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Five Perspectives on Marilyn Monroe

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Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, yet she remains one of the 20th century cinema’s greatest icons. But beyond the image of her blond hair and a corolla dress billowing over a subway grid, is she still an inspiration for art and literature? If we leave aside biographies or books investigating the secrets surrounding her death, what books about Marilyn stray from the beaten path? Here are five such books:

My Story

To give credit where credit is due, let's begin with Marilyn herself and what it was she wanted us to know about her. In 1954, the year she was working on The Seven Year Itch—which includes the scene that remains forever engrained in our collective memory, her billowing dress over a subway grate—she began to write her memoirs. She was 28 years old, and dictated her confessions to Ben Hecht, a writer and screenwriter. What resulted were stories about her childhood as an orphan, which we know by heart today, and, more unexpectedly, details about her beginnings in Hollywood. We discover a young woman who is a perfectionist, eager to learn, and under no illusion about the world around her. It has been said that her confessions are not always based on reality; nonetheless, her voice remains powerful. The original text, with the title The Unfinished Biography of Marilyn Monroe, was published after her death, in 1974. The photographer Milton Greene later acquired rights to the manuscript and revised and published this version of the book, including his photographs of the star.

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Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters

This book of letters, poems, and personal notes written by Marilyn (who also drew and sketched) allows us to understand the star who was known to be fragile, who had been hospitalized several times in a psychiatric ward and writes about it here with total awareness. She writes of her fears, her doubts, her inability to believe in herself, and her fear of failure. She tries to build herself up, wavers, tries again, and looks at a world that she would like to master, but can’t. 

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Let's be subjective: this is the greatest book of all time on Marilyn Monroe. One thousand pages long, this memoiristic novel describes with great freedom the fate of a woman coming to grips with her family and her social environment, and the Hollywood industry. And while she was trying to forge her personality, the entire world projected expectations onto her. Joyce Carol Oates reinvents Marilyn, finding her essence—we literally slip under her skin. Like her, we stutter, we have a stomach ache, and we are always late. The author outlines the story of an abandoned little girl, a perfectionist, who works hard to become noticed. Until the end, the novel is inventive and filled with energy. In 2011 Oates used Marilyn’s character once again in a short story collection called Black Dahlia, White Rose: Stories

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Marilyn's Last Sessions

During her last years, Marilyn had come to rely on Dr. Ralph Greenson more and more, meeting with him almost every day. He was her analyst, her friend, and her confessor. He was the last person to see her alive, and the first to see her dead. Marilyn's last years, and her last sessions on Dr. Greenson's couch, are recreated in this highly acclaimed story of the world's most famous and elusive actress, and the world she inhabited, surrounded by such figures as Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, and John Huston. It is a remarkable piece of storytelling.

Marilyn Monroe

There are many photography books about Marilyn. And then there is this one, which is not only a handsome book, but a tender look at the star who was friends with the Magnum photographer, Eve Arnold. Arnold accompanied and photographed Marilyn from the early 1950s until the end of her life, snapping her reading Joyce’s Ulysses or touching up her makeup in an airport bathroom. This is the work of two women who are accomplices in the midst of a media flurry. One is magnetic, the other is studying her, and at the end of the book, it’s as if a journey had been made with both of them. 

This article was adapted from the original French version by Anne Savelli that you can read here.

Isabelle translates and edits articles into English from other languages on the Bookwitty site. She always adds a hyperlink to the original article in her post.

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