Book reviews: All things Marilyn Monroe


In the decades since her death on Aug. 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of so many books that the actress practically deserves her own Dewey Decimal classification.

And although it seems unlikely that there’s any aspect of her 36 years that hasn’t been adequately dissected, analyzed and scrutinized half a century on, the books keep coming, like the following — two weighty tomes and two glossy coffee table books — that have been published in the last few months.

Dressing Marilyn
How a Hollywood Icon Was Styled by William Travilla
Andrew Hansford with Karen Homer
Applause: 192 pp., $29.99

Costume designer William Travilla dressed Monroe over the course of eight films and was the man responsible for some of her most iconic outfits; the life and back story of the Oscar-winning costume designer are sketched out in the first section of the photo-rich book.


The rest of the book is divided into chapters by iconic outfit (“The Gold Dress,” “The Red Dress,” etc.), a testament to Travilla’s talent as “The Pink Dress” instantly calls to mind the pink confection Monroe wore in the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” song and dance number in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and “The White Dress” registers immediately as the white (bone-colored, the book points out) halter dress that billowed about Monroe’s waist to famous effect in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955).

As manager of the costume designer’s archives, Hansford had access to Travilla’s original sketches, patterns and costume test shots, and their inclusion here is a rare, up-close look at exactly how one costume designer helped achieve some of Monroe’s most memorable on-screen moments.

Marilyn Monroe
The Passion and the Paradox
Lois Banner
Bloomsbury Press: 516 pp., $30

This is the second book on Monroe penned by the USC professor of history and gender studies, and one that she spent a decade researching. It’s a dense, detail-packed book, so much so that in recounting Monroe’s early years and the people in her life as she was shuttled from home to home, it’s easy to lose track of all the players and places.

But Banner’s throughline isn’t hard to follow: The woman who started life as Norma Jeane Mortenson worked hard at creating and then meticulously honed to perfection every last aspect of the Marilyn Monroe persona, and Banner’s book lays out the theory that childhood sexual abuse laid the groundwork for it all.

Marilyn Monroe
The Final Years
Keith Badman
St Martin’s: 340 pp., $25.99

Written by a British author whose previous works tackled the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, this book is such a sordid account of Monroe’s final years that it’s hard to read it without feeling almost criminally voyeuristic.

A lot of that has to do with the level of Marilyn minutiae detailed in the book, including limousine company records, utility bills, phone records and a laundry list of the items purchased in her final days (among them a Roman-style white chest of drawers, a hanging begonia and a couple of pet toys). Why does it matter that the food delivery to her home from Briggs Delicatessen in the days before her death cost $49.07?


The effect of Badman’s meticulous spadework is that the reader feels compelled to give him the benefit of the doubt when he makes some of the book’s more salacious claims and assertions (not the least of which involveJohn F. Kennedy and UFOs).

Marilyn in Fashion
The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe
Christopher Nickens and George Zeno
Running Press: 280 pp., $30

Despite the title, readers shouldn’t expect this photo-driven book to explain the reason for Monroe’s enduring fashion influence as much as chronicle the contents of her closet, particularly the most famous of pieces — the subway grate dress and the gown she wore to serenade Kennedy — and the fashion designers behind them.

But that’s a task it accomplishes handily, both in describing — to an exhaustive level of detail — the fabrics and embellishments of the various pieces, and by including several different instances of Monroe wearing the garment, and the occasional sketch. What at first seems repetitive actually helps paint a much more nuanced portrait of the actress and the way she wielded the power of her wardrobe.