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Anthony Summers Discusses Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe

The biography is the basis for a new Netflix documentary, streaming April 27.

goddess, a biography of marilyn monroe by anthony summers

Your ten non-fiction books have covered famous controversial figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. Why did you decide to include Marilyn Monroe in that list—and why return to her now?

Goddess did not originate as a book at all! I was assigned to go to Los Angeles to write a magazine piece about the D.A. reopening investigations into Marilyn’s death, then realized there was more than could be covered in one article. I was hooked, and not just by the puzzles about her dying. People who had known her were themselves getting on in years, and many were ready to talk for the first time.

Goddess is based on more than 600 interviews about Marilyn Monroe. How long did it take you to research and write the book? Do you have a method for doing such exhaustive research?

I lived in L.A., I think, for more than a year of hectic work, then packed everything up in cardboard boxes—audiotapes and paperwork (no internet in those days!) and traveled to a remote island to write. I had one or two trusty researchers, and turned to them for further checks.

marilyn monroe in gentlemen prefer blondes
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  • Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

    Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

What information have you been able to add to the new edition of Goddess?

For the new Goddess, I’ve gone back to where it began for me, the saga of Marilyn’s last months, her storied involvements with President Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, and looked again at the question-marks over her death. There’s been so much garbage written about that. So much baseless speculation, even today, on the internet and in books. 

The changes in my book are limited but significant. Key to her last days was the effort by the Kennedys’ enemies to get compromising evidence on the brothers and then—after she died—the brothers’ struggle to hide their involvement. Today, I name names that I previously had to withhold and publish law enforcement material that was for years censored, kept secret. I hope I can say that what I have written is close to what will become accepted history.

Almost 60 years after her death, people remain fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. Why do you think that is?

Why were millions mesmerized when she was alive? It was not at all just the cardboard cut-out “sexy” image—she had something intangible. How she differed from other actresses comes through a little in my book, I hope. In April, people who watch her in the upcoming Netflix special—based on my work for Goddess—will glimpse the magic. It is beyond cliché.

Related: 8 Books About Marilyn Monroe

marilyn monroe in some like it hot
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  • Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot (1959).

    Photo Credit: United Artists

This isn’t the first time one of your books has helped create a film—how does it feel to see your work become translated for the screen?

Depends what exactly you mean by “film” treatment! It’s always a compliment when an author’s work is picked up by filmmakers. The rights to Goddess were picked up by Hollywood—Mira Sorvino played Marilyn. The movie was dreadful and for that reason, I’m somewhat relieved to say that its script virtually ignored the hard information that my book offered. 

A film in part developed from another book of mine, on Britain’s early 1960s sex-espionage scandal, was little better. But my home turf is factual reporting and happily, there have been documentaries based on all ten of my books. Most were accurate and well-made, and that’s fulfilling.

Before researching and writing books, you spent a decade working for the BBC, a job that let you travel the world. What made you decide to pursue a different kind of journalism?

Before the BBC, as a very young man, I wrote and read the news for the overseas news department of Swiss radio—we used to joke sometimes, that both our listeners in Africa were listening. I moved on from there to working for BBC Current Affairs, often in war zones, Vietnam and the Middle East. 

The gain, for me, was that both broadcasters prize above all accurate, balanced reporting. I eventually quit to lead a more “normal” life, after a colleague had been killed. But the non-fiction disciplines stayed with me when I turned to writing books. Research, check the research, check it again, hold no bias. The truth is rarely boring.

Related: 10 Top-Notch Works of Journalism

Are there any biographies you’ve particularly enjoyed reading and would recommend for others?

I am glad you haven’t asked me to name my favorite novels, because I rarely dip into fiction. The pressure of non-fiction digging leaves little time for reading for pleasure. Biography? I’ve plunged into Adam Sisman on John Le Carré and Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselvesnominally about his life but really about modern Ireland, where I live. 

Michael Lennon’s A Double Life, on Norman Mailer, also held me. I knew Mailer, who once sent me a cartoon he had drawn at a time I was finishing one of my own books. He inscribed it: “After the fight was over, after the bell was rung,” and the “me” figure in the drawing looks bruised and battered. That’s how you feel sometimes as you emerge from the writing. In so many ways, though, it’s worth the effort.

Anthony Summers Books

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