<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Gloria Steinem is talking a lot these days about Marilyn Monroe:

“I remember feeling very protective towards hers in a strange way even though she was a big movie star--the childlike quality, like she needed taking care of,” Steinem was telling viewers on “A.M. Los Angeles” Monday, speaking of her one and only encounter with Monroe when Steinem, a Smith College student, watched the actress at the Actors Studio in New York. “She was sitting way at the back, almost apologizing for the space she was taking up . . . .”

Then, on Joan Rivers’ show Monday night, Steinem--author of a new $24.95 glossy coffee-table book entitled “Marilyn: Norma Jeane,” with lush color photographs by George Barris--was begraphs by George Barris--was being introduced as “brilliant, incredibly sexy, one of the most influential feminists in the country, a feminist fatale . . . " Rivers prompted Steinem to discuss Monroe’s support of Ella Fitzgerald in breaking racial barriers at a Los Angeles nightclub, and Monroe’s sexual responsiveness, or lack of it.


Sandwiched between were a taping for KCBS-TV, back-to-back newspaper interviews at the Columbia Bar and Grill in Hollywood, a book-signing session in Brentwood and Michael Jackson’s KABC talk radio show. “I’m going to have to duck when I ask you this question,” Jackson opened. “Was Marilyn Monroe, as she was depicted, the bombshell, the bimbo, and I hate the word, but you know what I mean.” Said Steinem: “Well, she patterned herself after Jean Harlow and sex goddesses of the past, and that was the way one came to success in Hollywood. Internally, she wasn’t that at all. I think she was quite a shy person, serious in many ways, certainly lacked confidence. Inside, she was quite a different person . . . There was this child named Norma Jeane inside the facade of Marilyn.”

Was she “sexually promiscuous?” Jackson asked. “There were reasons behind it,” Steinem said, speaking of the actress’ lack of a loving family, noting she got “very little sexual pleasure . . . She called all three of her husbands Pa or Daddy. . . . “

A nasty note intruded when a listener called in, asking Steinem how many men she had slept with and saying he objected to “your picking the bones of this woman beyond the grave.”

“How many women have you slept with?” the Ms. magazine editor retorted, and quickly noted that all proceeds for the book would go to a specially created Marilyn Monroe Children’s Fund under the auspices of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a multi-issue fund for women and children.

Steinem and Monroe. They are almost the same generation. Steinem, sporting a slinky above-the-knee skirt, is a gorgeous 52. Had she lived, Monroe would have been 60. On the surface, however, doesn’t it seem an odd juxtaposition--Ms. Feminist choosing as her subject Miss Sex Symbol?

“Only if you blame the victim,” replied Steinem, who also discusses her gut reaction to Monroe on film.

As a teen-ager in Toledo, Steinem walked out on “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” “I wasn’t very conscious of why. I just knew I felt bad, watching this vulnerable woman whose mannerisms were very exaggerated and who was treated as a joke.”

Pre the civil rights movement,” Steinem said, “a young black moviegoer might have felt very bad watching Stepin Fetchit, and might have blamed him for playing this subservient role. But with some consciousness you begin to understand society created this role. Even though this actor was playing a role that made you feel bad about yourself, and was an embarrassing stereotype, you realize it doesn’t make sense to blame the victim.

“A parallel is true of Marilyn. Marilyn was just an exaggerated version of what women were supposed to be. I was trained to be a female impersonator, to giggle and laugh, and to say, ‘How clever of you to know what time it is.’ To teeter around on high heels and wear restricting clothes and not be serious and not be strong. . . . “

Only when Steinem encountered Monroe at the Actors Studio--"sitting there with this babushka over her head"--did she realize how “painfully shy” Monroe was. “When I saw her in person, I empathized.”

Steinem’s mission in “Marilyn: Norma Jeane” is to have people “know the real person,” to see her as “much more shy, much less certain and much less grown up than her image of the sex-symbol movie star. . . . It is like a detective story trying to find who Norma Jeane was. Her hunger to learn and to read books. At 19, she said she wanted to be a lawyer, (and go to) Columbia. How could this working-class kid get the idea? I never thought about being a lawyer, and I was younger . . . “

The overall availability of Barris’ photographs, taken in the summer of 1962 in the last weeks of Monroe’s life, prompted the book. (Actually, a few had appeared in Norman Mailer’s 1974 “Marilyn.”) Barris and Monroe had been collaborating on a book on her life, and some of the most moving text in “Marilyn: Norma Jeane” are Monroe’s own words.

Steinem came to the project through Dick Seaver, president of Henry Holt and Co., who remembered the essay Steinem had written for Ms. on the 10th anniversary of Monroe’s death. “A little article,” Steinem noted, whose “response was enormous. A lot of other women were re-thinking how they felt about her.

“Seaver said none of the major books about Marilyn has been written by a woman, and ‘It’s time .’ Oh, there was one photo book by an Englishwoman, and a slender little book by (Monroe’s) maid, and the books that were written while she was alive were for the most part fan bios. After her death, there were several books about the Kennedys and the circumstances surrounding her death. What seemed to be missing was something about Norma Jeane.”

Much of what Steinem offers is her interpretation of experiences in Monroe’s life. She also sprinkles the book with fresh interviews including that of a young mother who regularly saw Monroe in a Central Park playground. But a chasm of difference emerges from interpretation, as in Steinem’s acceptance of Monroe’s assertion--debunked by some writers including Mailer--that she had been sexually assaulted as a child. And, while acknowledging that Anthony Summers’ 1985 book “Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe,” should be credited for much of the information on “fathers and lovers,” Steinem views Monroe from a feminist perspective.

“Marilyn was an exaggerated illustration of so many things of what’s wrong with Freud,” Steinem said, “of how devastating it is when you tell women they’re not real women unless they have children--one of her great tragedies is she couldn’t have children--and of identifying value in terms of how we look, instead of what’s in our hearts and heads, of encouraging women to remain children.

“The penalty of encouraging men to think that women are nonjudgmental and passive and children is that they (men) come to expect a sexual relationship without any of the challenge of an adult female. At the end of that slippery slope come people having sex with children.. . . “

But “Marilyn: Norma Jeane” is hardly diatribe. Indeed it can, on occasion, be simplistic. “To gain the seriousness and respect that was largely denied her, and to gain the fatherly protection she had been completely denied, Marilyn married a beloved American folk hero and then a respected intellectual,” Steinem writes of Monroe’s marriages to baseball great Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller.

Would Steinem have wanted to have been Marilyn’s friend?

“Yes, definitely . . . in the sense of trying to help and support her and to keep the world from losing who she really was.” And if that sounds patronizing, or in this case matronizing, Steinem attributes it to Monroe’s childlike aspect, adding: “I think there are a lot of interests we would have shared. She had a great empathy for anyone else who was being discriminated against and who was having a hard time, because she had a hard time.”