Too many Monroes

Movie star's biographers diverge wildly on the facts, writer finds
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The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

Sarah Churchwell, Metropolitan Books, $26

All biographers who are honest with themselves and their readers concede the iffy nature of the enterprise. Much of the time, we barely understand our parents, our siblings, our children, our lovers, our work colleagues. So how can we pretend to write the ''definitive life'' of somebody we hardly know and in many instances have never met?

The iffiness of the enterprise is especially obvious when multiple biographies exist of the same person. During her 36 years on Earth (1926-1962), Marilyn Monroe elicited just about every reaction imaginable from women and men who style themselves as chroniclers of someone else's personal truth.

Before reading Sarah Churchwell's The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Metropolitan Books, $26), I had read four of the 60 or so other Monroe biographies. Still, I had failed to fully grasp the scandalous divergences of Monroe's biographers until Churchwell accomplished the mammoth task of reading just about every English-language book written about the celebrity and then shared her findings in this endlessly fascinating, disturbing account.

Churchwell is a graduate of Vassar College and Princeton University who lives in London and teaches at the University of East Anglia. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is her first book. Given her brilliance as a cultural critic, it should not be her last. Only a few facts are agreed upon by Monroe's biographers: the identity of her mother, birth and death dates, the movies she appeared in, the marriages to astoundingly divergent celebrities Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller.

The differences among her biographers include the identity of Monroe's father, how long she lived in an orphanage, whether she underwent lots of abortions or none, how many times she married, whether she was brainy or vapid, whether she was sane or insane, whether she was the illicit lover of President John F. Kennedy and/or his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and - most famously - the manner of her death.

Did she commit suicide? Did she die of natural causes? Did President Kennedy and/or Attorney General Robert Kennedy order her assassinated?

Here is one passage, of hundreds, from Churchwell's narrative, demonstrating the differences among Monroe biographers:

''Two new biographies appeared together in 1998, Barbara Leaming's Marilyn Monroe, which insisted that Monroe deliberately committed suicide, and Donald H. Wolfe's The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, which argued that she was assassinated. . . . Not just agnostic toward the stories of cover-up, Leaming omits them, eschewing any mention of some of the most controversial of the stories.''

Wolfe, on the other hand, errs in the opposite direction, Churchwell shows: ''Since she couldn't have wanted to die deliberately (based on evidence of a new contract with Fox Studios), apparently there is only one other possible cause of death - Robert Kennedy had her injected with enough pentobarbital to kill a horse. There isn't a conspiracy theory that Wolfe doesn't endorse; if someone said it, that seems to be proof enough.''

The scandal permeating Churchwell's study is that most Monroe biographers knew - or ought to have known - they were publishing falsehoods as facts. Churchwell explains another phenomenon, too: The life of the biographer affects how the life of the subject is presented.

''Marilyn stands as a prime example of the seductions of biography, the temptation to substitute belief for knowledge, prejudice for thinking,'' Churchwell comments.