Donald Spoto, Biographer to Marilyn and More, Dies at 81

Christian academic turned Hollywood historian Donald Spoto – whose 29 books included a leading biography of Marilyn – has died aged 81, the New York Times reports.

He was born in New Rochelle, NY, in 1941. His father was a commercial photographer, and his mother worked in the city’s public information department. After graduating from Iona College, he earned his MA and PhD at Fordham University. He taught theology at Fairfield University in New Rochelle, and in 1966, began a 20-year stint teaching film studies at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Spoto’s first book, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, was published in 1976. His lifelong love affair with cinema had begun when, at ten years old, he saw Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train. He would return with a full biography, The Dark Side of Genius, in 1983.

During the early 1980s, Spoto was a visiting lecturer at the British Film Institute, and in 1987, he took a teaching post at the University of Southern California. In his 1990 biography of Laurence Olivier, he claimed the actor had a ten-year affair with actor Danny Kaye – an allegation since disputed.

Via Silver Technicolor

Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1993) crucially debunked the claims of journalist Robert Slatzer and actress Jeanne Carmen regarding Marilyn’s association with the Kennedy brothers and their alleged involvement in her death, and instead – though rather less persuasively – shifted the blame onto her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, and home-care assistant Eunice Murray. Spoto’s belief that Marilyn was planning to remarry Joe DiMaggio before she died has also been challenged.

Nonetheless, his biography repaired some of the damage done to her reputation by earlier conspiracy theorists, and convincingly depicted her as a caring, hard-working individual despite her struggles with mental illness and addiction. Thirty years after its publication, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography is still in print (see here.)

He was a guest speaker at memorial services hosted by Marilyn Remembered at Westwood Memorial Park, and appeared in various documentaries, such as the Biography Channel’s Marilyn Monroe: The Mortal Goddess (1996); Marilyn in Manhattan (1998); a 2000 episode of AMC’s Backstory, looking back on The Seven Year Itch; Love, Marilyn (2012); and Marilyn: Her Final Secret (2022.)

His other subjects in the performing arts include filmmakers Preston Sturges and Stanley Kramer; playwright Tennessee Williams; singer Lotte Lenya; the Redgrave theatrical dynasty; and actors Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Alan Bates, Grace Kelly, and Teresa Wright.

He also wrote about public figures like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Diana, and the British royal family, and the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, and Jesus Christ. He was a script consultant for The Girl (2012), a TV movie about the fraught relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds, starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller.

Openly gay, Donald Spoto lived in Copenhagen with husband Ole Flemming Larsen. He died from a brain hemorrhage on February 11, 2023.