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.")
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.
Where Spoto drops off, badly, is in the final years. It's as if he got exhausted doing the research, so much had been written. He gets too clinical on us documenting her death, too defensive about the Kennedys. He wants us to give up the myth of the priapic Presidential brothers and the big beautiful blonde--but then what?
Blaming the doctors and drugs (as John Huston did) isn't really as provocative as the icon love-triangle we've been reading about for the last 20 years. This biography, like last summer's Marilyn book "The Last Take," suggests a rainbow at the end of MM's life, not a suicide. Mixed messages about movie stars confuse us.
"She was about to remarry Joe DiMaggio," the ballplayer's friend Valmore Monette tells Spoto. She was about to be hired again by Fox to finish "Something's Got to Give," studio executive Peter Levathes tells Spoto. At the end, she radiated charm and good health, the trusted-to-the-grave makeup man Whitey Snyder tells Spoto. She lost 15 pounds, she was buoyant. She bought a Pucci dress at Saks three days before she died.
So we are to forget about the wiretappers and blackmail and J. Edgar Hoover. That's for a hard-boiled detective novel. The famous Kennedy-Monroe love tapes "simply never existed," Spoto insists. Drop the Kennedy thing, we are ordered.
But how can we, when her final phone conversation (with Peter Lawford) still lingers:
"Say goodbye to Pat, say goodbye to the President, and say goodbye to yourself because you're a nice guy."
Somehow those words say more than all the MMography in the world. That's because when Marilyn spoke, she spoke to us. We knew it, and she knew it, and that's why we're still listening.
As for MM and the Kennedys--I'm sorry, Mr. Spoto, but, yes, there is a Santa Claus.