers, have found their lives altered forever by their association with Marilyn. ‘She hangs like a bat [says Davis] in the heads of the men that knew her.’” Marilyn, her life, and her death, continue to fascinate.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #28: Marilyn’s Men: The Private Life of Marilyn Monroe, by Jane Ellen Wayne

Marilyn’s Men: The Private Life of Marilyn Monroe by Jane Ellen Wayne is yet another recap of the actress’s life, focusing on her busted love affairs and not offering much real insight. It’s chock-full of sleazy unsubstantiated details and gossip added for prurient interest. I’m working on a long-form project on Monroe, so I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, but this one is not to be taken too seriously.

Wayne relies on quotes from Robert Slatzer, who gained fame with his claims of a supposed 1952 secret marriage to Marilyn that supposedly took place in Mexico, at the height of her romance with Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio. The marriage was supposedly annulled three days later at the insistence of Darryl F. Zanuck. That’s a lot of supposedlys. Slatzer’s credibility is not helped by other quotes by him that Wayne includes as facts, including basic facts of Marilyn’s early life, which he seems to get very wrong. Readers can draw their own conclusions about whether to believe any of Slatzer’s other claims about Marilyn, including his belief that she was murdered.

Marilyn entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954

Wayne also recycles unproved stories written by others, repeating a story from author Sandra Sherry, that Marilyn was pregnant during The making of The Seven Year Itchand had an abortion. There are many contradictory and conflicting “facts” in Marilyn’s Men. Wayne claims that Marilyn’s agent Johnny Hyde told her not to have children, so she had her tubes tied, which was reversed later. But she also recounts multiple concurrent abortions, which is in direct contradiction to a tubal ligation. And what about her attempts to get pregnant with husband Arthur Miller? None of the stories add up.

The bottom line is that this isn’t even a book for the casual fan of the star. Marilyn certainly deserves better.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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