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Marilyn Monroe: Anything but a dumb blonde

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She had something special that transcended the fact that she was beautiful, transcended her sexual body (her "foreground" and "background"), and we can't name it or bottle it or sell it. God knows people have tried.

Call it charisma, call it magic. Cary Grant had it. Marilyn Monroe had it. They can be imitated, but it's always a parody. They can't be matched, they can't be equaled, and it comes from something inside them.

Charm, attraction, appeal, fascination: these are all words that say "We don't know why we are so drawn to you, but we are." We just are. It's like love – you can't analyze it, you just feel it.

Q: Did you notice a difference between how male and female biographers view her?

A: I began my book with the expectation that the way she was viewed over time, from her death in 1962 until I finished writing, which was 2004, would have changed according to changing ideas about women – the gradual acceptance of feminism, basically. And how wrong I was.

Not only does the way she is written not become more feminist, if anything in important ways it became more sexist. Female biographers have tended to pity her, to condescend from a very great height, and to patronize her. Male biographers – even openly gay ones – go on and on about how sexual desire is at the core of her appeal, seeming to forget that straight women will respond to her differently.

She coalesces the Freudian idea that we either desire other people, or identify with them: you want to be them, or you want to have them. If that is true, Marilyn epitomizes it.

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