What is the story of Marilyn Monroe? Who was Norma Jean? In the history of the 20th century, arguably no one has had the most influence on pop culture, beauty standards and the Hollywood dream, than Marilyn Monroe. Yet her story, like many celebrities, is shadowed by her early death. Beauty Mark : Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, takes the reader through Norma Jean’s life, from the harrowing childhood with a mentally ill mother, to the multitude of foster homes she lived in, to her child marriage at 16. It is a story that in some ways may be shocking to those who do not know the dark side of Hollywood. Yet – while Norma Jean’s story can be used as a cautionary tale, it also is has moments of female empowerment and feminism.
I had my own preconceived notions of who Marilyn Monroe was before I read this book. Perhaps, in a way, that is why I selected it – to challenge myself. I remember watching the Seven Year Itch, and All About Eve and wondering about her. I looked up pictures and found varying versions of her. From a few google searches, it became markedly obvious that the face we know as Marilyn Monroe, had been cosmetically altered. Features, such as her nose, teeth and chin were different. At this point, I decided I did not like her. I do not/did not value someone who believed they had to surgically alter so many aspects of themselves. In the book, she comments on this,
“Hard work had transformed me into Marilyn:
weight lifting to tone my famous figure,
dentistry to correct my overbite, plastic surgery
to soften my chin and fix a bump in my nose,
a razor to my hairline to frame my heart-shaped face” (Weatherford, p. 126).
But as soon as I started the novel, I felt a great sadness for Norma Jean. She had a very sick mother and never had a real home. She was moved from house to house, was abandoned over and over again and not surprisingly, sexually assaulted. This person experienced real trauma. I realized that she was brave, and strong to do what she did. At the same time, she was hurt and, as we know from other celebrities such as Judy Garland, studios are more than happy to prescribe anything to get their product (actress) producing. Now I see her, truly as a girl, who has suffered enormously.
Other moments are shared about Norma Jean of which I had never heard. There is a story where she convinces a club owner to let Ella Fitzgerald sing in return for Monroe’s nightly presence. Later in the book, she talks about her library of books and how she lover reading. I would say the average person does not know this side of her. Yet, here, the reader is exposed to values in in regards to social justice, in its own way, and the erudite.
(b.) In Beauty mark, there are moments that made me wince in discomfort. Most of these times occur when she purposely uses her body as a way of exercising power- whether power over men, women, or for attention. In the following scene, she talks about her changing body as a young adult,
“Suddenly, I sensed my own magnetism
and saw value in my God-given good looks.
I darkened my eyebrows and word clingy clothes.
On my walk home, guys in cars honked
their horns. I almost stopped traffic.
I leaned into the gaze like a bloom to the sun”(Weatherford, p. 55).
First of all, while she realizes the new found power of her body, she seems to delight in its objectification. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, this is what I feel, as a society, we need to get away from – an ideal of beauty – blonde, buxom and altered by plastic surgery. Our children and adolescents need examples of beauty from the inside out. In the consumer world, I think that currently, many companies are working to break this idea of beauty, from Dove commercials (See: Dove Real Beauty Sketches | “You’re more beautiful than you think” – but be ready to cry) or Target models in their clothes section who vary in shape, color and size. In this book, the narrator is unapologetic about using her sex appeal. However, the context of her suffering and the misogynistic and exploitative standards of Hollywood temper these ideas. Which is why I think there is much value in this book.
I read this in two nights, even as I was tired from lack of sleep with travel and my one year old. It was unexpectedly engaging and captivating because I found myself wanting to know what would happen next, even though I know very well how her story ends. I have not read any personal letters, any biographies or seen any interviews about Marilyn Monroe, but after reading this, I have more interest in her. I especially enjoyed her “voice” in this biography. It was honest, devastating yet hopeful and strong. However, the biggest fault I found, for a biography, was the glaring lack of bibliography, author’s notes, or a list of further reading. Also, for a book that ends with an overdose, I think an addiction hotline should be an obvious addition. For this reason, I would not read anything more from this author, because the lack of resources, citation, bibliography, resources and further reading, makes me question the authority of the writer. At the same time, I think this work could be a positive addition to a high school library collection. It upends some of Marilyn Monroe’s narrative, while shedding light on her pre-Marilyn life.
Beauty mark : Verse novel of Marilyn Monroe reads like a diary of one of the most iconic celebrities of all time. It displays a story that is heart breaking, tragic and inspiring at the same time. Without becoming salacious, the narrator touches on still talked about affairs and her body while evoking empathy in the reader. Throughout the book, Norma Jean is abandoned over and over again, and then, when she finally “makes it,” is exploited by Hollywood. Still, this cautionary tale, with an eye popping cover, and thick, glossy pages, is a beautiful read. Anecdotes such as her demanding a club owner to allow Ella Fitzgerald sing at a night club, and her putting her foot down multiple times for her first husband’s ultimatum and studios, or her love of books and reading and vast library collection, brings the Marilyn Monroe as we know her into another realm of understanding. I recommend this book for any library that serves high school students.
Weatherford, C. B. (2020). Beauty mark : Verse novel of Marilyn Monroe. Candlewick.