Michelle, you have written several critically acclaimed books about Marilyn Monroe over the years, what first drew you to her as a subject?
Thank you so much for your kind words! Yes, I think that When Marilyn met the Queen is my ninth Marilyn book, so it’s very exciting! I have been a fan since 1985, when I ‘discovered’ her while on a family holiday. Of course, I had been aware of Marilyn my whole life, because she was (and is) everywhere, but during that holiday when I was fifteen years old, I saw a postcard of her and it intrigued me. I wanted to know more about her, so bought a book, purely to read on the beach. Well, as soon as I started reading, I was hooked. I remember spending all of my holiday money on postcards and photographs of Marilyn, and my mum was concerned that I could be wasting my hard-saved cash on a whim. Little did she know! Little did any of us know, what was going to happen in the future.
In my early 20s, I started a little Marilyn fan club and decided to write a little booklet for my members, detailing the places she lived, worked and played. A publisher was a member of my club and loved the booklet so much that he decided to publish a bigger version – Marilyn’s Addresses. Some years later, I decided to do an updated version of that book, but it turned into a full-scale biography. I’ve been writing about Marilyn and other stars, ever since.
Your next book on Marilyn: When Marilyn met the Queen which will be released in February. How did the idea for this particular book come about?
I’ve actually wanted to write this book for thirty years! Because I’m British, I was really interested in Marilyn’s trip to the UK, so it seemed natural for me to write about it. However, I had absolutely no writing experience at the time (I was just 21 years old), and no publisher or agent was interested in it. I’m really glad that it didn’t happen back then, because it would be a totally different book to the one we have today.
Was it a huge challenge to find people who were around in Marilyn’s orbit during the time she was in England, in 1956?
When I first started researching, I wrote to places like Equity and Spotlight, and they were able to put me in touch with several people, and then I wrote a letter to The Stage, and that resulted in one or two contacts coming forward. Also, letters in Surrey newspapers and interviews on Surrey radio programmes were a huge benefit. When I restarted my research in 2020, (after When Marilyn met the Queen was commissioned), I was lucky to find three crew members through someone I was working with on another project, and another source through his publisher. Then I also found some terrific people on the Englefield Green Facebook group, all of which had seen or spoken to Marilyn when she was in the village. It’s been quite an experience to find all of these people, but definitely a worthwhile one.
Of all the people who have been associated with Marilyn throughout her life, is there one person, living or deceased, you would have liked/would like to interview?
I would have absolutely loved to interview Dame Sybil Thorndike. I’ve developed a real love for her during the writing of When Marilyn met the Queen, and I know she would have been a fantastic source. She adored Marilyn and saw a totally different side to anyone else on the set, so that would have been really interesting. Plus, she had a terrific sense of humour, so I’m sure we’d have got along famously.
What has been the most surprising thing you have learnt about Marilyn during your extensive research for all the books you have written about her?
There’s just so much! When I was researching Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed, my friend sent me a copy of a letter that Norma Jeane had written to a man called Bill Pursel. I was intrigued as to who this man was, so wrote to every Bill Pursel in the States, and found him. He was Norma Jeane/Marilyn’s friend and boyfriend in the early years of her career, and was there for some really important events in her life – such as when she came home from her first screen test. He also met Aunt Ana (Norma Jeane’s foster mother), and Gladys (Norma Jeane’s mother), so was a wealth of information on what they were like. Everything he told me was new, surprising and interesting. I had a long friendship with him, and even though he is no longer with us, I adore him still.
Do you have a favourite Marilyn film?
My favourite film changes depending on my mood, but certainly The Prince and the Showgirl, The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, are all up there with my favourites.
If Marilyn had lived a longer life, do you personally feel that she would have carried on acting for many more years or perhaps changed direction to another career?
I personally feel that she may have gone into the production side of things. She had a great eye for detail, and I think she would have been a fantastic director. That’s just my opinion, of course. Sadly, we’ll never know what her real future would have been.
We know that Marilyn has been unfairly and inaccurately perceived as a ‘dumb blonde’ in the past. Do you welcome the change in perception and the fact that more people are now seeing her for what she truly was, a progressive woman who was ahead of her time in so many ways?
