Academic Sarah Churchwell wades through the conflicting bios of the legend so that you don’t have to. She looks beyond the fixed image of Monroe as “visual cliché,” and refers to a photo taken shortly before her death in which an otherwise nude Marilyn holds a transparent scarf between her teeth. Churchwell notes a new direction in which “frozen glamour” is replaced by “tousled charm”—alas, this picture (on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) represents the star’s final days.

Monroe publicized her Cinderella story in studio press releases. Churchwell examines the early years spent solidifying the image and the eventual, unsuccessful attempts to escape from it. She contests the myth that a real girl transformed herself into a fantasy, and reclaims Norma Jeane within Marilyn’s complete story. She teases out the distinctions between the starlet’s person and persona, and avoids mistaking the film rolls for reality.

Examining the literary treatments of Monroe’s life, Churchwell finds Norman Mailer condescending, Arthur Miller deceptive, and Joyce Carol Oates exploitative. For a glimpse of the woman beyond the mask she recommends Truman Capote’s “A Beautiful Child”—a chilling account of an afternoon the two spent together shortly after the actress abandoned Hollywood for New York. Churchwell provides a fair accounting of the ink spilled thus far and calls attention to the many veils between Marilyn and her audience.