The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe

Gladys Baker during a visit with her daughter Norma Jeane, the future Marilyn Monroe

J. Randy Taraborrelli’s new biography, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, successfully hits all of the usual milestones in Marilyn Monroe’s life and career. However, unlike other Monroe books, Taraborrelli argues that Monroe’s “secret life” was her (over-) concern with the mental illness that ran through her family, which not only affected her maternal grandmother and her mother but also Monroe herself. A thoroughly researched and well-written book, Secret Life uncovers new evidence of Monroe’s mental instability, her drug dependency, her uncanny ability to manipulate her public persona (even if depressed and/or drugged), her (lack of) relationship with the Kennedy brothers, and her death.

Although I enjoyed reading Secret Life and seeing some of its pictures for the first time, I’m not sure that Monroe’s mental and drug struggles are a secret anymore. Most MM scholars and fans know about her mother’s illness, as well as Monroe’s own fears about her condition and that she might somehow pass it onto any children she might have.  And it seems that Monroe’s difficult childhood and the pressures of celebrity made an immense impact on the development of her condition, a fact that Taraborrelli downplays. He sees plenty of nature but not enough nurture.  However, Monroe’s childhood spent in foster homes and an orphanage, although difficult and sometimes painful, was not as dysfunctional or tragic as many biographers and her own memoir claim it had been.

The book does include some insights that I hadn’t realized before. Monroe’s mother, Gladys, rather than being some off-the-radar presence stashed away in a mental hospital, was actually very present in Monroe’s life. Mother and daughter were in relatively steady contact regardless of their physical locations or mental states. Not all of the contact was pleasant though.  Monroe’s initial signs of paranoia occurred in her early 20’s, a time when most schizophrenic women present their first symptoms. Her psychiatrist from the early 1960’s, Dr. Ralph Greenson, actually diagnosed her as “borderline paranoid schizophrenic,” just like her mother and grandmother. Monroe herself was quite aware of her condition but unfortunately, began to overmedicate herself in an effort to combat it. That being said, some of her delusional paranoia was fueled by actual instances, such as being followed by fans and the FBI.

I always imagined that Monroe accidentally overdosed on the night she died (or maybe that’s what I wishfully thought had happened – “she didn’t mean to”), but this book has caused me to question that perspective for the first time. Maybe it was intentional due to her genetic makeup, hopelessness, drug dependency, and previous suicide attempts. Maybe she changed her mind through, hence the phone in her hand. But this time, no one was on the other end to save her. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, but now I know it probably wasn’t the Kennedys after all.

Forty-seven years after her death at age 36, Marilyn’s still in the news (and people are still making money off of her), this time with a tape supposedly showing her smoking pot…


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