Marilyn Monroe Worked Tirelessly to Become a Star; Film Star Comes Alive in a Richly Researched Biography; BIOGRAPHY - BOOKS

Article excerpt

Marilyn Monroe was Hollywood's archetypal dumb blonde. She was also one smart cookie.

That's the twist in Lois Banner's richly researched biography "Marilyn: the Passion and the Paradox."

The passion part is that Monroe worked tirelessly toward her goal: to become a movie star. Her name was Norma Jeane, but even her surname is the subject of debate. Her mother, Gladys Baker, was an independent woman from a Missouri family who moved to Los Angeles during the boom years of silent cinema and worked as a film editor. Her daughter, born in 1926, was given the last name Mortenson, after Gladys' estranged husband. Her real father was probably a polo player named Stan Gifford whom the girl spent a lifetime trying to find, literally as well as figuratively.

In the oft-repeated legend, Gladys went mad - which is true - and Norma Jeane was bounced between Dickensian orphanages - which is not. Most of her childhood was spent with foster parents who were acquainted with her mother, and the orphanage where she briefly lived in the shadow of RKO Studios was well-funded.

But young Norma Jeane did suffer, most notably at the hands of some sexual abusers, and Banner's book takes a psycho-sexual approach to analyzing the legend's life.

At 16, she was introduced to a sailor named Jim Dougherty and soon they were married. But while Jim was serving in the merchant marines during World War II, a photographer spotted Norma Jeane at the munitions factory where she worked. The busty brunette became a fresh-faced model for pre-Playboy men's magazines, and she educated herself about fashion and photography.

Banner ably documents the passion for fame that led to Norma Jeane's divorce and her first contract with 20th Century Fox, which changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. ("Marilyn" was an invention, but "Monroe" was her mother's maiden name.)

The most titillating sections of this refreshingly frank book describe Monroe's years as a party girl. Banner builds a case that she shamelessly serviced agents, journalists, producers and studio executives to achieve her ultimate goal of stardom.

Monroe, raised a Christian Scientist and surrounded by seekers, didn't care much about money, which she gave to friends or spent on classes in literature, singing and acting. …