Absolutely! It’s about time people saw Marilyn as the intelligent woman she was. There’s still a long way to go, however. I have noticed that when a photo of Marilyn appears on social media, there are still those people who dismiss her as a sexual plaything, dumb blonde etc. Whenever I’ve tried to talk to people like that, it’s clear that they know absolutely nothing about her, but their opinion is rigid. For instance, one man was adamant that Laurence Olivier only directed The Prince and the Showgirl because the first director walked out over Marilyn’s behaviour. This was completely untrue, but even when I told him that I have researched this trip for 30 years, he still told me I was wrong. There will always be people who have an unfair and untrue version of who Marilyn was, but I do think that more and more people are seeing behind the lies, and that’s a great thing.
As you obviously have a deep admiration for Marilyn, is it greatly satisfying when by means of your own research, you are able to bust a myth or correct a falsehood and set the record straight as it were?
Definitely! I love it when that happens! There is nothing more satisfying than finding clarification or proof of something, both for myself as a fan, and as a biographer.
In regards to public perception, in your view, what do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Marilyn?
There are several things: That she was a dumb blonde; that she was a victim; that she slept with every man she ever met… The list goes on. It drives me to distraction, because none of that is true.
You have also written books about Carole Lombard and Thelma Todd. Have you always had an interest in The Golden Age of Hollywood years?
Yes, I always have. I loved Shirley Temple when I was very small, and then my Gran introduced me to Gone with the Wind and I really enjoyed that, too. My grandad was a big fan of the movies, and would tell me all about actors and actresses that he used to watch when he was young. There wasn’t a single movie where he didn’t know the names of the cast. When I was a teenager, I discovered that I was born on Bette Davis’s birthday, so that led me to becoming a fan of her (and my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth in Bette’s honour). I love The Golden Age. I don’t think we’ll ever have stars like that again.
As a novel writer also, how does writing fiction differ from your biographies in terms of your research and writing process?
It’s certainly different! With non-fiction, you have a clear road map of where the story has to go, based on your subject’s life, and you have to stick to that. In fiction, however, you can go wherever you like, and even kill off characters if you want to. It’s freeing to write fiction, but it’s nice to have the rigid structure of non-fiction. That’s why I like to write both.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
My daughter goes off to school at 8 am, and I do my workout, have breakfast and then get to work. I write until she gets home, and then take a few hours off for dinner with her and my husband. If I’m coming up to a deadline, I’ll then get back to work until bedtime. If I don’t have a deadline, then I’ll generally wrap things up and read a book or watch television. I used to work a 9-5 job, and then I’d go home and write in the evenings, so I’m used to that kind of structure even now. However, some projects are easier than others. Last summer/autumn I was working on two really intense books that needed to be completed within weeks of each other. I literally worked from 8 am until midnight every day, including weekends, and was absolutely done-in by the end of it. That’s not an everyday occurrence, and I was so grateful to have the work, but I did sleep a lot by the end of it!
Are there any other specific periods of Marilyn’s life that you would like to write about in the future?
I don’t have any specific plans at the moment, but I’m always interested in writing about Marilyn! I’d love to do a huge book of unseen photographs and letters, but that’s just a dream at this point!
When Marilyn met the Queen sounds like a perfect title for a film or documentary! Is this something you would like to see?
Absolutely! When Marilyn met the Queen is the book of my heart. The book I was born to write. So, to see it up on the big screen would be a dream-come-true. I waited thirty years for the book to be a reality, so you never know what might happen in the future. I’ll cross my fingers!
You must be so excited about the book’s release. Can we pre-order a copy now?
Yes, the book comes out in the UK on 17 February, and the US on 3 May. Both are available to pre-order in all good book shops or online. There is also a Kindle and audio version, too. If anyone would like to keep up-to-date on this and other projects, I’m @MMWriterGirl on Instagram and Twitter.
To pre-order a copy of When Marilyn met the Queen, published by Little, Brown Book Group, visit here
Images: Paul Popper/Getty Images, The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images.