“Let’s hear your speech now, let’s hear your speech,” an emboldened onlooker barked. It was the morning of April 29, 1945; a reply was unlikely. The firing squad had done its job. Now, dumped off a truck like a waterlogged mattress into Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, Benito Mussolini’s dead body had been riddled with bullets all over again, stomped upon, spat at, cursed at and urinated on by a mass of his former subjects. One of its eyeballs was lacerated and swelling with fluid. Its cranium was cracked, its cerebellum crushed. Dislodged bone jackknifed through its sinus cavity and palate. And before it was strung up over a gas station by its fat feet, Sergio Luzzatto tells us, someone reached into the static center of that turbulent mob and laid Mussolini’s sallow, bald head between the stiffening breasts of his mistress, splayed beside him. This, like everything done in the piazza that morning by Milan’s fuming citizenry, betrayed one implacable assumption: that the sting of sarcasm would not be lost on a dead body.

Death has long occupied a special place in the publishing industry’s staple crop of biographies: the end. But the rules of biographies are rapidly being stretched or tossed out entirely. Abstract ideas are now fair and compelling subjects, as in Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea; so are inanimate objects, as in Holley Bishop’s Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey. Luzzatto, a professor of history at the University of Turin, the author of four previous political histories and a regular commentator for Italy’s two major daily newspapers, has breathed a new, peculiar life into the form by writing the biography of a corpse. The Body of Il Duce shows Mussolini as a man who, in becoming an inanimate object, also became an abstract idea. Death is only this story’s beginning.

There has never been a shortage of dead bodies in the world. Yet Luzzatto couldn’t have delivered what is presumably the first dead-body biography at a more suitable or more energetic moment in the cultural history of cadavers. Dead bodies have suddenly become the life of the party. It’s a regular Weekend at Bernie’s out there. Only a few months ago, America was grousing over the living corpse of Terri Schiavo and gushing over the Pope’s still-tepid one. In the wake of Katrina, a lone cadaver on Union Street, neglected for days in an abandoned New Orleans, became an indictment of the Bush Administration. It’s beginning to seem as though at the center of every shouting match and scandal lies a dead body–stock-still, neither assenting nor objecting.

Mussolini’s body led an extraordinary afterlife, worthy of a biographer of Luzzatto’s enthusiasm and skill. Born out of bullets, Il Duce’s corpse was beaten, hung, buried, exhumed, stolen by neo-Fascists, hunted down, gossiped about, hidden for more than a decade by the Italian government, smuggled out of the convent of Cerro Maggiore in a box marked CHURCH DOCUMENTS and finally in 1957 reinterred–a string of misadventures and minor triumphs engineered, in every case, for someone’s political advantage. His was the hardest-working corpse in Italy.

By 1945, when Mussolini’s corpse hit that piazza, Italians were already fluent in the symbolic “language of bodies,” writes Luzzatto. They had had an early education in the subject with the brutal assassination of Giacomo Matteotti, Mussolini’s early Socialist rival, in 1924. Fascists beat Matteotti to death and, after sexually assaulting his corpse, unloaded it in the woods, where it lay undiscovered for two months. (Within days of Mussolini’s execution, rumors spread that Matteotti’s son had slipped into the ranks of the firing squad to avenge his father’s death.) The popular memory of this body tainted Mussolini’s reign, just as the dead body of Mussolini haunted Italy as the nation tried to reinvent itself after World War II.

Even a decade after Mussolini’s death, Luzzatto explains, a fledgling postwar neo-Fascist movement tried to resurrect its hero by organizing bus pilgrimages to his grave site, “putting Il Duce’s body to work in the 1958 election.” Ultimately, he adds, “Il Duce’s body seemed to be as ubiquitous as the dictator had been in life.” Luzzatto portrays the body as an ungainly reminder of much of what Italians would have preferred to forget and were horrified could be revived. “He is an obstacle, even if he has been defeated,” wrote the imprisoned pundit Giovanni Ansaldo after Mussolini’s capture. “He can still harm us.”

