Public did her wrong, Monroe biographer says

April 21, 1993|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Most Americans can remember what they were doing in 1963 when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot. But how many, besides author Donald Spoto and some hard-core fans, can recall where they were the year before when they learned that Marilyn Monroe had died of a drug overdose?

"I was walking up the stairs into my dormitory at Iona College (in New Rochelle, N.Y.) when a philosophy major I knew came out the door looking grim," says Mr. Spoto, author of "Marilyn Monroe: The Biography" (Harper-Collins Publishers).

"When I asked him what was wrong, he said, obviously upset, 'Marilyn Monroe is dead.'"

Spoto remembers thinking an era ended with her death. "It felt as if it was somehow a momentous event, that finally the '50s were gone forever."

And Mr. Spoto wasn't even a fan. "Oh, I knew who she was because one couldn't be of school age during that decade and not have seen her movies. I'd gone to most of hers, but I really preferred Alfred Hitchcock films to what she was appearing in.

"I thought Marilyn's movies were silly and inferior, although I've come to appreciate that she was, as an actress, much better than her films."

It wasn't until 2 1/2 years ago, when Mr. Spoto met Gordon Freedman, a film and TV producer he respected, that the idea of Monroe's biography came up.

By then, Mr. Spoto, who earned master's and doctoral degrees in philosophy from Fordham University, had gained a reputation as a meticulous, thorough biographer who could write books people wanted to read. Books about such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Alfred Hitchcock, Tennessee Williams and Marlene Dietrich had landed him on several best-seller lists.

Mr. Freedman suggested that he write Monroe's story and put him in touch with the family of Milton H. Greene, Marilyn's longtime friend, photographer and business partner. "They had an enormous amount of letters, tapes, personal documents and legal files concerning Marilyn in their archives," says the author. "By the time I finished the book, I'd been allowed exclusive access to more than 100,000 pages of formerly sealed files, including diaries and poems Marilyn had written. I'd also interviewed at least 200 people who were close to her."

What he learned was unsettling. "We, the public, had gotten her all wrong. She wasn't a witless blonde of easy virtue who slept her way to the top. She was a faithful wife to her three husbands, except for a brief tryst with Yves Montand during filming of 'Let's Make Love.' And by then Marilyn knew her marriage to Arthur Miller was over."

He is particularly moved by Monroe's loyalty to friends and co-workers. "She was never vindictive. She didn't even say nasty things about her ex-husbands. She remained close to her stepchildren and others in her former husbands' families, phoning them often and remembering special occasions with cards and generous gifts."

The author did uncover faults, he's quick to admit.

"It's been well-documented that she was chronically late, but there was a reason for that. She wanted to be perfect. How can you argue with that, especially when she'd end up giving such a wonderful, luminous performance?"

Monroe also took too many pills, especially tranquilizers and barbiturates. "I don't think she knew how dangerous some of them were because, like the chloral hydrate that finally took her life -- these medications were given to her freely by her doctors."

As for the scandalous stories that linked her romantically with several of the Kennedys, Mr. Spoto says most were untrue.

"OK, Marilyn did sleep with Jack Kennedy once when she and the president were houseguests of Bing Crosby in Palm Springs.

"But she never, never had an affair with Robert Kennedy. I can't find one single credible source who says she did, any documentation even. Everyone who knew Marilyn says it's untrue."

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