The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

Sarah Churchwell




Trade Paperback

384 Pages


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There are many Marilyns: sex goddess and innocent child, crafty manipulator and dumb blonde, liberated woman and tragic loner. In The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, cultural critic Sarah Churchwell gives us a biography—and a lit-crit evaluation of the literature. In incisive, well-crafted prose, she reviews the many unreliable and unverifiable—but highly significant—stories that have framed this greatest Hollywood legend, from the circumstances of her birth to the mystery surrounding her death. Peeling back the fantasies, fallacies, and falsehoods that have colored the portraits of Monroe, Churchwell uncovers the shame, belittlement, and anxiety that we bring to the story of a woman we supposedly adore. In the process, the author reveals to us our very selves: our conflicted views on women, our tormented sexual attitudes, our ambivalence about success, our fascination with self-destruction. And she rescues a Marilyn Monroe who is far more complicated and credible than the one we think we know.


Praise for The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

"An American who teaches her native culture to British students at the University of East Anglia, Churchwell compares every biography ever written of the dead actress. She shows persuasively, and with flair, that not every biography of Monroe can be true in all the details, because they contradict each other profoundly. Her book will burn into students' minds the lesson that biographical truth should never be taken for granted."—Steve Weinberg, The Chronicle Review of Higher Education
"[The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is] less a work of biography than a work of interpretation [that] performs a useful critical function. Like Janet Malcolm's books on Sylvia Plath and Anton Chekhov, it is in large measure a sustained, strenuous critique of the lazy thinking, sloppy research, and overall softheadedness that characterize so much popular biographical writing . . . Above all, Churchwell's book is a reminder that Monroe was a complicated human being, a fact obscured by the aura of her fame—those luminous, endlessly reproducible stills that are better known than any of her performances—and by biographies that insist on treating her as a symbol, a myth, a case study."—A. O. Scott, The New York Times Book Review
"Eye-opening . . . Astute . . . Terrifically common-sensical, exposing the circular logic and laughable sourcing of the many Monroe biographies . . . Refreshing . . . [This] book has torn away layers of false readings and conspiracy theories."—Caryn James, The New York Times
"Churchwell [offers] an extremely useful deconstruction of the piffle that has accreted around her subject over the years."—Richard Schickel, Los Angeles Times

"An exhaustive tour through the library of Monroe studies."—Stacey D'Erasmo, Newsday

"No student of biography . . . should be without The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe . . . An impressive, even encyclopedic effort to provide some order to the chaotic world [of] Marilyn Monroe studies."—Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun
"Smart, graceful, and lucid, this is a veritable Sherman's March through the Marilyn oeuvre, with bodies—Mailer, Oates, Miller—strewn everywhere. Instead of a torch, however, Churchwell wields a rapier, and if she flays the authors, it is to lay bare the anatomy of authorship in all its tangled complexity."—Peter Biskind, author of Down and Dirty Pictures

"Why has one of the twentieth century's most charismatic and fabulously successful stars been mauled by her biographers into a symbol of failure and degradation? Churchwell's answer is a blow, at last, to that contemporary pestilence, the prosecutorial biography. It's an acidly smart and funny book, with more than enough nerve to make it worthy of its subject."—Craig Seligman, author of Sontag & Kael

"Never again can Marilyn Monroe be reduced to a shimmering dress over a wind-aided grate, caricatured as the infelicitous singer of that most memorable rendition of 'Happy Birthday,' or saccharinized as an Elton John tune. Forget Norma Jeane, the Marilyn Monroe you think you know . . . or rather, think again. Only this time, seriously. There are good reasons why she's iconic. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe rescues a grand public figure from her historic public disfigurement."—Grant Farred, author of What's My Name?

"This intelligent and subtle book reminds us that Marilyn Monroe, in our fantasies, was a Snow White we pretended was a Cinderella: the slipper was never going to fit. In telling us the real story of so many wild tales about this mythologized figure, this study shows us that there is truth in lies, too, as Hollywood used to insist, if you get enough of them. And if—big if—your mind is as alert and agile as Sarah Churchwell's.—Michael Wood, author of America in the Movies
"[This book offers an] astute scrutiny of 'the perilous and fascinating lines between fact and fiction, between desire and contempt, between knowledge and doubt,' as demonstrated in critical and biographical treatments of the iconic sex goddess . . . Churchwell claims she's not out to paint a new portrait, but to understand the genesis and purpose of the stories that swarm around Monroe. Turns out she does quite well on both fronts."Kirkus Reviews

"Rather than add to the canon of morbid Monroe speculation, Times Literary Supplement contributor Churchwell steps back to examine the examiners and ask: why has so much been written about Monroe, and what does this fixation say about our society? She doesn't provide any answers, but focuses instead on the phenomenon—she's fascinated by the investigation itself. Although Churchwell touches briefly on the few factual areas where biographers and conspiracy theorists agree, such as Monroe's marriages and film stats, she chooses to linger on the numerous crux points for commentators . . . Instead of trying to find the truth, Churchwell ponders why such seemingly minor aspects of Monroe's image draw such fervid attention in a culture already saturated with image, celebrity, and sex. Churchwell culls a wealth of information about Monroe, providing insight on our celebrity culture, with a refreshingly detached perspective."—Publishers Weekly

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Raised in Illinois, Sarah Churchwell was educated at Vassar and Princeton and is now a professor of American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia.
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  • Sarah Churchwell

  • Raised in Illinois, Sarah Churchwell was educated at Vassar and Princeton and is now a professor of American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, England.