April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

THE MARILYN MONROE THAT EVERYONE thinks they know never existed,” says author Donald Spoto, making his point with a dramatic slice of the hand. “The witless bimbo, the dumb blonde, the self-destructive woman of easy virtue—this bears no relationship to her at all. I could never have dreamt that when I undertook the project. But the biographer’s task should be a constant series of surprises.”

There are certainly plenty of them in Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (HarperCollins), the new book from a writer whose own surprising path has taken him from a monastic teaching order to the best-seller list. Spoto, who made his debut as a biographer in 1983 with what is considered the definitive account of the life of Alfred Hitchcock, has also chronicled the lives of Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich and Laurence Olivier.

This time around, Spoto, 51, aims to dispel the “great deception” he claims has surrounded Monroe. His ammunition: thousands of previously private papers belonging to Marilyn and her intimates, 200 interviews, and extensive family, medical and film production records. The family of the late photographer Milton Greene, who was Monroe’s longtime friend and sometime business partner, supplied a particularly rich trove to Spoto: hundreds of Monroe’s letters and notebooks that the actress had entrusted to Greene.

After studying these materials, Spoto dismisses as “outlandish” the oft-repeated claims that Marilyn had affairs with both Jack and Bobby Kennedy and that the brothers played a role in covering up the circumstances of her death. Anthony Summers’ 1985 best-seller Goddess, which put forward that scenario, is, Spoto writes, riddled with “factual bloopers” and “unfounded allegations.” (Summers, author of the current best-selling biography of J. Edgar Hoover, Official and Confidential, stands by his research, citing a “string of credible witnesses” on the Kennedy connection, including former U.S. Sen. George Smathers, a friend of the Kennedys.)

After poring over phone logs and date books, Spoto concluded that Monroe was never romantically involved with Robert Kennedy and that her dalliance with JFK may not have been much more than a one-night stand. Spoto claims he learned from interviews with Monroe friends and others, including a designer from whom the actress had ordered a wedding dress, that the star was planning to remarry Joe DiMaggio on what turned out to be the day of her funeral—and that she was neither murdered nor a suicide. (DiMaggio has remained silent about his relationship with Monroe since her death.)

Instead, following a scenario initially suggested in Summers’ book, Spoto contends Monroe’s death was a “tragic accident” caused by the adverse interaction of two medications prescribed by separate physicians: Nembutal capsules she had taken as a tranquilizer and a chloral hydrate enema meant to help her sleep. In Spoto’s view, far from being a pitiful victim, Marilyn was a talented, vital woman struggling to get her life together—which makes her untimely death seem all the more poignant.

Growing up in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y., Spoto, whose father was a commercial photographer and whose mother was a publicist, made a private religion of the movies. Saturday double features were “as regular a duty as church on Sunday,” he says. But from early on, he also felt a pull to use his talents “in a way that I could also give my life to God.” At 19, while earning his B.A. in classics at Iona College, he became a monk in a teaching order.

He spent six years with the order, which he prefers not to name because of his eventual disillusionment with, he says, “how egregiously anti-intellectual they were.” After leaving, he earned his Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University. He was chairman of the department of religious studies at the College of New Rochelle when “one fine day at age 33, I heard myself say to my class, ‘While you’re young, take risks.’ It precipitated a little inner crisis.”

Resigning his tenured position, Spoto moved to New York City and took a job as a secretary while weighing his options. A year later he saw the future—at the Lincoln Center Film Society’s tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. His new mission was a comprehensive, critical study of the director’s films, and even before it was published, it changed Spoto’s life. After reading a sample chapter the writer sent him, Hitchcock invited Spoto to watch the making of his last picture, Family-Plot. The pair became friends, and five years later, when the director died, “it was logical for me to undertake his biography,” Spoto says.

Since then, Spoto, who now splits his time between apartments in New York City and Los Angeles, has lapped his photographic memory and fierce discipline to turn out seven biographies in 10 years. “When you go deeply into another life, you see that the obstacles presented to us are so appalling and the private pains that people have to go through are so poignant,” he says. “I find it astonishing the courage that people are capable of.”

During the intense process of immersing himself in his subjects’ lives, “an emotional connection happens gradually and very mysteriously,” Spoto says. “They’re not creatures of myth or fantasy anymore. They are living people whose lives and reputations are entrusted to you. I can tell you quite honestly that there have been times in each book—and, please, I don’t mean this in any bogus mystical sense—when, in that little gray haze when you’re just beginning to wake up, I become very aware that there’s Olivier at the foot of the bed. or there’s Marilyn in a white robe, tapping her toe and saying”—here he affects Monroe’s breathlessness—” ‘I was never on time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be.’ ”

Spoto says he is not one of those biographers “who write in anatomical detail about the sex lives of their subjects.” Nevertheless, he caused a stir last year with his Olivier book, which alleged a long-running affair between the actor and comedian Danny Kaye. “One interviewer asked me, ‘But why did you feel it necessary to mention such a thing?’ ” recalls Spoto, who is himself gay (“and available,” he says with a laugh). “A deep friendship and affection between two people that lasted 10 years and was important to both lives—how dare the biographer omit it?”

Spoto lives alone and breaks up his work schedule with frequent swims, classical concerts and operas, as well as the pleasant ritual of “clacking a good bottle of wine” with friends. He is already well into his next book, a history of the Windsor dynasty, the result of his longstanding fascination with “the whole nature of that level of celebrity and destiny.” Some might see this as a new chapter in his career, but not Spoto. “There’s a lovely line in Enid Bagnold’s play The Chalk Garden, when a major period seems to have passed and a character is asked, ‘What will you do now?’ ” Spoto says. “And the character replies, ‘I shall continue to explore the astonishment of living.’ ”

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