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Lessons from Marilyn Monroe: An appreciation of her work
Carl Rollyson's op-ed column on Marilyn Monroe: Becoming a Biographer

 Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable play a scene in the 1961 film 'The Misfits.'
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Date published: 2/24/2013


--I spent the summer of 1980 reading the Marilyn Monroe literature. Three biographies stood out: Maurice Zolotow's "Marilyn Monroe" (1961), Fred Lawrence Guiles' "Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe" (1970), and Norman Mailer's "Marilyn: A Biography" (1973).

Zolotow had the advantage of actually knowing the actress and reporting vividly on her movie-set behavior. Guiles was the first biographer to probe deeply into Monroe's early years, especially her experiences with foster families. Both biographers made a start in defining a Monroe who was hardly the passive victim of Hollywood earlier accounts had portrayed. And the much-reviled Mailer, condemned for his male chauvinism, excited my admiration because his work shrewdly drew on both Zolotow and Guiles to portray a much more proactive Marilyn Monroe--a personality he deemed napoleonic.

Do you know what it was like for a biographer like me in the early 1980s? You don't unless you understand what academia was like then. It was all right to write a book about a Hollywood or foreign film director. After all, this was the heyday of the auteur theory, when certain directors were treated like authors. But to write about a movie star? Find a biography of a movie star published by a university press before the year 1986. I dare you. And yet now I am the editor of the Hollywood Legends series for University Press of Mississippi, which will publish an updated edition of my Monroe biography in e-book and paperback formats.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in the mid-1980s I was in the wilderness. In Detroit, I would pick up the phone and call editors in New York, pitching my book. I got polite responses but no takers until Shaye Areheart, an editor at Doubleday, presented my book to the publisher's editorial board. "It fell between two stools," I was told. It was written in an engaging style, but it was also "serious" and "scholarly." The question of how to market that kind of book puzzled them.

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Carl Rollyson is author of "Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress."