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The fast-approaching fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s notoriously suspicious death is being met with a fleet of Marilyn books. The flagship is feminist historian Lois Banner’s biography, Marilyn: The Passion and The Paradox, the subject of Booklist’s Story behind the Story in our annual Spotlight on Biography. We’ve also reviewed a photographer’s memoir, an intense analysis of Marilyn’s final months, and a novel about her relationship with her last psychoanalyst. Our Marilyn immersion made us think about the lives of other sex symbols. When is being a bombshell an advantage? When is Hollywood hotness a danger to one’s sanity and health? How have the gods and goddesses of desire used or abused their power? When does being designated as an object of desire for the masses turn toxic? Each of these outstanding biographies peels back the silver veneer and reveals the true nature of the human being behind the glamorous icon.
Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, by David Stenn
Norma Jeane, the future Marilyn Monroe, spent much of her lonely, foster-home-shuffled youth in Los Angeles movie theaters, absorbing the glow of Hollywood beauty, wit, drama, and dreams. Her mother, a film cutter before her breakdown and lifelong institutionalization, and her mother’s coworker and best friend, Grace, filled young Norma Jeane’s head with movie ambitions, telling her that she could be the next Jean Harlow. This proved all too true. Pushed into the life of the screen by her overbearing mother, Jean Harlow was Hollywood’s first sexpot “platinum blonde,” ruling in the 1930s as a slinky, audacious, and comedic siren until her terribly early death at 26. (Marilyn died at 36.) Biographer Stenn unwraps the real Harlow, a young woman with a sweet disposition and remarkable talent and verve.
Clark Gable, by Warren G. Harris
Marilyn felt guilty about her struggles on the set of The Misfits––the last completed film for her and for her costar, Clark Gable. She feared that her legendary lateness kept Gable waiting so long in the hot, desert sun that she contributed to his early death. And she adored Gable. Harris, the popular author of several Hollywood biographies of, among others, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, presents a lively, informal, anecdotal, refreshingly honest, and informative biography of an unforgettable actor who has helped define sexy for decades.
Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli
Marilyn was painfully envious of the gorgeous, talented, and stormy Elizabeth Taylor, who was treated infinitely more respectfully and generously by the studio. Taraborrelli, known for his unauthorized biographies of such celebrities as Diana Ross and Princess Grace, details Taylor’s wild, flamboyant, and excruciatingly anguished life, drawing on a wide variety of surprising sources. With scandals, tragedies, triumphs, and stars galore, Taraborrelli’s portrait captures the sexual allure of this unforgettable beauty, superstar, and activist.
Gary Cooper, by David Thomson
British critic Thomson describes Cooper’s meteoric rise from bit player to rugged, laconic, and rock-steady star of now-classic westerns and the gold-standard cowboy sex symbol. Thomas also puzzles over the mysteries and contradictions in Cooper’s enigmatic character and strangely passive approach to his career and to life itself. His success seems due to serendipity more than anything else, and even his prodigious sex life seemed to be on autopilot rather than the result of erotic hunger. And yet Cooper reigns in the male pantheon of Hollywood’s sexiest.
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes
Like Marilyn, Hedy Lamarr possessed great beauty that masked a keen intelligence and granted her entry her into an inner circle of powerful and dangerous men. But unlike poor Marilyn, she was not plagued with health and prescription-drug problems, or, as the indulged daughter of wealthy Austrian Jews, with a deprived childhood. Lamarr, who, like Marilyn, galvanized viewers by appearing nude in a film, was able to play it cool and escape her tyrannical munitions weapons manufacturer husband not only with her life but also with information that could be used against the Nazis, his best customers. In Hollywood, Lamarr not only became a worshipped movie star and classy sex symbol, she was also an inventor who worked diligently on a secret form of radio communication that she hoped would boost the U.S. war effort but that ultimately became the basis for cell phones, Wi-Fi, GPS, and bar-code readers. Lamarr finally received recognition as an electronic pioneer late in life. Rhodes has written an enlightening and exciting biography unique in its illumination of Lamarr’s diverse gifts.
Mae West: An Icon in Black and White, by Jill Watts
West, the shimmying belle of innuendo and unabashed female sexuality, and self-mythologizer extraordinaire, conquered stage, film, print, and television with her bawdy comedy, which bashed gender and racial stereotypes and aroused both worship and controversy for decades. Watts’ incisive and vivid biography portrays West as a working-class hero influenced by African American music and culture who vamped her way out of New York’s underworld to achieve fame, power, wealth, and virtual immortality by creating tough, bluesy, and sexually assured heroines who slyly subverted society’s prejudices and hypocrisy. Watts’ spirited and intelligent analysis chronicles West’s battles with censorship, celebrates her compassionate artistic vision and discipline, and unveils the enigmas and dualisms that pervade the forever iconic West’s work and life.
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