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Marilyn Monroe: Anything but a dumb blonde

Writer Sarah Churchwell says the real Marilyn was smarter, tougher and a better actress than we think.

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Q: What are some of the biggest myths about her?

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A: The biggest myth is that she was dumb. The second is that she was fragile. The third is that she couldn't act.

She was far from dumb, although she was not formally educated, and she was very sensitive about that. But she was very smart indeed – and very tough. She had to be both to beat the Hollywood studio system in the 1950s.

The head of Fox Studios was incredibly contemptuous of her, and she fought him tooth and nail, and won, in real terms.

She was very witty, with an acidic sense of humor. The dumb blonde was a role – she was an actress, for heaven's sake! Such a good actress that no one now believes she was anything but what she portrayed on screen.

One of my favorite lines of hers came when she divorced Arthur Miller. A journalist asked her if she thought Miller had married her because he was looking for a muse. She said she'd only answer on condition that he printed her answer in its entirety, with no editing. He agreed, and she said: "No comment."

That is not a stupid woman.

Q: Is there a risk of over-analysis here? Could the real Marilyn Monroe be forever lost?

A: Of course the real Marilyn is forever lost. That's what being dead means. I'm not being flippant – no story can recapture a real person. It's an impossibility, and a consoling fairy tale that we tell ourselves, the fantasy that the real Marilyn is accessible to us. No, she's not, she died.

As for over-analysis – well, I am always amused by people who tell me that I've over-analyzed something, because it is so handy that their amount of analysis is the perfect amount of analysis. How nice to know that the amount of analysis you give something is precisely the right amount of analysis it should receive!

Over-analysis is when someone else thinks more than you do. That doesn't mean we can always answer a question, but I think there is too little thinking in the world, not too much.

Q: What are some of the big lessons we can learn from your book, not just about her but overall?

A: The book shows that biography is far more fiction than we think it is, and that our cultural images of people really are made up by our stories about them, and that these stories may have nothing to do with reality.

I also fought hard for the idea that just because Marilyn Monroe is an invented persona, that doesn't make her a fake person. She wasn't artificial – she was made. Made things can still be real – a table isn't a natural tree, but it's still a real table. It's been sculpted.

I wrote an essay once calling her a greater Gatsby, which I really believe. She made her dreams true, and they really did represent the American dream.

Q: After all your exhaustive research, do you like Marilyn Monroe? Is she someone you'd like to visit with over tea?

A: I like her much more after all my research, not less. I like her a great deal, and I would love to talk to her.

I hope she would like talking to me, because I would speak to her with respect, and interest, and I would know how much she has to teach me, and not make the mistake of thinking it was the other way around.

I have a great deal of respect for what she accomplished, against the greatest odds, and for how hard she tried to improve herself and her art. It could make a stone weep, the cruelty of people who continue to sneer at how hard she tried.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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