Book review: ‘The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy’ by Wendy Leigh
Marilyn Monroe, the US actress who was famous for her sizzling sex appeal, tempestuous relationships and ‘dumb blonde’ stage persona, may not make for the most obvious feminist icon.
But The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, by celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh, suggests that there was more to the screen siren than her sex kitten image.
The book, originally published in 2003, has now been released as an eBook to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death on August 5th 1962.
Rich in biographical detail, tantalising in its suppositions and compulsively readable, The Secret Letters follows a fictional correspondence between two of the 20th century’s most compelling female figures.
Although a seemingly unlikely premise, given there is little evidence of a friendship between the real-life Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy, Leigh convincingly captures the voice of these two influential women and their status in 1950s-1960s society.
Monroe, as you would expect, plays up to her screen siren image – sexy, daring and flirtatious, while Kennedy is serene, demure, and mindful of her duties as the wife of the up-and-coming president John F. Kennedy (whose affair with Monroe is more prolonged in the novel than common knowledge suggests).
Yet there is more to these two characters than their public personas, and as Monroe and Kennedy grow closer, the veil occasionally falls to reveal a mutual uncertainty about love, loyalty and the temporary sheen of their glossy world.
Beyond the racy bits of Hollywood gossip, exchanged fashion tips and cat-and-mouse games, Leigh unveils similarities between the women that stretch far beyond their taste in men; namely, their drive, ambition and underlying fragility.
As Monroe swings from one abusive relationship to another and Kennedy attempts to hide her fury at her husband’s indiscreet affairs, it becomes apparent that both women play out a public role, fully aware that if their mask slips it could cost them not only their relationships, but their career and position in society.
As Kennedy writes to Monroe: ‘We two are the most famous women of our time, able to trust no one but eachother with our confidences because we each have so much to lose.’
Whether fact or fiction, and indeed at times it seems as though the lines are blurred, my enduring impression of this book was of a bond of female solidarity forged in an era before feminism had become a household name.
This, the twists and turns in the women’s friendship, as well as Leigh’s skillfully-constructed characterisation, had me fixed right up to the last page.
Click here to buy it.