On the Docket: All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader Edited by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Genre: Non-Fiction/Essays/Popular Culture

Source: Personal Copy

The Publisher’s Blurb:

No star in any genre has affected the world as deeply or has lasted as long without fading as Marilyn Monroe. This thought provoking and wide-ranging collection of essays examines the undiminished incandescence of Marilyn Monroe- the impact she has had on our culture, the evolution of her legend since her death, and what she tells us now about our lives and times -and includes previously unpublished work from some of America’s best writer’s, such as: Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Elliot Dark, Albert Mobilo, Marge Piercy, Lore Segal, Lisa Shea, and many more.

First Impressions: First and foremost, I should mention that I’m a huge fan of Marilyn Monroe. I enjoy reading her biographies, watching her movies, and discussing the enormity of her cultural impact. (In addition, I’m also a massive fan of Natalie Wood, James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly, just in case you’re curious.) I purchased this book several years ago, read the first three or four essays, and was soon distracted from completing it. So, I started over and read this fascinating book from cover to cover. Although I’ve seen her A&E produced biography several times, as well as multiple documentaries about her life, I decided to refresh my memory by rummaging through YouTube to find a copy. Also, I had been in the mood to re-watch Niagara a few months ago, having been on the prowl for some interesting retro fashion inspiration.

All the Available Light examines Marilyn Monroe’s influence upon American (& European) culture from a variety of angles. However, there was one obvious and recurring theme I couldn’t dismiss, which is that of Monroe’s iconic sexual persona. Each writer was especially fascinated by the distinctly contradictory nature of Monroe’s image: child v. woman, Madonna v. whore, powerful yet insecure. The essayists, regardless of subject matter, are thoroughly confounded by the dichotomies she represented.

Several years ago, I read a book called The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell, which has been the most insightful book to date that I’ve read about Monroe. It is not a biography, but a study of Monroe’s biographers, and the particular anecdotal direction their biographies inevitably follow. Churchill examines the work of Joyce Carol Oates’ in such fascinating terms, that I haven’t been able to see Oates’ Monroe-based fiction in quite the same way since.

All the Available Light, on the other hand is more or less an assembly of sound bytes, each a social, cultural, psychological, or gender-based observation that is, more often than not, severely one-sided. Needless to say, Monroe is obviously unable to defend herself against those who insist on beating her down, deeper into the abyss of dumb blonde jokes. There are a few essays that stand out more than others, such as the editor’s contribution, entitled “Reliquary,” in which McDonough speaks with absolute respect about the infamous 1999 Christie’s Monroe auction, which would allow people from all over the world to purchase a little piece of Hollywood history. McDonough’s way with words are kind to Monroe and heartfelt in style:

But there is more, too. Marilyn’s drivers license, her battered suitcase with its dog-eared travel tags still attached, her clocks and her teacups, her blankets and potato press, her flour sifter and jauntily striped Pelican cooler- all these most extraordinary, ordinary things that broke our hearts because, after all, they are the small, tangible pieces of her own.

Sir Lawrence Olivier’s contribution, “The Prince and the Showgirl,” a personal account of working with Monroe, is suspiciously non-committal. He doesn’t come right out and say what he really thought of Monroe, but he drops a lot of very unflattering hints. He couldn’t seem to decide if her beauty was a prop of manipulation or if she should simply be blamed entirely for the charm she emitted and unwittingly used to her benefit (his inference, not mine).

The other essays cover a range of topics from Monroe’s singing voice to her religion (converted to Judaism after marrying Miller and remained devoted even after their divorce), all of which were very unique and well argued. Some were, of course, dated, but I am always fascinated by the evolution of cultural theory and social expectations. These essays are an interesting lesson in all of the above.

Final Verdict: A must-read for anyone who is interested in Monroe as a cultural phenomenon, and as a human being. Indeed, there are other, perhaps better, books and biographical or theoretical material out there about Monroe, but All the Available Light is a definite asset to the already extensive library.

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