As it happens, only weeks after Mussolini’s body swung over the crowds of Piazzale Loreto, advertising its own end, the very buxom, very young Marilyn Monroe was being photographed in her breakout modeling session. Norma Jean Mortensen had been discovered at her place of work, an airplane plant in Southern California, by a photographer from the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit. Selected to be part of a series on women pitching in on the homefront–pics meant to inspire, or simply titillate, GIs overseas–she was recruited as an instrument of the war effort. Norma Jean’s body would fight Fascism, if only indirectly, and–as the desecration of Mussolini’s corpse made clear–it would win.

After her short and by all accounts difficult life, Monroe came to an end as lonely as Mussolini’s was spectacular: She died at home alone on a Saturday night. As one journalist put it, “The girl whose translucent beauty had made her the ‘love object’ of millions of unknown lonely or unsatisfied males had no date that evening.” Her body lay unclaimed in a crypt of the Los Angeles morgue for hours as “Case #81128.” It’s easy to imagine that crypt as her own private Piazzale Loreto, the most demoralizing form of violence that could visit a star like Marilyn Monroe–the violence of not being noticed. Her body, finally naked again, was in death of no interest to anyone. It evoked nothing, and no one cared, until the mob–of writers–began to gather.

Indeed, Sarah Churchwell’s new book makes clear that what Italy physically did to Mussolini has been done figuratively to Monroe slowly over the past forty years by her many biographers and critics. Monroe’s death in 1962 triggered a gold rush for memoirists, scholars and scandalmongers who, sometimes without even realizing it, appropriated her mystique for their own agendas. Though The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is concerned with more than just the corporeal, it’s remarkable how often Churchwell finds Monroe’s biographers going right for her body like so many mad coroners. Monroe’s gait, her scars, her abortions, her sexual likes and dislikes, her hair color, her experiences of molestation or rape, even the circumstances of her death–all become irresistible inspirations for riffing. Churchwell surveys this glut of Marilynalia–from Norman Mailer’s “novel biography” Marilyn to Joyce Carol Oates’s “biographical novel” Blonde–bouncing the accounts off one another to bring their blind spots and exaggerations into sharper focus. She searches for truth in the composite, and what emerges is more a truth about American celebrity and possession than about any one woman.

A dead body–an ordinary dead body, that is–is a fleeting, unmemorable thing. But somehow each of the bodies Luzzatto and Churchwell have seized upon has endured, continuing to absorb all the gender, pop-culture and party politics thrown at it. That’s the thing about extraordinary dead bodies: They’re hard to get rid of but so easy to push around.

Be it Bush’s swagger or Schwarzenegger’s pecs, the body can be a commanding political symbol, even in a supposedly enlightened democracy. But a totalitarian government, Luzzatto argues, hinges even more explicitly on the concise localization of power in the frame of its chief. The power invested in Mussolini’s corpse, he implies, was merely leftover energy from the storehouse built up during his twenty-three-year reign.

Having been wounded in World War I, Mussolini used his body as a badge of courage to help him in his rise to power. Alive, he was an austere boulder of a man–the Ox of the Nation, as he called himself, tethered to all of Italy, tilling and towing and charging. He spoke with his body (“swiveling his eyes, contracting his jaw so his lower lip jutted out, spreading his legs, and putting his hands on his hips”) and was eager to be seen and photographed shirtless. But the man exuded nakedness even when fully clothed, and many journalists of his time wrote about Mussolini’s body in unabashedly sensual terms. “We rip off the clothing,” one journalist lavishly opined–writers of course could do nothing else in Fascist Italy–“going after the inimitable essentialness of this Man, who vibrates and pulsates with formidable humanity.” And the women apparently couldn’t get enough. A few postwar revisionists would try to explain away Fascism, in part, as (in Luzzatto’s paraphrase) “the place where female ignorance and Mussolini’s cult of the phallus met.”

