Q&A: Feminist Historian Lois Banner on Marilyn Monroe’s Genius

On August 5, 1962, the New York Daily News ran a two-word banner headline, proclaiming "Marilyn Dead." There was no need for a last name: by that point, Marilyn Monroe was simply the most famous actress in the world, if not of all time. As for the second word in the headline, while her death was officially ruled a suicide, fifty years later, questions remain about the exact circumstances of her demise at the age of thirty-six, which may be part of the reason she continues to loom so large in the public imagination. In her new biography, “Marilyn: the Passion and the Paradox,” feminist scholar Lois Banner writes that Monroe was a rare genius, completely in control of the image that made her an icon of the twentieth century. Here she speaks to Signature about her book.

Why are we still fascinated by Marilyn Monroe fifty years after her death?

She has gotten to have the cult stature of Cleopatra -- there are a few other women in history we do that with. First, she died young, so she’s immortal in our minds. Second, she had affairs with or married so many prominent men. The affairs with the Kennedys are still mysterious. She loved to be photographed. Any time she saw a photographer she’d go into a pose. Another reason is that she has combined in herself a little girl lost with a very mature sexual woman. She was a brilliant comic, as good as if not better than Lucille Ball. All of that comes together in a magical package.

In your book, you write that she was bipolar, bisexual, sexually abused as a child, suffered from a terrible stutter, had endometriosis that made intercourse and menstruation painful for her, and spent time in eleven foster homes growing up. What will readers find most surprising?

I really take her seriously. Her sexual bravura doesn’t trouble me. I look at her as a genius. This young woman, born to a very dysfunctional family, was given elements of genius, and those elements were enhanced by the horrible experiences she went through and her bipolarity. I see her as every woman writ large. She faced all the challenges of every woman in the 1950s and '60s. I’m not sure without that fractured personality she would have been a great actress.

Her rendition of Happy Birthday to Jack Kennedy has become one of her most iconic appearances, yet you write that the president broke up with her because of it. Were you surprised to learn that?

I sort of knew that he hadn’t taken well to her singing that song. But I think she was really surprised. All the Kennedys had encouraged her to sing it that way. Well, maybe not all the Kennedy women. Maybe it was the [Hearst gossip columnist] Dorothy Kilgallen column saying Marilyn had made love to the president in front of millions of people. He realized, and his handlers realized, that she had carried it a bit far. In many ways it’s her most brilliant impersonation, and her most brilliant comic turn. In some way she is parodying herself. She was very sick, she was on a lot of drugs that night, so maybe in the end she couldn’t handle herself when she went on stage. But it would have happened with the Kennedys anyway. The other stars Kennedy was involved with kept quiet, but Marilyn was a loose cannon.

What’s the biggest misconception about her?

That she was a dumb blond bombshell, that her intellectualism was all phony, a put-on. That’s a male conception of the ideal woman as a kind of balloon creature that will do what they want. Arthur Miller said that when he married Marilyn he had married his adolescent fantasy. Norman Mailer said she was spun sugar candy for men. She was always taking men who were mixed up about their looks and sexuality and making them feel good about themselves.

What would Marilyn be doing if she were alive today? Would she have her own reality TV show?

Marilyn didn’t like TV and she didn’t appear on TV very often. She was locked into the belief that there was a high level theater and a popular theater, and the higher theater was what she wanted. If she had lived, we’d have to pray she got over the drug addiction. And got out of the Rat Pack. She was so wounded by the divorce from Arthur Miller she went to the Rat Pack for solace, and that got her into the mob stuff. In those days you didn’t fool around with the Kennedys and the Rat Pack unless you were very strong and very tough and knew you were going to be used. She went in that direction because they were a lot of fun. If she’d only been able to live another couple of years, she’d have been able to take medication for her mental illness. Her acting career might have continued -- she talked about playing middle-aged roles for woman. She was changing her image. She had too much of a hurricane force inside her not to continue her career.

Is there a celebrity today that most reminds you of her?

I’m thinking. Angelina Jolie, maybe, because she’s smart and she’s tough. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, they’re sort of dumb. Marilyn was never dumb.