February 16, 1987 12:00 PM

text by Gloria Steinem, photographs by George Barris

Barris spent the early days of the summer of 1962 photographing and interviewing Marilyn Monroe for a collaborative biography she hoped would “set the record straight” about her life. Her death that August put an end to the project and only now has Barris decided to publish the photos as a group, together with Steinem’s engrossing text. The volume provides no startling new insights—with more than 40 books about Monroe already written, the record on her is probably about as straight as it will get. But Steinem and Barris have created an unusually moving portrait of the fragile, charismatic actress. In analyzing Monroe’s inability to find lasting happiness, Steinem strikes a sensible (if hardly revolutionary) balance between blaming society and blaming Monroe herself. The child of a severely depressed mother and a father she never met, young Norma Jean spent her early years shuffling from one foster home to another. That childhood neglect, Steinem suggests, undoubtedly hindered her attempts to form close adult relationships. And the Hollywood establishment of the ’50s, which revered Monroe’s curves but scorned her attempts at serious acting, did little to bolster her shaky self-esteem. The book’s most powerful passages, though, are those written by Monroe herself, taken from interviews and from her unfinished autobiography, My Story. “Yes, there was something special about me, and I knew what it was,” she once wrote. “I was the kind of girl they found dead in a hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand.” In addition to this eerie sort of self-knowledge, Monroe appears to have had a way with a metaphor. She described her first conversation with Arthur Miller, her second husband, as “you know, like a cool drink when you’ve got a fever.” Discussing her insecurities about acting, she wrote: “I knew how third-rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside.” Barris’ many color photos, all taken within a period of a few weeks, make reading Marilyn a peculiarly immediate experience, as if you too had spent hours frolicking on the beach with Monroe shortly before she died. (Henry Holt, $24.95)

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