Monroe’s success and magnetism were even more wrapped up in her body–and the men couldn’t get enough. Clothed, she also exuded nakedness, mostly because virtually everyone in America had actually seen her naked and few could shake the image. In 1953 Playboy dug up “Golden Dreams,” a nude photo Monroe had posed for years earlier as a nobody, and published it as the magazine’s first centerfold, just as her first sexified, show-stopping roles–in Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire–were hitting screens.

Naked or not, she was the “very Stradivarius of sex,” according to Mailer, who imagined Monroe entangling her poor first husband, even at the age of 15, in her “insane sexual musk.” Churchwell rebukes him for such sumptuous tunnel vision, notably for freely fabricating, in Marilyn, a conversation between the young actress and a studio executive about her anus, but failing to “imagine scenes of Monroe reading Dostoyevsky, meeting Carl Sandburg, or attending literature classes at UCLA, all of which she actually did.” Oates pulls a similar trick, inventing a vivid threesome between Monroe and two actors on a beach and manufacturing an epiphany for young Norma Jean out of double penetration.

These authors were undoubtedly so cavalier about taking liberties with Monroe’s body because it was always seen as free for the taking. Questions about its exploitation arose at the very beginning of her career. And they lasted to the very end: Even Monroe’s coroner cashed in by publishing his own book, Coroner to the Stars. “In essence, the anxieties about Marilyn Monroe’s body all relate to the problem of ownership,” Churchwell writes. “Who owned Marilyn Monroe’s body, who controlled it, who gained access to it?”

In life, the bodies of Monroe and Mussolini had swept up and coerced millions of people, and yet they always kept those people at an enchanting, authoritative distance. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson described Monroe as a “phenomenon of nature, like Niagara Falls. You can’t talk to it. It can’t talk to you. All you can do is stand back and be awed by it.” But this was, of course, not the same as the menacing fear and rapture Italy felt in the presence of its leader. Fascist underlings and cineplex crowds are clearly not one and the same; after each body went suddenly limp and that hypnotism evaporated, the severity of what was at stake in the debates surrounding them was altogether different.

Luzzatto shows Mussolini’s death releasing Italians to wonder how and why they had let themselves be carried away–into World War II and to a bitter collapse–on the shoulders of that strapping Atlas. A rich catalogue of writing emerged to provide explanations–memoirs and amateur histories by ex-Fascists, screeds by resurfacing liberals and that very peculiar document, “Mussolini’s Political Testament,” which, Luzzatto writes, “had all the characteristics of a religious relic, being a photographic reproduction of the typed copy of Il Duce’s final interview.” Later, he adds, “Mussolini’s life after death thus relied on diagnoses dredged from memory or created out of whole cloth.”

Those who wanted to preserve Il Duce’s majesty had their work cut out for them. The image of his capture was not a flattering one. He’d hidden under a blanket, disguised in a Luftwaffe overcoat, and was dashing off to Switzerland with purses full of several currencies–“not to mention his girlfriend,” one anti-Fascist noted, who “had stuffed precious stones into the seams of her underwear.”

Undermining Mussolini’s legacy, by contrast, wasn’t very difficult. Mussolini’s corpse was an emblem, after all, a hunk of bloated flotsam washed up as the political tide swiftly changed. Fascism and Nazism were in their death throes everywhere. An entire political system was being discredited and regretted. Luzzatto notes how the killing in Piazzale Loreto proved a canny perversion of Il Duce’s fervent mass rallies in Rome’s Piazza Venezia–an adoring mob now a vicious mob, the taunt of “Let’s hear your speech now” calling up his extraordinary prowess as an orator, and “a body attacked with fury both equal and opposite to the passion it inspired when alive.” After hanging there like a side of meat, Italy’s Ox was suddenly rumored to have been syphilitic, impotent and meagerly endowed between the legs. “When the leader dies,” Luzzatto writes, “the myths so vital in his lifetime are turned upside down; the charisma is transformed into a deep flaw.”

