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Leave the Kennedys Out of It : MARILYN MONROE: The Biography, By Donald Spoto (HarperCollins: $25; 611 pp.)

May 02, 1993|Paul Rosenfield | Rosenfield is writing a biography of Katharine Hepburn for Warner books. His book "The Club Rules," about power in Hollywood, will be out in paperback in June

There are two ways to write a Hollywood biography. Either you take eight years, as A. Scott Berg did with "Goldwyn," or you take a few minutes, the way Charles Higham seems to do with everything he writes (he's the Ethel Kennedy of authors, putting out 25 books in 25 years). The problem is, there aren't very many Scott Bergs and there are too many Charles Highams. There seems to be no middle ground.

Donald Spoto, however, is a switch-hitter. Sometimes--as with his Hitchcock and Olivier books--he's thorough and illuminating. His "Laurence Olivier: A Biography" is the best of a dozen books about the actor. Then, last year came his Marlene Dietrich book, "Blue Angel," an example of a rush job that read like a clip job. But just as you begin to pair him with Higham, Spoto surprises you. Happily, "Marilyn Monroe: The Biography" is Spoto working, not clipping.

There is a holy trinity of Marilyn-Kennedy myth books: Norman Mailer's "Marilyn," Michael Korda's "Immortals" and Anthony Summers' "Goddess." What Spoto offers is a revisionist's Marilyn. "The Kennedys had almost nothing to do with her," he tells us. It turns out that was as much an illusion as Camelot. (For the record, though, Michael Korda's chilly "Immortals" is still the best pop novel since "Valley of the Dolls.")

Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 1993 Home Edition Book Review Page 9 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
The Times misidentified the photo of Marily Monroe, which was indeed taken by James Mitchell and not Robert Slatzer.--ed.

The new party line is, MM didn't even have an affair with Bobby Kennedy, although she did sleep with JFK--once, at Bing Crosby's place in the Springs. (Korda has the JFK-MM affair lasting 8 years.) It wasn't the Kennedys who killed MM, but rather her psychiatrist via his minion, the housekeeper, who administered the lethal enema of killer chloral hydrate. "It was logical for the doctor to ask the housekeeper to do this particular deed," writes Spoto. The motive? MM had fired the maid and was about to dump the shrink. "Her resentment of the doctor had reached the breaking point," MM's masseur, Ralph Roberts tells Spoto. "She knew she had to get rid of him. And she was prepared to."

Stars often get rid of people, of course, but the good service people are the last to go. And Spoto gets to all the right service people--the analysts and gurus who were MM's true family. So for once, we see Monroe's day-to-day life, the shrewd careerist plotting every move, building the Marilyn Monroe business. Unlike Anthony Summers, who in "Goddess" was after a Kennedy cover-up, Spoto is only after his subject, whom he portrays as a garden-variety neurotic. There's no ax-grinding.

Sometimes this book goes at the speed of one of MM's afternoons--nothing happens. At other times, we get every microscopic detail, down to the numbers of Nembutals she took. The hook, of course, is still the Kennedys. Because without them, who do we blame for the loss? With a star this beloved, there has to be a villain. Spoto leans heavily on the shrink and the housekeeper (both of whom are now dead). To stay on the payroll, Spoto suggests they "conspired to keep her drugged and dependent." The shrink was retreating into a "psychoneurotic fear of abandonment and rejection"; the housekeeper "had become a crippled version of the increasingly healthy Marilyn." And she wasn't a psychiatric nurse, after all, just a lonely woman from practically around the corner whose husband recently died.

For once, a biographer is letting the Kennedys off scot-free. According to Spoto, Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford was a soul mate, not a pimp-conspirator. (One can even imagine Kennedy wife Pat Lawford giving the book a quote. But, then again, Spoto is a Hollywood biographer, so probably not. . .)

Spoto makes a case, and a good one, that MM becomes most interesting after 1954, as she begins to explore herself psychologically. She was the first star to go public with her neuroses and get away with it. Monroe loved showing off her gurus (Johnny Hyde, Lee Strasberg, Arthur Miller). Spoto's good fortune was to get the archives of the guru of 1955, photographer Milton Greene, which gave him letters and diary entries that show us her sensitivity. (Greene was the guru who refinanced his home in Connecticut to launch the unfortunate Marilyn Monroe Productions with her; he also gave her his New York shrink.)

The author does let the actress off the hook a lot--for her habitual tardiness and occasionally poor hygiene--but a revisionist author has built-in limitations. Spoto asks us not to overreact to MM's early indiscretions: All starlets were oral performers, not just Marilyn. He gives us the girl who just wanted to be wonderful, and he gives her due credit for becoming just that.

MMography, which has become a genre in publishing, exists for venal reasons. That's Spoto's thesis. He quotes Norman Mailer telling Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" why he bought into the Kennedy thing: "I needed the money very badly." Yet this is a simplification--there is too much Kennedy evidence around the life of MM.

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