Category Archives: Books

American Beauty

Richard Avedon, 1957

From American Beauty by Lois W. Banner (1983)

“The most important film representative of the 1950s voluptuous woman was Marilyn Monroe, who differed from the others by combining with sensuality strains of childishness reminiscent of the adolescent stars. She thereby created a powerful combination that encompassed the era. Technically unschooled and often intellectually vacuous in her film characterisations, she nevertheless possessed both the shrewdness of the classic chorus girl (a character she often portrayed in film roles) and the intuitive genius of a child, able to see more clearly to the heart of a matter than others more sophisticated around her. As a down-and-out member of a seedy female band in ‘Some Like it Hot’, she taught fleeing mobsters Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon the meaning of friendship and love; as a chorus girl in ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’, she taught the same lesson to Laurence Olivier, the head of a fictional kingdom. Most of the other voluptuous film stars had dark hair, but Monroe’s was peroxided a light blonde – a colour that invoked traditional images of angels and virtuous women, reflected the light locks of the era’s adolescent film stars, and both legitimised and heightened her sensuality.

Previous exemplars of female sensuality had also had blonde hair: one thinks of the British Blondes in the 1860s and Jean Harlow in the 1930s. But Monroe differed strikingly from the Lydia Thompson troupe and from Harlow. They were tough, wisecracking, even masculine in type. With a slight, lisping voice, a soft curvaceous body, and a seriousness about life, Monroe projected an intense femininity and an inner vulnerability. Her sensual posturings were reminiscent of Mae West, although with no hint of the parody that West intended. Monroe regarded her body with dead seriousness. Long before she was acclaimed as movie actress and sex queen, she had posed for the first nude centrefold in ‘Playboy’ magazine, destined to become a trendsetter in liberalised sexuality and a showcase for the bodies of beautiful women. [Actually, Monroe had posed for a trade calendar – the shots were acquired by Hugh Hefner four years later, after her rise to fame.]

Monroe’s popularity ensured the triumph of the vogue of dyed blonde hair, which cosmetics companies had been promoting. Sales of hair colouring soared; platinum blondes seemed everywhere. The widespread dying of hair to be light blonde indicated women’s acceptance of a model of looks and behaviour that had them be feminine, sensual, and unintellectual. Women were to seem like children, expressing their adulthood primarily through their sexuality. The ‘dumb blonde’ who ‘had more fun’ now became the dominant image of beauty for American women.”

Dr Banner is currently working on two new books about Marilyn.

Read my comparison of Monroe and Harlow, ‘American Bombshells’.

Are You a Jackie or a Marilyn?

Try this fun quiz at Vanity Fair

Inspired by Mad Men, Pamela Clarke Keogh‘s Are You a Jackie or a Marilyn: Timeless Lessons on Love, Power and Style will be published by Gotham Books on October 28.


“The hit TV show Mad Men recently featured an ad campaign with two images of a model in her underwear. As a brunette, she sips from a china teacup. As a blonde, she swirls a cocktail. Debutante or bombshell? Sometimes women want to be both. On the surface, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe could not be more different, but they had more in common than just JFK. Are You a Jackie or a Marilyn? is a fun way to explore the classic madonna/ whore conundrum while becoming fabulous in all aspects of life.

Readers start by taking the definitive quiz to determine where they fall on the Jackie/ Marilyn spectrum, and then it’s on to customized advice on beauty and style, sex and marriage, power and career, decorating and entertaining, and more. Any woman who has aspired to Marilyn’s sultry allure or Jackie’s unstoppable elegance (or who wants to balance sexy and serious) will love these entertaining lessons on channeling your inner Jackie or Marilyn in any situation, from throwing a dinner party to penning a love note. Sidebars compare Jackie’s and Marilyn’s dating tips, lists of favorite books and music, diet plans, and even makeup know-how. Packed with charming two-color illustrations, this is the book that gives every woman her own star power.”

Marilyn’s Literary Loves

Marilyn reads Whitman in her apartment, 1952 - photo by John Florea

Monroe, whose death at the age of 36 remains a mystery, was an avid reader and something of a culture vulture while she lived in New York, frequently visiting museums and attending plays. Not that she got any credit for her intellect. Michelle Morgan, who wrote Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, said: “She played ditzy blondes and for some reason people believed that was the person she was, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It’s intriguing that she seems to be one of the only actresses who people confuse with her parts. People believed she was a joke but she was always trying to better herself.”