Monroe’s demise, conversely, signaled the rise of a system, that of the American über-celebrity. Still, Churchwell finds a similar pattern: Monroe’s makeup artists and confidants warped what were once promoted as her virtues into deep flaws, even shame. Her beauty, they wrote, was all cosmetic trickery, her success the result of cocksucking careerism. “In public, Marilyn Monroe’s beautiful body is understood to have been for sale and was supposed to be the reason for her phenomenal success,” Churchwell writes. “Biographies just keep inverting this truism to create surprising ‘secrets’ about Marilyn: her body was for sale in private, too.”

The central question of post-Monroe Monroe-mania emerges, again and again, about who was manipulating whom. Was she “really” the innocent Norma Jean or the calculating Marilyn? These personas have almost always been perceived to be mutually exclusive; indeed, Oates and feminists like Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem have all treated them as separate characters in their writing, and a recent HBO film cast them as two separate actresses.

Versions of Monroe’s death divide along these lines, too. Writers either recount the death of a victim or of a victimizer. Mailer and Oates–and a slew of less estimable conspiracy theorists–have her assassinated by CIA operatives. (Many tales have Monroe done in by toxic enema; Oates’s Sharpshooter uses a lethal injection, though he conspicuously enters her house “from the rear.”) In these scenarios, Monroe is usually portrayed as hopelessly in love with Bobby Kennedy, spurned and threatening to go public with their affair. (Churchwell is convinced the affair is apocryphal.) Sometimes she’s even pregnant with Kennedy’s child or privy to classified cold war information. Here is Norma Jean the victim, naïvely bouncing her way into a malevolent political conspiracy and ultimately being “done to” because of it rather than “doing.”

Suicide, the conventional explanation for her death, can be seen as the opposite, a calculated move by a more domineering Monroe. Churchwell argues for suicide as a “performance, as a work of art” in which the body is finally extinguished by the mind with which it has been at war, although suicide can also be read as the tragic, pitiful apotheosis of decades of subjugation. “If ever there were a victim of society, Marilyn Monroe was that victim,” Ayn Rand wrote. Ultimately, Churchwell writes, “each of these endings concludes its own plot, and each plot differs in key respects–yet they all insist that theirs is the true story of Marilyn Monroe’s life.”

Our instinct for narrative, it seems, leads us to want the death of public figures to suitably punctuate the life. If we have to invent that death, so be it. For what we love is not the dead bodies but the vicarious thrill of repossessing them and watching them die again and again and again. As Churchwell puts it: “It’s the process we enjoy, the journey from power to punishment, from beauty to fatality.”

Il Duce’s bloodied body was eventually carted away from Piazzale Loreto and, years later, many Italians came to denounce the bedlam in the square. They were sheepish about having moved from frenzied adulation to the frenzy of revenge, from giving in once again to such a visceral impulse. Many feared it made them and their nation appear savage or unserious.

Shots of Mussolini’s strung-up corpse ran on the front pages of American newspapers alongside austere photos of President Roosevelt, who had just died–a pairing quickly read as American sophisticates and Italian animals. Giovanni Ansaldo and rival journalist Gaetano Salvemini debated what “higher mercy” ought to be extended by a recovering Italy, even to its battered Ox. Mercy, it seems, was an option only because Mussolini had been so thoroughly debased.

The lone surviving photo of Marilyn Monroe’s corpse, taken just after her autopsy, remains a piece of pop-culture contraband–somehow more taboo, more reeking of filthy exploitation, than the nude photos taken when she was alive. Anthony Summers, who published it in his book Goddess, quotes the coroner’s assistant: “She didn’t look good, not like Marilyn Monroe. She looked just like a poor little girl that had died.”

What emerges from the studies of both of these bodies is a sense that death, even for the extraordinary, is the great normalizer. Dangling between two other Fascists, as Christ was flanked by two common thieves, Mussolini was “not alone,” writes Luzzatto, a fact that “showed that his fate was no different from the fate of the others; ultimately there was nothing special about his body.”