Marilyn Monroe and Lesbianism


To the Editor:

Marilyn The Passion and the ParadoxI have been asked to explain my stance on the issue of childhood sexual abuse and lesbianism in my recent book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. (Bloomsbury, 2012.)   I do so at this time, and I thank Stephanie Donald, the editor of LGBT-today for giving me a place to do so.  I have reread the scholarship on this matter, and I recant any statements I may have made about a connection between sexual abuse and lesbianism. The prevailing scholarship is clear that there isn’t any.

I want to clarify my writing about Marilyn Monroe and lesbianism.  I used the term “lesbian” in writing about her because she used that term.  She was probably, in fact, bisexual, the identification I use for her in the book.  Indeed, I searched long and hard to document Marilyn’s sexual orientation, because most Marilyn biographers deny that this “heterosexual sex icon” could have had a same-sex side.  But the evidence seemed to me clear, especially as it was presented in Marilyn’s autobiography, My Story; in her series of interviews with British journalist W.J. Weatherby; and in the letters that her last psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, wrote about it to a psychiatrist friend of his.  There are also references to it in memoirs and interviews of others.

I spent many months validating that Marilyn had provided the material for My Story, since many previous biographers called it a fraud, and none had analyzed the remarks about same-sex love in it. My Story was basedNatasha and Marilyn on interviews that Marilyn did in December 1953 and in the spring of 1954 with Ben Hecht, a prominent Hollywood screenwriter whom she had hired to ghostwrite her autobiography. I tracked the progress of the Monroe-Hecht interviews in the day’s movie fan magazines, which reported on their progress, and I read the extensive records on it in Ben Hecht’s papers at the Newberry Library in Chicago. (Previous biographer had overlooked much of that evidence.)  I also discovered an extensive cache of letters on Marilyn’s same-sex relationship with Natasha Lytess, her acting coach between 1949 and 1955. The letters are in the Guido Orlando papers at the Margaret Herrick Library of the American Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Lytess coached Marilyn closely on twenty-two films, and they lived together on and off for six years.

Lytess is demonized by many Marilyn biographers, who turn her into the classic vampire of homophobic fiction.  But I found enough positive material on her to describe her as a gifted performer and a good acting coach—even if her methods were dictatorial.  Marilyn flourished under those methods for many years.

Marilyn could be positive about love between women, as when she told W.J. Weatherby that “no sex is wrong if there is love in it.”   Yet she lived in the homophobic 1950s. Charges of homosexuality could result in dismissal from one’s job; gays and lesbians were seen as perverted and dangerous.  (Some readers of my book seem to think that I hold those views, which is a misreading of my clear indication that those are historical attitudes, not my own.)  Marilyn was raised in families that were liberal on matters of race and of politics but not on sex, and she unfortunately internalized some of the decade’s homophobia. Thus in My Story she wrote that “a well-made woman had always thrilled her to look at.”   But she also stated that it was a “sinister” reaction, indicating her ambivalence toward same-sex love—or her desire to cover up her actual feelings in a book that was going to be marketed to the general public.  Due to a series of Marilyn Monroemiscalculations, however, it wasn’t published in the United States until 1974.

Marilyn was a complex person.  Raised in eleven foster homes, subjected to sexual abuse by men in two of those homes (and refrained from masturbating by a foster mother in a third home), she dissociated, fragmenting into a number of personas.  Ultimately she brought some of those personas together to create Marilyn Monroe, the fictionalized being through which she became famous. I interpret some of her later behaviors in terms of what experts on sex abuse contend such abuse can cause: dissociation, self-loathing, and sex addiction, for example.

On the matter of the causation of “lesbianism,” I am too schooled in Judith Butler’s ideas about the post-modern nature of human identity to ever see human causation as anything but multi-dimensional. In her own statements, Marilyn at times sensed that her lesbianism was innate.  On the other hand, some individuals she knew stated that she turned to women as lovers on a situational basis because Hollywood men had treated her so badly—“like a piece of meat” in her words.  That’s not beyond the realm of possibility, if one adopts a multi-causal and multi-age explanation of the genesis of same- sex involvement. It’s also possible that some of her same-sex relationships grew out of friendships with women.  All previous writers on Marilyn conclude that she had no women friends, but that’s not correct.  She had many. They included Jane Russell and Betty Grable; Arthur Miller’s sister, Joan; the wives and daughters of her close New York friends, Sam Shaw and Norman Rosten; and many more.

By the last two years of her life, Marilyn began to act in a paranoid manner, a probable result of her addiction to prescription drugs.  She demonstrated what I call “homosexual panic” to her psychiatrist Ralph Greenson, when she began to make anti-lesbian and anti-gay statements to him. Greenson was Freudian, which placed him in a tricky situation. Following Freud’s stance in Three Essays for a Theory of Sexuality (1905), Greenson believed that everyone is bisexual at birth and that all humans grow through the Oedipus Complex into a mature sexual orientation at about the time of adolescence. Freud preferred heterosexuality, but he realized that lesbianism and homosexuality could be possible positive outcomes. Greenson had no problem with Marilyn’s bisexuality. But when he told her that everyone possessed some same sex desire, she panicked to the point that he had to assure her that she was 100 percent heterosexual.

Marilyn had read the collected works of Freud; she would have known his views on bisexuality. Thus her panic makes no sense, unless we assume that she especially feared at that point that her sexual involvements with women might be disclosed.  Like every Hollywood star, she had signed a morals statement. Violating it could result in her dismissal. Hollywood Confidential, the widely read scandal sheet, was in existence by the late 1950s, and its editors specialized in “outing” gay and lesbian stars. By the spring of 1962 the rumor was rampant that Natasha Lytess was going to publish a memoir of their relationship in European tabloids.  (It appeared in July, 1962). On the other hand, I doubt Marilyn was thinking clearly when she tried to dissociate herself from her lesbian side, since she had at least one same-sex relationship in the two years before she died.

I find commendable Marilyn’s willingness to be sexually experimental.  I find her eventual stance on lesbianism deplorable. It is also sad. If only she had lived for another decade, the strong pro-lesbian position in theLois Banner movement of “Second Wave” feminism might have given her the strength to reveal who she actually was.

Lois Banner, University of Southern California

Lois Wendland Banner, more commonly known as Lois W. Banner (born 1939) is an American feminist author.

She received her Ph.D. at Columbia University. She is the author of the textbook Women in Modern America: A Brief History, which is commonly used in introductory women's studies college classes. She helped found the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Rutgers University in 1973

She is a History professor at the University of Southern California. She teaches History courses, which include topics such as Gender & Sexuality and Women's Studies. Her research has produced biographies of Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Marilyn Monroe.

From her staff page, her research:

"Beginning with a focus on religion in the early republic, my work has broadened to be located in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries more generally and has come to rest in the history of gender, sexuality, and culture, in line with what has been at the intellectual and methodological forefront of the fields of women's history and women's studies. In terms of race and ethnicity, two other areas at the forefront of the field of women's and gender history, I have always integrated that material into my Women in Modern America, first published by Harcourt, Brace in 1972 and continually in print since that date."

Biography was retrieved from Wikipedia:


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