This review was first published on Fourth & Sycamore.
Over half a century after her untimely death at age thirty-six Marilyn Monroe still captivates screen audiences and intrigues the curious. Who – and what – was she, really? We know she was far deeper and more intelligent than the somewhat empty-headed blonde bombshell she played in some of her sillier movies, and those movies are far from representative of her screen career anyway. She was a talented actress, one of the most magnetic screen presences in the history of cinema, an avid reader, a committed student of her craft, a broken human being who had been damaged and let down by those close to her since early childhood. She alternated throughout her adult years between being a grown woman in charge of her own career and sexuality and a frightened little girl who wanted love and loyalty but received them only in pieces from a rotating cast of genuine friends and parasitic enablers. The cultural fixation on Norma Jeane since her death in way of books and movies and theories about her death have rivaled that of a man often associated with her for better or worse – JFK. We’re not getting over Marilyn Monroe any time soon.
I’ve read several Monroe biographies over the years, and I can say about them what can be said about any books: some are good and some are not. I’m not really sure what a new Monroe biographer hopes to accomplish at this point. The facts are there, and we know them. Unless someone wants to reflect on Marilyn in a series of personal essays or something, the iconic biographies have already been written. When I saw a new book coming out called Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events (791.4302 Rollyson), I was cautiously curious. This didn’t seem to be a normal biography retreading the same ground we’ve already covered a dozen times by now, and it wasn’t.
Rollyson, author of several other biographies and journalism professor at Baruch College in New York City, has bypassed the Marilyn Monroe biography trap by creating something entirely new. Rather than a conventional journalism approach to narrating the iconic star’s life, Rollyson fills a gap on the Monroe bookshelf with something more of a reference work. Rollyson compiled every fact, snippet, quote, event, meeting, etcetera from Marilyn Monroe’s life, stripped them down to bare details, put them in chronological order, and…published them. Just like that. There is very little editorializing or theorizing, just the facts as they’ve been assembled. It’s like Rollyson did extensive research for a biography, organized his notes, and then just published the notes instead of the biography. For most other figures this wouldn’t work. Love Natalie Wood as I do, I don’t think this same concept would work with a book about her (though if someone writes it, I will check it out). But for someone who has been obsessed over in print ad nauseam like Monroe, this is a valuable and refreshing new resource.
The book is not perfect. Rollyson devotes a wasteful amount of text to describing exactly how Marilyn is dressed and posed in various photographs that are not provided, and this gets tiring quickly. One learns to skim these sections, especially when they start to come across as somewhat leering. An argument could be made that since Monroe was such an iconic and game-changing sex symbol, describing the aspects of the images that established her as such has value, but I think that could have been accomplished with a shorter and less florid word count, especially given the brevity maintained otherwise. Another potential mark against the book, or more specifically a fault intrinsic to its format, is that facts divorced from the very editorializing Rollyson is trying to avoid can lack context and fail to give the full story. However, given that we already have plenty of fleshed out Monroe biographies, the responsible reader will have no trouble finding context for the events of Monroe’s life. This isn’t a book that’s meant to be read as a person’s introduction to the actress. This is a companion book to serve as a resource for the reader and fan who already has those fuller biographies on his or her shelf.
Marilyn Monroe Day by Day is an excellent new entry in the already extensive library of Marilyn Monroe titles. It isn’t a profound new look at the life of the legendary actress, but Rollyson found a hole on the shelf and filled it with a helpful volume. Any serious Monroe fan, and any serious fan of classic Hollywood, should take a look at this one.