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The Mystery That Was Marilyn : MARILYN: THE LAST TAKE, By Peter Harry Brown and Patte B. Barham (Dutton: $23; 452 pp.) : WHY NORMA JEAN KILLED MARILYN MONROE, By Lucy Freeman (Global Rights, distributed by Login Publishers Consortium, 1436 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60607; $17.95; 191 pp.) : THE IMMORTALS, By Michael Korda (Poseidon Press: $20; 560 pp.)

October 18, 1992|John Rechy | Rechy is the author of 10 novels, including "Marilyn's Daughter" (Carol & Graf)

It is not possible to uncover "the truth" about Marilyn Monroe. She is a legend, and legends are constantly reinvented. The "truth" about her began to disappear when an unhappy, somewhat pretty girl named Norma Jeane Baker (she preferred the classy E at the end of her middle name) set out to create, with constant embellishments and contradictions, an extravagant fiction called "Marilyn Monroe."

An unwanted girl from Hawthorne, Norma Jeane traveled from home to foster home, always fearing she might inherit the "darkness"--the madness of her mother and her grandmother, abandoned, desolate women. She did not become truly beautiful until the last years of her life; her last photographs reveal a dazzling unique radiance, as if she were preparing to exist only in them. Transformed into a goddess, she would be lured like a moth to the destructive--for her--glow of the Kennedys. Jack and Robert saw only a great sex symbol. Can anyone doubt that with them she was always only Norma Jeane? Perhaps it was at that point that Norma Jeane understood the confusions about her identity and knew she had achieved her goal, had finished fashioning "the greatest movie star of all time." As so often happens in art, the great artist's life--Norma Jeane's--remains heart-rendingly sad, but her creation--"Marilyn Monroe"--is a triumphant masterpiece that continues to enthrall.

Three recent books purport to tell "the truth" about her last days.

The best that may be said about Michael Korda's novel "The Immortals" is that someone was bound to write something this staggeringly vulgar, and now it is out of the way. "Sometimes only in fiction can the truth be told," the book jacket trumpets in huge letters. True, fiction is more honest than nonfiction if only because it announces itself as untrue, whereas nonfiction often twists conjecture into facts. With Korda's book, the implication is that the truth here is so explosive that it must be called fiction. Actual photographs of Marilyn Monroe and John and Robert Kennedy on its jacket emphasize this spurious assertion.

Korda misses no opportunity to sensationalize and cheapen the actress. He roams over her painful menstrual periods, dredges up dirty jokes, constantly locates her on her knees. One scene, not the worst, exemplifies his approach: In Bloomingdale's, Marilyn is trying on slacks when a saleswoman who does not recognize her invades the dressing room and shrieks: "You got no panties on! . . . It's disgusting ! You're not only naked, dear, you smell ."

For only a moment, it seems as if Korda may pull back, but, no, he pushes on: "She didn't smell--it was a monstrous accusation, unfair, unkind, untrue. . . . Any smell was her own, her natural juices, the personal aroma that was distinctly hers." Enough? No. Marilyn--now "a crazy-looking woman in a funny hat, a pair of tight slacks, half unzipped, with the price tags still flapping on them (ran) desperately through the store, while people stared at her in horror or jumped out of her way." A store detective assumes she's shoplifting. Only salacious, the scene illuminates nothing.

Korda is kinder to the Kennedys, insisting that both truly loved Marilyn. But Jack passed her on to Robert, and each discarded her when he had conquered every heterosexual male's sex dream of that time.

After Korda's assault, a reader may welcome the sweetness in Lucy Freeman's enticingly titled "Why Norma Jean Killed Marilyn Monroe." The author announces her hope that "Marilyn Monroe's tragic story may help . . . those in whom the terror of childhood has created suicidal tendencies"--which is sweet but naive, because Marilyn's life is much too extravagant to provide tidy admonitions. This book promises to reveal "the real and unreal reasons" why Marilyn killed herself. Instead, it becomes a mixture of suppositions ("Dr. Greenson (her psychiatrist) undoubtedly pointed out to Marilyn that . . . "), chattiness ("Incidentally, Zanuck later became Marilyn's bete noire . . ."), banalities ("Love is one thing, passion another") and dated psychobabble ("Psychoanalysts believe any woman who chooses sexual contact with . . . many men . . . is unconsciously trying to gain possession of the powerful penis").

Better written and much more engaging than these two books, "The Last Take" also promises to tell a "true and full story." But it contains little that is new. "We expected to uncover an accidental death and instead found a murder," the authors announce breathlessly. Yet suggestions about murder have frequently been made in previous articles and books, even graphically dramatized on tabloid television. As far back as 1974, the finding of suicide was questioned in "The Life and Curious Death of Marilyn Monroe" by Robert Slatzer--one of the figures in Marilyn's love life who remains steadfast from account to account, clearly one of the few men who truly loved her.

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