Previewing Fragments:Poems Intimate Notes, Letters, the upcoming collection of Marilyn Monroe’s writings, in today’s Independent

The Literary Lorelei

“One of the most famous lines from the book and film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is: ‘Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?’

In the film, Marilyn Monroe utters those words as the character Lorelei Lee but the lines were written first in the novel by American author Anita Loos.

And Lorelei Lee is one of the most memorable female fictional characters for Australian crime novelist Shane Maloney.”

The Book Show


John Gilmore Interview

“Marilyn was one of the most important individuals in my life. She is a kind of fulcrum at gut’s level. There wasn’t a major hullabaloo after her death, as there is now. I did not even want to write about her. I was talked into it by the French Connection Press, in Paris, people there I am dearly close to. However, while a book was planned, we couldn’t come to terms and another publisher grabbed the project, and that’s how my look at her came into reality. I speak each year at her Memorial in Westwood, California, where her body is entombed, and the 50th will be up in a couple years. I might end my yearly contribution after the 50th, as actually and in a real sense, it leaves me too pained to drag it on.”

Gilmore talks to Haarten Bouw

Read excerpt from Inside Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn and the History of Celebrity

Marilyn in 1956

“Of these, it is Monroe who emerges as the star among stars; her ‘irresistible erotic presence’ and ‘brightly lit courage’ entranced ‘people, even the people’ and, most of all, Inglis himself. Indeed, Inglis is so entranced that he takes on the suave voice of a 1950s male lead, condemning the term ‘sex object’ as a ‘damned cliche’ as he melts into the heart of a star who brought ‘new radiance’ to the concept of celebrity. Inglis is more likable when he’s slavering over Monroe than when he’s disapproving of’ ‘a pert little group of girlie singers called the Spice Girls’. But in both cases, the book’s wider questions seem to have been laid aside. Perhaps this is the problem for scholars investigating celebrity: they are overpowered by the brightness of the stars.”

Lara Feigel reviews A Short History of Celebrity by Fred Inglis in The Observer

‘Maf the Dog’ Movie Plans

Eric Skipsey, 1961

Plans are afoot to bring Andrew O’Hagan’s comic novel, The Life and Thoughts of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, to the big screen, it is confirmed in today’s Daily Telegraph, ahead of a live reading from his book at the Southbank Centre this Sunday.

The movie plans were first reported in the Scottish Herald in May:

“At the time of writing, O’Hagan reports that director Stephen Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) is in the frame. They are even negotiating sequel rights for reasons we shall come to later. Meanwhile, rumour has it that George Clooney wants to play Frank Sinatra – Ol’ Blue Eyes gave Marilyn Maf, short for Mafia Honey, in November 1960 – opposite Scarlett Johansson as the angel of sex herself, although O’Hagan confides that his own heart is set on the ‘delicious’ Christina Hendricks (Joan in Mad Men). We agree, however, that Maf, who was Marilyn’s constant companion for the last two years of her life, who ‘breathed the secrets of her pillow’, should be voiced by only one actor, O’Hagan’s friend Ewan McGregor.”

This sounds promising, though I do wonder if the book’s subtle whimsy will translate on film. Judging by some of the reader reviews on Amazon, not everyone was as charmed by Maf the Dog as me.

But I suspect this all depends on your preconceptions about Marilyn (O’Hagan is positively rapturous about her), and your willingness to suspend disbelief and accept a canine narrator.

Two other MM-related movies are currently in the works: an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, starring Naomi Watts; and My Week With Marilyn, based on Colin Clark’s memoir, with Michelle Williams.

Who knows how these projects will turn out, but I’ve read all the books that they’re based on, and Maf’s story is easily my favourite of the three!

Marilyn by John Vachon

“In 1953, John Vachon, then a photographer for LOOK magazine, snapped dozens of candid shots of Marilyn Monroe in the Canadian Rockies — only two were ever published. This beautiful hardcover collects those unseen photographs for the first time, capturing the sex symbol in intimate, unguarded moments: lounging poolside, riding a ski lift, and snuggling Joe DiMaggio. Includes facsimiles of handwritten letters by Vachon and insightful original essays. 100 duotone photos.” – Infibeam

Publication date: September/October 2010. Now listed at The Book Depository

Thanks to Chris at Club Passion Marilyn